Game theory anything but child's play in the hands of the Wizards of Armageddon

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2007, 12:00am

It's curious how the phrase 'dogs of war' usually refers to mercenaries when many intellectuals can easily fit the description.

Thomas Schelling was one of three Nobel Prize for economics winners visiting Hong Kong this week to give a series of distinguished lectures at Chinese University. The American economist and game theorist was introduced at the university as someone whose 'insights have proven to be of great relevance for conflict resolution and efforts to avoid war'.

In his Nobel Prize citation in 2005, he was praised 'for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and co-operation through game-theory analysis'.

His actual career may indicate otherwise. His lecture at Chinese University was on nuclear proliferation, a topic he knew well because his most famous work, Strategy of Conflict, published in 1960 at the height of the cold war, was virtually a guidebook on how to wage war in the shadow of a nuclear holocaust using game theory.

He famously wrote about 'enlightening similarities between, say, manoeuvring in limited war and jockeying in a traffic jam, deterring the Russians and deterring one's own children ...' From a game-theory perspective, perhaps; but for most normal people, it's fair to say threatening a nuclear holocaust is a lot different from driving in a traffic jam and disciplining children. Is it any wonder that some critics have charged that game theory is corrosive to morality?

It's ironic that Professor Schelling was exactly the kind of nuclear warfare intellectual satirised by legendary director Stanley Kubrick in his 1964 classic Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Fred Kaplan, journalist and author of The Wizards of Armageddon, is even more scathing about the role he played in the first sustained American bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

Professor Schelling's friend and university colleague John McNaughton, US assistant secretary of defence under the Lyndon Johnson administration, consulted him on bombing strategies that led to Operation Rolling Thunder in March 1965.

Kaplan said he and social scientists like him represented the dark side of social science, especially when they held influence on the conduct of war. Conflict resolution, anyone?