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For good or evil

December 20, 2005 By Philip Ball This article courtesy of Nature News.

Objections that the economics Nobel was awarded to two 'warmongers' miss the point of game theory, says Philip Ball.

It is a rare year in which the Nobel prizes fail to arouse controversy. Among the science categories, the arguments are usually about who did what when. And the Stockholm committee has been accused of using the peace and literature prizes as political gestures.

But this year it is the economics Nobel that has drawn the flak. It was awarded to American Thomas Schelling and American-Israeli Robert Aumann for their work on the analysis of conflicts and cooperation using game theory.

The decision has prompted a petition, currently signed by more than 1,000 academics and intellectuals, calling for the award to be rescinded. The protestors, many of them from Israel, say that Schelling and his theories were directly involved in the decision of the US military to bomb civilians in the Vietnam war.

They also point out that Aumann is a member of a right-wing Israeli pressure group that makes "hawkish 'scientific' interpretations of the Middle East conflict". The group opposes any withdrawal from the occupied territories, a position that has been justified on the basis of Aumann's academic work.

"The Academy has awarded the prize to two warmongers," claims the petition.

Winning spirit

The writers of the petition argue that the work of the two laureates violates the spirit in which Alfred Nobel established the awards. The prizes, Nobel said in his will, should go to individuals whose efforts "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". How, the protestors say, can ideas that seem to justify Israel's stalling of any Middle East peace process, or that encourage generals to inflict civilian casualties for no direct tactical benefit, be considered to meet that criterion?

I can understand that some might feel uneasy about Aumann's affiliations with Professors for a Strong Israel, a group whose political leanings can be gauged from its suggestion that Ariel Sharon heads a "government of the Left". But Schelling looks in many respects like the archetypal US liberal, who has argued for arms control and has recently criticized President George W. Bush's administration for ignoring climate change. Schelling's books display not only a clarity but also a humanity rarely found in economics literature.

And all this is by the by, because the protestors say it is the work itself, rather than the personal politics of the winners, to which they object.

Conflict and cooperation

This claim demands scrutiny. First, we need to accept that the economics Nobel will almost inevitably have political and social implications. That is particularly true in Aumann and Schelling's speciality: game theory. This field has its origins in the analysis of gambling but now largely revolves around questions of conflict and cooperation, trust and betrayal. It is an area of economics that speaks to fundamental issues concerning our capacity for good and evil. So it is futile to expect this field to be ethically neutral.

Schelling's 1960 game-theory book The Strategy of Conflict, was a seminal text for US military theorists during the Cold War. Schelling became involved in strategic planning for the war in Vietnam through his friend John McNaughton, then assistant secretary of defence. There have been suggestions that Schelling's views inspired the US decision to launch the massive bombing campaign Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, which killed many Vietnamese civilians but made little difference to the course of the war.

It is far-fetched, however, to claim that US military policy was then (or now) dictated by the science of game theory. Generals are not inclined to listen to scientists. And in any event, the message from the theorists was confused at best and contradictory at worst. In its simplest form, the basic game-theoretical scenario for conflict (called the Prisoner's Dilemma) seems to recommend first strikes and massive retaliation to any sign of aggression. But in nuclear conflicts this makes little sense and can be positively dangerous, as Schelling and others helped to explain. Game theory can never be a substitute for political acumen.

It's only a game

All the same, game theory seems to deliver some hard messages for liberals and pacifists, not least that peace is maintained by a readiness to retaliate. As US political scientist Robert Axelrod said of his work on conflict and cooperation, "I came to this project believing one should be slow to anger. The results for the Prisoner's Dilemma demonstrate that it is actually better to respond quickly to a provocation."1

Some would regard any theoretical justification of swift and tough retaliatory action as unappealing and not obviously likely to confer "the greatest benefit on mankind." But if that is what the theory says, it is as well, perhaps even crucial, to know it. It would be wrong to reward studies of human behaviour only if they tell us what we'd like to hear.

In the end, game theory is a mathematical model that we should not confuse with the real world. It appears that Schelling may have learned that lesson the hard way in the 1960s. Aumann seems to acknowledge it too, even if he has not always exercised caution in practice. In 1985 he said of game theory's conclusions that "None of [them] tells us how people truly behave."2

To protest that the laureates' strand of game theory somehow 'justifies' ignoble behaviour, and is therefore unworthy of the Nobel, is to make the same mistake as those who would use such mathematics to promote inhumane politics.


  1. Axelrod R. . The Evolution of Cooperation, (Basic Books, New York, 1985).
  2. Aumann R. J. . in Frontiers of Economics, ed. K. Arrow & S. Honkapohja (Blackwell, Oxford, 1985).


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