Robert P. Abelson: Magician of the Mind

Offered ~2000

For centuries, the differential equation and the controlled experiment have been the wind and sail of science.  But in the 20th century, an additional propulsive system was launched to understand a new species called information systems in the form of computer simulations.  Bob Abelson was a magician of the mind who kept these three balls rotating in the air simultaneously and with his hands tied behind his back.  Rare among even the most general of generalists, Abelson was an exponent of each of the three approaches to scientific understanding (only Carl Hovland and Herb Simon come to mind, and significantly, they were both influential in Abelson's choice of problems and methods).  To represent a messy social and political world with the clean lines of abstract concepts while never missing the opportunity for using the most outrageous of experimental manipulations is an Abelson signature in the social sciences.

Understanding the frailty of human rationality is Abelson's central concern and he spent much of his career working in one way or another on thought systems and their quirky quality.  What intrigued him was this: Logical arguments are usually the first and most respected of tools and yet logic rarely persuades.  Humans' opinions and attitudes have an extraordinary inertia and imperviousness to “the facts.”  Himself a detective of the mind, Abelson may well have asked of the systems he studied what John le Carre's spy, George Smiley, once asked a colleague, “Do you mean reason as logic or reason as motive?”  In the detective's shady world, actors fluidly move from one sense of reason to the other, unaware of the irony.   Understanding near-paradoxical phenomena that showed no concern for reason led Bob Abelson from mathematics and statistics to social psychology, political science, and cognitive science.

To Bob Abelson, everyday news stories in the political and social arena or the interchanges between ordinary folk were the stuff of hypotheses that were played out on a grand stage:  his contributions to political polling and into understanding the ideologue (as his Goldwater machine  illustrates) show his strategy to be the purposeful assays of a seasoned scientific polymath.   He made the journey fun for those who traveled with him, each one aware that if fortunate, they has might access a tenth of the subject matter he would grab and piece together at high speed.

His ideas about schemas and scripts (with Roger Shank) shaped cognitive psychology and helped to launch the then fledgling field of cognitive science.  His work on psycho-logical systems showed attitudes and beliefs to be the jewels of social thought --  sparkling, and as hard a reality as the real thing. He wrote a beautiful little essay called “Beliefs are like possessions” in which he drew the analogy between the mental and the physical and gave an entire generation a new way to conceive of these mental entities.  His is a daunting intellect, and a rare one – origins in mathematics to applications not to one but three social sciences (psychology/cognitive science, political science, economics) each of which he loved dearly for their unique ability to reveal the paradoxes of human thought.