Steven Weber Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Power in the 
    Information Age: Conversation with Steven Weber, Professor of Political Science, 
    UC Berkeley, April 28, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 2 of 5

Being a Political Scientist

What were the problems that interested you? I assume from what you just told me that you were immunized against rational choice before you went to graduate school in political science.

Actually, no; I was attracted to it. The formalism and the methodology of using formal models I found very attractive at the beginning, because I had some of the basic math skills. I was attracted to the precision and the desire to answer precise questions in a definitive way. But over time, I gravitated out towards the larger-scale collective action problems. I've always been interested in how it is that large groups of people manage to not just get along with each other, but actually cooperate in ways that upgrade their common interests, as Ernie Haas would have put it, to be productive; in the case of open source, to make things together.

One can understand the contours of that problem fairly well with some of the more interesting formal tools. But I found that these sorts of problems -- at least in the world that I wanted to study: many of the environmental conditions and cultural questions, and the issue of what drives people to work together -- weren't amenable to formal analysis. So I moved away from that style of work.

From the rational choice subfield of international relations?

Yes. I started becoming much more historical. Of course, Alex taught me the skill of using comparative case studies to try to bridge the gap between historical work and the ability to generate reasonably effective, and in some cases even falsifiable, theory for the use of history.

The first project that you worked on was on arms control regimes.

Yes. As often happens in graduate school, I was exposed to a large number of books: you read most of them and you remember very few of them. Then there's always that one or two books whose arguments make a real impression on you. I suppose it was 1985 or 1986, I read Robert Axelrod's book The Evolution of Cooperation for the first time, and I was drawn to it, not because it was the most sophisticated argument you could have possibly imagined, but precisely because it was one of the simplest arguments you could imagine. It was the problem of cooperation in the iterated prisoner's dilemma, or long-term games stripped down to the essence of what seems to make it possible to sustain cooperative equilibrium. Axelrod was very circumspect in his book about asking what real-world applications of this argument might there be. He invited people to go out there, and I don't want to say "test," but almost play with those arguments to see how they would work in real-world cases. That was an invitation at the time that I felt like I just couldn't refuse.

Driven by that set of arguments, I went looking for what kinds of cases would make sense to try to develop the theory behind them, and it drew me to the arms control field, because it seemed like the right set of cases to test the argument. Of course, I was lucky enough that there was a lot of expertise in that area at Stanford. There were people who had thought about those issues from the political science standpoint, from the physics standpoint, and from the military standpoint, and they were very generous in helping me learn the empirical stuff I needed to learn to work with the argument.

If a student were watching this program, what would you tell them about the skills required to do what you do?

You've got to follow your nose, and tap into your passion. There's a great deal of pressure, as you know, in school and in graduate school, to become, let me say, "prematurely professionalized" and worry a lot about how this is going to play on the job market, or what people are going to think about the argument you're making. I've always felt that the kind of work that we do takes so much time and takes so much commitment that unless you tap into your passion and you focus your mind on trying to answer the question that keeps you up at night, it's very, very hard to sustain.

My strategy has always been that once you get that in your head and you know that that's what you want to do, you go out and you learn the tools, or the history, or the empirical subject, or whatever it is you need to answer that question, and you bring it to bear on that problem. I remember when I was in college I tried to learn Russian because I thought it would be cool to learn Russian. I never could generate the internal commitment it takes to learn that before you actually need to learn it. I feel the same way about most languages and methodologies. Once you understand what you need the tool for, you pull back and then the energy is there to do it.

I get the sense from reading parts of your new book that you're very passionate about ideas and the role that ideas play in the formation of institutions. Is that correct?

Yes. That's where I've ultimately focused much of my energy, because in some sense, not to demean it, but power is a relatively easy thing to understand. It is very effective in doing things in the world, as we know. But, ultimately, the power of ideas is the thing that draws a path [for] the material sources of power into a relationship with human beings. Jennifer Sims, whom I think you have interviewed here as well, said to me once, "History is made up of coercion and ideas. And of the two, ideas are the more enduring." I think she's right. Nothing changes the world like a really good idea.

The other sense about you that I get from your writings is that you are very interested in teasing out of reality a perspective about the future.

Yes. I can tell you a little story about how that came about. This involves Phil Tetlock, who as you know used to teach in the Psychology Department here, and is now back teaching at the Business School. In 1992 or '93, not long after I came here, Phil and I were chatting about how people do or don't make contingency plans. This was in the wake of reading the transcripts of the Carter administration's sort of mini-National Security Council meetings in which the Carter administration had decided to go ahead with the hostage rescue effort in Iran in 1979. These transcripts are remarkable, in the way that the Cuban Missile Crisis transcripts were remarkable for people who studied groupthink, Irving Janis and others. The generals told Carter that they estimated that there was about a 60 percent chance of success on that mission, which most of us would say is a 40 percent chance of failure. The remarkable thing is they had almost no contingency plans. What would you do if this went wrong? You look at that and you think, "What are the bureaucratic and/or thought processes that go into a decision-making process that leaves you so exposed to contingencies that you can't control, and, ultimately, without contingency plans?" There's a failure to think constructively and in a disciplined way about the future and how it might unfold that allows people to do that.

In the course of thinking about that and talking that over with Phil, I read a book review that had been written by a guy named Peter Schwartz, who happened to live here in Berkeley and had started a little consulting firm called Global Business Network, which was a spin-off initiated by Peter and others who had worked at Shell. I went to talk to Peter and asked him, "How do people plan in business?" Because, in effect, a company like Shell has to make investments that are going to pay off or not pay off over fifteen to twenty years in very large oil fields and so on and so forth, and they need to be able to think about contingencies in a disciplined, but also a creative way. Ultimately, the only thing that gives them an advantage over any of their competitors in the market is being able to think more creatively and in a more disciplined way about how events in the future are going to unfold. Peter taught me a great deal about how to engage theory, evidence, and imagination in structuring people's thinking about the future, and how that can be an extremely valuable and extraordinarily difficult skill.

In playing around with that a little bit, I found that it added a level of discipline to my thinking about the way in which political scientists use theory to explain the past, or as some people would even say, "retrodict" -- in other words, predict in the past. If theoretical structures that we play around with are good enough to parse out why one thing happened in the past and not something else, then they ought to have some purchase on the future as well. On the contrary, if you can generate predictive statements about the future, they can be very good ways of testing what you think are the important driving forces in the world. I've always thought that there ought to be a constructive dialogue between explaining the past and trying to understand what we think are the most important driving forces that will shape the future.

Now, you've noticed how I've balanced the statements a little bit. We can explain the past; I didn't say we should be able to predict the future. But I do think that if we have a good theoretical understanding about a set of driving forces that are very important in shaping the past and how they will transform through the present, then we ought to be able to say things about the nature of events as they unfold through the future.

I guess that is a way of untangling the baggage that people bring to the political process -- the ideological baggage, the other misperceptions that may come from, say, bureaucratic politics and so on.

It's not just in the political process. Generally, you can tap into the sense of indeterminacy that people feel about the future and use it to your advantage to open people's minds, in a sense that the stakes in explanations of the past are often very deep, as you know. They have bureaucratic implications. They can have implications for theoretical perspectives that you are professionally almost destined to defend. And they can have shape for your own career. Whereas, everyone knows that we're equally ignorant, in a sense, about the future.

When you pull people out into that space, you can sometimes get them to articulate for you and for themselves, frankly, a more scientifically open attitude towards what they think they know about the world, which can be very constructive for academics, for policymakers, for nonprofit organizations, for businesses -- lots of different ways to think about it. I found it to be a bracing exercise, and it's very interesting to see how peoples' assessments of what they think they know about the past will change as they understand better their [own] underlying sense of indeterminacy about the future.

I did a very interesting exercise a few years ago with a bunch of academics, friends of mine, scholars, most of whom were area studies experts in Middle East politics, and a few American foreign policy folks, people like myself. This was probably 1997 or '98, trying to chart out scenarios for the future of the Middle East peace process at that time. The most interesting part about it was the way in which thinking about the future changed people's assessments of where they thought they were today, and their confidence estimates about their ability to understand both the past and the present. [It] forced them to the point of becoming much more skeptical and scientifically investigative of their own arguments -- a very useful exercise.

So you're freeing yourself from the constraints of the past, which must weigh down people who just look at the present as based on the past. They can't free themselves in the way that one can by looking at the future?

Then you can go back and incorporate some of what you've learned from that exercise, which is really an exercise in imagination, back into your understanding of what you think you know about the past. In this one particular instance, on the first day we went around the room and we asked people for their overall assessment of where they thought the Palestinian - Israeli peace process would be five years hence. There was a remarkable coherence among the predictions at a very abstract level. Everybody agreed that there was going to be a two-state solution. There would be some violence in the interim, but by the end of that five-year period, there would be two states in the region and they would be living in a kind of nervous peace.

They differed rather distinctly in how they thought they were going to get there. So their paths to that outcome were different. But that's what pretty much everybody thought the outcome was -- people from the right, from the left, and all across the spectrum. At the end of the two-day exercise of building scenarios about how that might unfold, we went back and asked them, "What do you now think the conditions would have to be in place for that outcome to emerge? And how confident are you of it?" What they were able to do at that point was to step back and say, "Okay, to actually get to that outcome, the following seven things would have to happen. And, boy, at least three of those seven things seemed very, very unlikely to happen over the next five years. So I'm really not sure anymore that I believe that."

That was the power of the exercise, to be able to articulate the logical train of events that would need to unfold or that might have to unfold to get them to the outcome. Then you look at those things under a microscope and you realize that they're extremely unlikely.

Next page: Political Alternatives in the Information Age

© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California

See also: Jennifer Sims interview, Intelligence and National Security in a Democracy (February 2002)