Daniel Ellsberg has died

by John Q on June 17, 2023

Daniel Ellsberg has died, aged 92. I don’t have anything to add to the standard account of his heroic career, except to observe that Edward Snowden (whose cause Ellsberg championed) would probably have done better to take his chances with the US legal system, as Ellsberg did.

In decision theory, the subsection of the economics profession in which I move Ellsberg is known for a contribution made a decade before the release of the Pentagon papers. In his PhD dissertation, Ellsberg offered thought experiments undermining the idea that rational people can assign probabilities to any event relevant to their decisions. This idea has given rise to a large theoretical literature on the idea of ‘ambiguity’. Although my own work has been adjacent to this literature for many decades, it’s only recently that I have actually written on this.

A long explanation is over the fold. But for those not inclined to delve into decision theory, it might be interesting to consider other people who have been prominent in radically different ways. One example is Hedy Lamarr, a film star who also patented a radio guidance system for torpedoes (the significance of which remains in dispute). A less happy example is that of Maurice Allais, a leading figure in decision theory and Economics Nobel winner, who also advocated some fringe theories in physics. I thought a bit about Ronald Reagan, but his entry into politics was really built on his prominence as an actor, rather than being a separate accomplishment.

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