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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Tom Slee: Anatol Rapoport

This note came by email:

A couple of weeks ago, Anatol Rapoport died aged 95. ... I have been disappointed not to see more mention made of his passing in the blog world, as his contributions to the application mathematics in the social sciences seem large, and his combination of intellect and political commitment have been important to many people. I realize that he wasn't an economist, but ... I'd like to ask that you think about putting a note of his passing in your blogs... I've made a few notes of my own here... Tom Slee

Here are Tom's comments from his website:

In memoriam: Anatol Rapoport, by Tom Slee: ...Anatol Rapoport ... was an important person in many ways. ... I've been influenced both directly and indirectly by his mix of strong intelligence and conviction.

For anyone reading this who doesn't know who Rapoport was, here are a few scattered items I know of about the man. There is more in the Globe and Mail...:

  • His book "Strategy and Conscience" was a unique contribution to the struggle against militaristic thinking in the cold war. It responded to the technicians of the Rand Corporation and others whose supposedly rational thinking was helping to guide strategy. Rapoport's response to them was unique. He took them on at their own game, so to speak, and showed how the game theory approach missed key aspects of the conflict. He was not "anti game theory" by any means -- quite the opposite -- but also knew the limits of theory and the dangers of elegant but ultimately simplistic thinking.
  • As game theory developed in the '50s and '60s Rapoport was one of those who investigated the interface between the formal side of game theory and a recognition that people behave in a rich psychological manner. This form of experimentation has continued and expanded right through to the present day.
  • I read some of his 1984 book "Mathematical Methods in the Social and Behavioral Sciences" and it's a great book. There are not many people who have a strong and original mathematical mind and yet know how to apply it with wisdom, but Rapoport's reach and depth in the book is hugely impressive.
  • In addition to this intellectual strength, Rapoport was one of the leading figures in Peace Studies in this country. It's taken a long effort from many people to make the obvious point that war is a complex and important problem, and if we are to understand how to achieve peaceful outcomes then no one discipline is enough. We need to bring the insights of as many disciplines as possible to bear on one of the most important problems of our times. There is a need for a strong intellectual effort to accompany other efforts in the search for peace, and Peace Studies is where that comes from.

I know two people who have known Rapoport... Both were very impressed by him personally. He was obviously a cultured, somewhat intimidating, productive and original thinker and person. ... One final note. In looking for more information about Rapoport I came across a quotation from Daniel Dennett (another of my favourite writers) who wrote this:

The social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament) once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Challenging words.

    Posted by on Saturday, February 3, 2007 at 09:00 PM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (4)


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