Tag Archives: ooda

Review of “The Sciences of the Artificial,” by Herbert Simon

It is perhaps the curse of the successful explorer that, after new lands have been found and the surveys made, his own writings become collections of obvious cliches and bizarre assertions. Surely Christopher Columbus felt this. In 1492 you are a visionary and a hero. But by 1505 everyone knows there is a large land mass west of Europe, and no one believes it is China.


Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial is, objectively, one of the worst books I have ever read.
There is some obvious discussion of local maxima and satisficing (picking the best solution you can find, rather than holding out for the perfect one), some more-or-less obvious if somewhat simplistic speculations about how business functions (it might be modeled as a problem-solving entity), and an incredibly tedious discussion of “standard social sciences model” (SSSM) psychology, in which a the interpretation of some early psychology studies is tortuously interpreted to imply that the human mind runs on a relatively small number of simple algorithms, albeit in a complex environment.

(If you read the Wikipedia page on SSSM , you will find criticisms that the SSSM is a ridiculous straw-man, and that it was “comical” to assert anyone believed it. But Herbert Simon, very definitely pushes such a view in his book.)


Indeed, Simon’s discussion of psychology is so dangerously wrong-headed I will spend a paragraph here refuting it. Simon describes the human memory system, and describes two systems long-term memory (which he is generally accurate about) and “short term memory” (which appears to be a confused mix of working memory, associated with general intelligence, and sensory memory, which provides the awareness of taste, etc). In mainstream psychology, long-term-memory and working-term memory as associated with the automatic, highly parallel, intuitive, and effortless “System 1” cognition system, and the manual, serial, logical, and painfully slow “System 2” cognition system. In academia these two systems are often studied under “dual process theory,” and in the military they are described as part of the OODA loop.”


While Simon does not use the “System” nomenclature, his description of it is oddly incomplete, basically missing the most important studies of the last few decades to provide an oddly limited view of human thinking. The only mental processes he implies occurs in System 1 is the passive maintenance of memories. And while he cites such famous studies as “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” (a measure of the range of working memory) and B.F. Skinner,” influential System 2 studies simply do not occur.

Now…. the reason for this is that Simon wrote The Sciences of the Artificial in 1969, and the last edition was published in 1996, perhaps the last year that his view on psychology could be taken seriously. Simon is a Nobel prize winner and, even more prestigious, a Turning Award winner. The reason for his digressions into “satisficing” and “organizational behavior” is he coined the term satisficing, and is a founding father of organizational behavior. The Sciences of the Artificial is like a letter from Columbus in 1505, describing his views on geography: Cliched, tired, ridiculous, and an artifact of a pathfinder.

I read The Sciences of the Artificial in the Nook edition.

How Science Works in the Context of 5GW

Larry’s post, “How Science Works,” is definitely a blog post to read with a “shot of tequila” — very thoughtful, but full of unexpected connections

The Carter Doctrine keeps everything “foreign” out of the Middle East, except the implicit image of the Nation State to Observe.

The coolest thing, of course, is that this is all reaction of a line of mine…

I don’t believe that we are educating Americans appropriately. Large portions of critical industries are in the hands of foreigners because of the failures of US education. These failures are deep and systematic — all stakeholders share blame — but must be addressed.

… from a comment on my post, also titled “How Science works.” And even cooler, this recalls my work from 2005, on looking at 5GW in the context of the OODA Loop

Thanks Larry!

The Strategic Worth of John Boyd

A new book is out about John Boyd: The John Boyd Roundtable: Debating Science, Strategy and War. I wrote that first chapter of the book, so obviously I am pushing it. The book is itself a collection of responses to Col. Dr. Frans Osinga’s book on Boyd, Science, Strategy, and War, which itself follows two book-length biographies: Boyd and The Mind of War. There is a yearly conference on John Boyd: Boyd ’07 was at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, while Boyd ’08 will be on Prince Edward Island.

Roundtable has brought out critics too. Galrahn at Information Disemmenination is unconvinced:

If you are a Boyd “disciple” please leave a comment, and tell me how you think Boyd applies to the strategic discussion on this blog. I’ll be unconvinced by your comment until I do my homework, but nonetheless I was talking to a very smart guy in the Pentagon last month, and we were discussing naval strategy for small wars and small ships. During the conversation I got unnerved when he brought up John Boyd in his arguments. He didn’t introduce anything I had not previously heard about Boyd, but when talking strategy I intend to always be the guy well rooted in history and study.

The Small Wars Council is home to similar opinions:

What continues to puzzle me is the almost Jesus-like devotion to the man by certain groups and organizations, like DNI and others. Reading some of the fanboi material I am wondering what he has done besides develop the OODA loop that makes him worthy of such reverence.

Boyd’s contributions come in two main forms: The Energy-Maneuverability Theorem (EMT) which is a technical model beyond the scope of this blog, and the OODA dual-processing model of human behavior. EMT is useful, but beyond thsoe who buy, use, and shoot at jet fighters has limited relevance. OODA is true, but perhaps not useful.

John Boyd’s OODA model beat mainstream psychologists to the punch by one or two years. Boyd’s problem is that (a) he did not present his work in a way that allowed it to be integrated into the social science mainstream, (b) did not provide a method for crticisism or overturning his conclusions, and (c) “reinvented the wheel” by using new terminology to describe old views of war.

Zenpundit has more. As does HG’s World and Selil.

Boyd and the Quantitative Revolution

First impressions of the new book, The John Boyd Roundtable: Debating Science, Strategy, and War are popping up all over the blogosphere. On the second day of its general availability, both Mike Tanji add their thoughts. My chapter in the Roundtable, the History of the OODA loop, was based on an earlier post on my blog.

As was this piece, which criticized the usefulness of the OODA loop:

While I’ll always be a fan of the OODA loop, a great conceptual model of human cognition, it does not help me in predicting outcomes. That’s why I generalized Horn et al to create a domain-knowledge/general-ability/motivation/behavior model of performance.

The OODA loop is certainly a “true” model of two-system processing, where a good Orientation can allow you by bypass conscious Decision making. However, it does not have a good way of telling reasonable applications from just-so stories.

Boyd’s OODA loop was a product of the Cognitive Revolution, that burst through psychology discovering internal mental processes that mediated behavior. However, the OODA loop may become a victim of the Quantitative Revolution, that is currently overthrowing much of the academy and the public schools, and is needed for any form of quality control. As OODA is described as a reaction to the Zero-Defect mentality, an early attempt to bring the Quantitative Revolution to military affaris, this would be an ironic fate.

Debating Science, Strategy, and War

The news is on HG’s world, Wizards of Oz, zenpundit’s blog, and it’s great: Nimble Books has now released The John Boyd Roundtable:Debating Science, Strategy, and War. Nimble previously published Revolutionary Strategies in Early Christianity, which was based on my series Jesusism-Paulism: The Revolution of Early Christianity.

The John Boyd Roundtable would not have been possible without Mark Safranski as the editor, or Chet Richard’s organization of last year’s conference on John Boyd in Quantico, Virginia. Likewise, the new book is in debt to Frans Osinga, who not only wrote a chapter of this next but also previously published a book-length text, Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. And of course, W.F. “Fred” Zimmerman of Nimble Books.

I am also proud that my chapter, “A History of the OODA Loop,” made the cut, and begins on Page 1.

Moral Orientation and Moral Decisions

Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times, “The Moral Instinct” is wonderful. Thanks to Gene Expression for linking to it.

Pinker discusses the current state of research on moral reasoning, and I love it. Like me, Pinker’s skeptical of the “Kohlberg model,” and instead focuses on moral intuition. That is, we both focus on an OODA-loop like model that focuses more on Orientation and less on Decision. (The article is doubly-cool because I will be running a very similar study this semester.)

The Times article presents a number of moral dilemmas. In each of these situations, think what you would do:

Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?


. You are on a bridge overlooking the tracks and have spotted the runaway trolley bearing down on the five workers. Now the only way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object in its path. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat man standing next to you. Should you throw the man off the bridge?


A runaway trolley is about to kill a schoolteacher. You can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack, but the trolley would trip a switch sending a signal to a class of 6-year-olds, giving them permission to name a teddy bear Muhammad. Is it permissible to pull the lever?

Ultimately, in the context of the OODA Loop, orientation makes sense for situations that are complex, and decision makes sense for situations that are logical. Because we live in a world that is typically complex and rarely logical, it makes more sense for us to follow orientation and bypass decision… and that goes for morality, too!

Orientation and Decision: Two Systems for Thinking

Evans, J. St. B. T. (2008). Dual-processing accounts of reasoning, judgment, and social cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093629.

John Boyd’s OODA Loop is a dual processing model of cognition. The very best discussion of dual processing is Jonathan St. B. T. Evans’ “Dual processing accounts of reasoning, judgment and social cognition” (55-page pdf, Annual Review‘s description) to be published in January 2008, in the Annual Review of Psychology.

The article goes over a tremendous amount of literature in excellent style. Evans synthesizes many sources I’ve mentioned such as Lieberman’s “comparison between thinking and riding a bicycle,” and recent work noting the very strong correlation between working memory and IQ . But he puts everything in a larger context, showing how field after field is adopting dual processing systems, and thus coming ever closer to Boyd’s OODA model.

If you want to know how people think, Evans’ article is the place to start.

What we had to begin with + Practice + Memorization = Orientation

Chet Richards, founder of DNI and Belisarius, has an excellent post on decision speed cycle (in the context of the OODA loop):

1. The side which can keep its Orientation more closely matched to the unfolding situation will have an advantage. Another way to say this is that the side whose mental model of the universe is better will find opportunities to create and exploit gaps in the other side’s understanding.

2. You need an inventory of potentially effective actions that can flow smoothly from Orientation via the “implicit guidance and control” link. These actions are generally developed and made intuitive through years of hard training and exercises.

Basically, under this concept, when Orientation decides that it’s time to trigger an action, it just does it. Until then, we continue to observe and to tweak our orientations.

My current projects center around translating these concepts for educational psychologists. It’s a ton of work getting beyond the catch-22 (“why develop a theory if it’s not mentioned in the experimental literature?” “why run an experiment if its not implied by the theoretical literature”), but also a ton of fun.

Rational Agency and Personhood

Reacting privately to my posts on Cognitive Development, Rational Moral Development, and the OODA Loop, an immensely valued critic wrote:

It remains unclear to me why you are skeptical of rational agency despite having no problem with rationality, metacognition, or other related concepts. My sense is that you see intelligence, and thus rationality, as residing mostly in automatic, domain-specific processes, and associate agency with more controlled and general forms of reasoning that you think are more likely to undermine rationality than to enhance it.

Since getting this email last week I’ve been tossing it around in my head. I think I agree.

People know much more than they can say. Our verbal descriptions most closely match our behavior when we are new at a task, and know it only as a series of steps. With practice we no longer think about those steps — we automate them — so that we can perform them mindlessly while thinking about other things

The human ability to think has two main purposes: to allow us to learn new thinks (reorientation) and disrupt the execution of already automated tasks (disorientation). That is, thinking is a tool that should be used when our orientation is insufficient for the actions we have to perform. Normally, we rely on anxiety, or disorientation produced by orientation, to tell us when we need to calculate a new path or go back and reorient ourselves for a later time. Metacognition is similar to anxiety, except that it’s controlled by decision instead of orientation.

So why am I skeptical of rational agency, the idea that being human means having well-thought-out reasons for one’s actions? Because the tool of thought is just that, a tool. Decision is a tool used by persons in situations where they are unable or undesirious of trusting what they already know — it is not the essence of personhood.