A view from Dave Trott: Data doesn't think
A view from Dave Trott

Data doesn't think

In 1945, an American general was intrigued by the military potential of science.

He’d seen Germany develop wonder weapons like the world’s first jet fighter and the world’s first ballistic missile.

The US itself had used top scientists to develop the world’s first atomic bomb.

The cold war was beginning, so General Hap Arnold decided America needed to create a scientific military think tank.

He established the Rand Corporation, standing for "research and development".

To get the best brains in the US working on "long-range planning of future weapons".

Of course, it wasn’t publicly expressed as bluntly as that.

It’s stated purpose was: "To help improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis using the core values of quality and objectivity."

If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, the scientist in the wheelchair was modelled on the head of The Rand Corporation.

If you’ve seen the film A Beautiful Mind, John Forbes Nash was one of the star thinkers at Rand.

Rand developed the nuclear defence doctrine of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

At various times 32 Nobel Prize winners, in physics and economics, worked for Rand.

But the problem with a think tank composed of people like that, is the belief that everything can be reduced to data.

Alex Abella wrote Soldiers of Reason, a history of the Rand Corporation.

He wrote: "If a subject could not be measured, it was of little consequence for it was not rational. Numbers were all – the human factor was a mere adjunct to the numerical."

This was most damagingly demonstrated during the Vietnam War.

America didn’t want to invade the north, just continue bombing it into surrender.

They needed to know if this policy was working.

So the Rand Corporation decided to find out what the enemy was thinking.

They analysed 61,000 pages of interviews with prisoners, captured from the north.

One of the people analysing this data was Leon Goure.

His conclusion was that the north was near breaking point – all America had to do was escalate the bombing.

He drew this conclusion from the prisoners’ responses – they said they didn’t think North Vietnam could win the war.

He reported this to everyone from President Johnson down, and consequently the bombing was increased.

But the other person analysing the data was Konrad Kellen – he absolutely disagreed with Goure, he thought America couldn’t win the war.

Goure replied: "But the prisoners said North Vietnam couldn’t win."

Kellen said: "Read further down. When they were asked if the US could win, they also said no, the US cannot win either. These people have lived with war all their lives, first with France, now with America. The US has lost 60,000 men, the Vietnamese have lost two million. They will not give up. For them the war will just carry on forever. But America cannot allow it to carry on forever – the US will have to quit eventually."

But, of course, no-one wanted to listen to Kellen’s interpretation of the data.

Everyone only wanted to hear what they wanted to hear.

As Abella said: "They wanted ideology disguised in statistics and equations, which made it all seem rational and scientific."

It took many years of fighting and dying before Kellen’s interpretation was proved right.

That’s the problem with data, which we will never learn.

As Abella says: "The one area of science that will forever elude it is the human psyche."

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.