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Response to Review of Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960

I’d like to thank Tom Kelsey for his generous review of Rational Action, and, in particular, for his attention to the book’s historiographical analysis.  The events that I describe have long been steeped in narratives about the rise and fate of ‘scientific’ methods of management and decision making.  It was extremely difficult to break free of the assumption that such methods had a peculiar, alien existence within environments of management and planning, because that assumption nicely accommodated clear narratives of neglect, resistance, acceptance, and ascendancy.
 
In fact, while established decision makers often welcomed proponents of operational research and related activities, those proponents never sought, nor were they granted, an unquestioned authority as generic ‘experts.’  What we are left with is a very complicated history in which individuals developed a variety of strategies for contributing to decision making in ways that would be widely recognized as legitimate and productive.  
 
Mr. Kelsey is correct that these individuals often conflicted with each other (as well as with established authorities).  But their conflicts were not so much territorial disputes—they addressed deeper questions relating to the nature of the expertise on offer, and how exactly it related to the quandaries of practical deliberation.  Although answers to these questions were rarely articulated definitively or with great clarity, nevertheless those answers existed and they were often thoughtful and sophisticated.
 
A critical point, which I believe is not properly appreciated, is that historians specializing in the history of science and technology may well have an unconscious stake in not acknowledging the sophistication of historical actors’ ideas about science and technology.  By narrating those actors’ struggle to reconcile naïve ideas about the power of ‘science’ with stubborn social realities, historians attempt to establish themselves as singular authorities on the nature of science and its proper use.  Abandoning such narratives makes the development of alternative narratives into a rewarding challenge, and I am pleased that Mr. Kelsey sees my book in that light.