January 4, 2008

Marginal Decisionmaking

Are you ever in a situation, such as when shopping, where it's about time to finally make a decision, like between buying the GyroXdisk 6800 or the MutantBlaster 970, and so you announce, "I choose the ...," but then you are immediately surprised at what came out of your mouth? As the salesman is ringing up your new MutantBlaster 970, you're thinking, "How the heck did that happen? I was sure I was going to say 'GyroXdisk 6800.'"

But pretty soon the relief of having made a decision, any decision, even if you can't tell why you made it, overcomes your dismay, and soon you're home blasting mutants without a care in the world. It's not like you sputtered, "I'll buy that big bag of mulch over in the Gardening Dept. instead of one of these electronic gizmos. And I live in an apartment so mulch makes no sense at all." No, you knew you wanted some kind of gizmo and so you were standing in the gizmo aisle talking to the gizmo salesman, so which precise gizmo you wound up with is moderately random. But it's not at all random that you bought a gizmo instead of a bag of mulch.

This happens to me all the time. I'm probably just the world's worst decision maker and this never happens to you, but maybe it gives a hint of something important in understanding history.

I started thinking about this again because Freeman Dyson, who is one of the last surviving physicists to have done war work during WWII (although John Archibald Wheeler, who worked on the Manhattan Project at Hanford is now 97), says that he's changed his mind and now no longer believes that the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan didn't end the war:

1. Members of the Supreme Council, which customarily met with the Emperor to take important decisions, learned of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. Although Foreign Minister Togo asked for a meeting, no meeting was held for three days.

2. A surviving diary records a conversation of Navy Minister Yonai, who was a member of the Supreme Council, with his deputy on August 8. The Hiroshima bombing is mentioned only incidentally. More attention is given to the fact that the rice ration in Tokyo is to be reduced by ten percent.

3. On the morning of August 9, Soviet troops invaded Manchuria. Six hours after hearing this news, the Supreme Council was in session. News of the Nagasaki bombing, which happened the same morning, only reached the Council after the session started.

4. The August 9 session of the Supreme Council resulted in the decision to surrender.

I don't see this timeline as undermining my long-held assumption that the 1-2-3 punch of Hiroshima, the Soviet entry into the war against Japan, and Nagasaki -- three cataclysms in four days -- was what finally broke the ferocious will of the Japanese militarists after endless arguing.

I don't know much about the Japanese decision-making process, but I can imagine what it would be like if I had been emperor on August 9, 1945. The Supreme War Council would turn to me and say they were hopelessly divided, "Your Divine Imperialness, we need you to break the deadlock. Shall we fight until we are all dead ... or surrender?"

They'd all look at me. I'd go, "Uh, uh, uh ... surrender!" And I'd immediately think, "Oh, crap, why did I say that? I meant 'Fight on!' Where'd that 'Surrender' come from? I'd better tell them I didn't mean it. ... But, that wouldn't look very divinely imperial -- now would it? -- to admit I just blurted out the most important decision in Japanese history at random. Maybe it's best just to keep my mouth shut and see what happens? In fact, yes, 'Surrender' is what I intended all along. It's becoming very clear to me now. Indeed, there was never really any doubt."

I'm sure it didn't actually happen that way (just that it would have happened that way if I was the Emperor of Japan).

Why did the Japanese surrender when they did? What weight did the two atomic bombs have in their decision? (Sure, surrender made all the sense in the world, but nothing the Japanese militarists had done since 1941 made much strategic sense.)

Who knows?

In contrast, nobody debates why Zanzibar surrendered 38 minutes into its 1896 war with the British Empire. Of course, they surrendered -- they were Zanzibar. What, they were going to do: beat the Royal Navy? It's just not very interesting because it's an obvious decision: Zanzibar was getting its butt kicked. Randomness didn't play much of a role.

My point is that the most interesting decisions in history, the ones that historians argue over endlessly about why they were made, are the virtually 50-50 tossups that could have gone either way. Those are the most interesting questions, but they are also the least likely to be fully explicated by historians.

The other decisions that are most argued over by historians are the ones that are the most over-determined.

That makes the Japanese decision of 1945 perhaps the ultimate in endless arguability. The Japanese leadership had many good reasons to surrender, each one perfectly adequate, and no reason to fight on other than to save their own necks from war crimes trials, but all the assassinations by the Army of non-insane statesmen before the war had bequeathed an atmosphere of militarist hysteria, so it was also a very close run thing -- overdetermined but also a toss-up.

This is relevant to the distinction between history and social science. I define social science (perhaps idiosyncratically) as fields where statistics are crucial.

Much of history is driven by unique personnel decisions that often didn't necessarily get a lot of reflection at the time -- e.g., the Bush dynasty is due to Ronald Reagan rejecting at the last moment at the 1980 GOP convention the popular idea of Gerald Ford for VP and picking George H.W. Bush. If something else had happened, George W. Bush never would have become President.

Now, Reagan probably put more thought into choosing a VP in 1980 than the average Iowa Caucus voter put into his or her choice, but the results are less random because thousands of semi-random individuals decisions were aggregated. So, the rise of the Bush Dynasty is the reserve of history, while elections are both history and political science.

Much the same is true about forecasting. The forecasts that interest us most are those where the chance of being wrong is highest. If you predict that NAM high school dropout rates will be higher than white and Asian drop outrates 30 years from now, nobody cares, even though it's clearly an important and highly plausible prediction, because it's boring and depressing. But tell me who is going to win the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament and I'm all ears, even though your chance of being wrong is probably at least 90%.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

13 comments:

BD said...

I think you've misstated Dyson's current view of the matter. He now no longer believes the atomic bomb DID end the war (not "didn't").

I'm no expert on this subject, but just based on the information he cites it's hard to see how he reaches this conclusion. In "1" he states (or it least it can be inferred) that Hiroshima prompted a meeting of the Supreme Council. In "4" we learn that this meeting actually resulted in the decision to surrender. In the interim, we see there was a conversation involving one member of the Council in which the subject of Hiroshima was mentioned only in passing. But that hardly proves the bomb wasn't a decisive factor in the ENTIRE Council's subsequent decision to surrender, is it? Obviously, there is support for other factors being in play (see "3"); but that simply doesn't justify ruling out the two bombings as factors in the decision.

Eugene said...

Dyson's reasoning confuses cause and effect. Stalin moved up the invasion of Manchuria because he was concerned that the use of atomic weapons would cause Japan to surrender before the Soviets could launch one of the biggest smash & grab operations in history, which included seizing native Japanese territory, installing Kim Il Sung in North Korea, and sending several hundred thousand Japanese soldiers and civilians to their deaths in the gulags.

Why didn't Stalin invade earlier in the summer when two hundred thousand Japanese and Americans were slaughtering each other in Okinawa? Because Japan and the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact, and Stalin was content to sit by and let both sides exhaust themselves. Until the very last days of the war, the Japanese government believed that the Soviet Union could be used as a "good faith" intermediary while they wrangled over surrender terms.

The invasion of Manchuria shattered that myth. But the invasion only came because of the atomic bomb, and had the surrender been delayed even further, millions of Japanese would have starved over the winter of 1945/1946. Hirohito's surrender rescript specifically mentioned the bomb: "The enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage." Hirohito did not mention the Soviet invasion.

The atomic bomb also gave the Emperor something greater than himself to surrender to. However, it also allowed Hirohito--and Japan--to thereafter deflect responsibility for the war by heralding her new designation as "victim" of the bomb.

dodo said...

Nice post! Bravo! Banzai!

Lots of big, important decisions are made for silly reasons that we wouldn't want anyone to know about because of their irrationality.

Perhaps the MutantBlaster 970 has a sexier woman on the package than the GyroXdisk or something. Or, more likely, the package looks more macho.

Anyway, in the scheme of things, these kinds of decisions can work out as good or better than carefully decided ones at the end of the day.

The dart throwers outpick the high powered stock analysts.

History may be the same.

simon newman said...

Dyson's claim not to believe that the A-bombs ended the war appears entirely spurious, he appears to be claiming to believe this simply because he believes that doing so will further the cause of nuclear disarmament, which he cherishes.

airtommy said...

Hirohito surrendered long before we dropped atomic bombs. America just decided to accept his conditional surrender after Nagasaki.

Colby Cosh said...

Whoa, Wheeler is still alive? He was Richard Feynman's thesis advisor, and Feynman's been dead for close to 20 years.

Anonymous said...

More and more I feel like Steve Sailer is the closest thing we have to a George Orwell in our world.

Gc said...

Well, either way: the american nuclear weapons were very important in the cold war. After all the soviets had more conventional weapons. I wonder how the american`s and the brits would have survived against the Russian`s in Europe in World war III if there were no nuclear weapons. Let us remember that The Russians caused the deaths of 85 percent of the German soldiers killed in Wold war II.

tommy said...

I can't say I've ever had the experience of that sort of marginal decisionmaking - at least not when it comes to sales.

I'm sure it didn't actually happen that way (just that it would have happened that way if I was the Emperor of Japan).

Steve Sailer: The Man Who Would Be Emperor.

David said...

I planned to comment on this post then decided not to. You can see how well that worked out.

steve wood said...

Dyson's claim not to believe that the A-bombs ended the war appears entirely spurious, he appears to be claiming to believe this simply because he believes that doing so will further the cause of nuclear disarmament, which he cherishes.

... which itself is a spurious belief. The question of whether nuclear bombs ended WWII is utterly irrelevant to 21st century disarmament. I don't understand how Dyson could make any such connection, unless he's gone gaga. Does he imagine that the Russians and Americans - much less Indians, Pakis, Israelis et al. - will say, "Oh, gee, I guess those bombs don't work because they didn't make Japan surrender. Let's get rid of them"? It's absurd.

Neil Craig said...

The important thing is not that Japan surrendered but whether the Bomb was the defining matter. If it was the world changed that day. If it wasn't it didn't & much of the cold war was based on an illusion.

I had generally held to the theory that the Bomb did not shorten the war. Indeed that Truman deliberately used it not for that purpose but to frighten Stalin. At the Potsdam conference Stalin had told Truman that The Japanese wanted to make peace pretty much on unconditional terms except that they wanted to keep their Emperor. Stalin wasn't keen - after all, having promised to attack Japan 3 months after the end of the European war he expected to be able to conquer Manchuria & Korea. Truman's reluctance is more difficult to explain, particularly since he later did allow Hirohito to stay. However if we take it that he was intending to cow the the Russians it is clearer. It should also be remembered that, having spent several billions (1940s billions so multiply by 100s) Congress & public would have crucified them had it never been used,

The Soviet invasion of Manchuria is not well known in the west (I doubt if 1 person in 100 could tell you it happened). Though it only lasted a week it was a massive undertaking involving 40 divisions yet I found it quite difficult to find a serious online history of it. The Soviets, with an army forged in the war with Hitler & tanks designed for that war, engaged in a 1 week land campaign against a Japanese army which, while large, was equipped to take on Chinese guerrillas & whose best tanks were equal to what everybody else had in 1940 ie harmless. In that week they advanced, in places, up to 600km. Just as Soviets did most of the fighting in WW2 & the Anglo/Americans got all the valuable territory (ie western Europe) the Soviets could, for similar geographical reasons, have expected to take the valuable stuff in the east (China, all of Korea & at least half of Japan.

If Stalin also appreciated the role of the Soviet army in causing the surrender it probably explains the Soviet failure to drop to their knees when America used the Bomb.

Eugene is wrong to say that the Soviet invasion happened only because of the Bomb. Russia had promised to go to war with Japan 3 months after the end of the war in Europe & they did so. You just don't redeploy 40 divisiona across 6 thousand miles faster than that. There is a better argument for saying that the Bomb was dropped as early as possible because of the threat of Soviet assistance.

simon newman said...

gc:
"I wonder how the american`s and the brits would have survived against the Russian`s in Europe in World war III if there were no nuclear weapons."

I think the RN, RAF and US Navy & air force might have been able to hold them at the English Channel, with a bit of luck. Continental Europe would have fallen under Soviet control.