The Trap, freedom and Social Science

The latest series from Adam Curtis about how academic ideas have shaped modern society, The Trap: what happened to our dream of freedom follows in the footsteps of the Power of Nightmares and the Century of the Self.

While some in the blogosphere have been critical of Curtis and his portrayal of some of the theories and thinkers in this series, his grand sweep of intellectual synthesis and use of rapidly edited archive footage provides a visual and thought provoking spectacle that you rarely encounter anywhere else.

But what of the ideas and intellectuals that Curtis features? If you want to dig further and find out more about them, then Intute: Social Sciences can help.

The first programme looked at how mathematical models of human behaviour influenced security decisions in the Cold War and later the field of Economics as Game Theory sought to explain the economic choices made by people. It also looked at the ideas of R.D. Laing and his controversial work that challenged the role of psychiatry in the diagnosis in mental health disorders. Curtis brings these ideas together to explain the rejection of the idea that politicians and bureaucrats act in the public interest.

The second programme looked at the role of genes in determining behaviour and cited the Ax Fight anthropological study of the Yanomamo people, as well as, the work of Richard Dawkins. These ideas were brought together with the economic theories of Friedrich Von Hayek to produce governments obsessed with targets and measurable outcomes. Curtis argues that this obsession produced distorted outcomes, reduced social mobility and reinforced existing elites, causing economists to look again at the game theory / free market model and reassess the concept of behavioural economics.

The final programme saw how Isaiah Berlin’s work on liberty had shaped political theory and had been used to justify extreme economic deregulation in Russia, which produced a crisis in Russia’s economic transition. It concluded by looking at how neoconservative ideas about using military force to bring freedom to Nicaragua and Iraq had interacted with modern terrorism to end up restricting freedom in Western countries.