Arguments that Count

From Inside Technology

Arguments that Count

Physics, Computing, and Missile Defense, 1949-2012

By Rebecca Slayton

How differing assessments of risk by physicists and computer scientists have influenced public debate over nuclear defense.





How differing assessments of risk by physicists and computer scientists have influenced public debate over nuclear defense.

In a rapidly changing world, we rely upon experts to assess the promise and risks of new technology. But how do these experts make sense of a highly uncertain future? In Arguments that Count, Rebecca Slayton offers an important new perspective. Drawing on new historical documents and interviews as well as perspectives in science and technology studies, she provides an original account of how scientists came to terms with the unprecedented threat of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). She compares how two different professional communities—physicists and computer scientists—constructed arguments about the risks of missile defense, and how these arguments changed over time. Slayton shows that our understanding of technological risks is shaped by disciplinary repertoires—the codified knowledge and mathematical rules that experts use to frame new challenges. And, significantly, a new repertoire can bring long-neglected risks into clear view.

In the 1950s, scientists recognized that high-speed computers would be needed to cope with the unprecedented speed of ICBMs. But the nation's elite science advisors had no way to analyze the risks of computers so used physics to assess what they could: radar and missile performance. Only decades later, after establishing computing as a science, were advisors able to analyze authoritatively the risks associated with complex software—most notably, the risk of a catastrophic failure. As we continue to confront new threats, including that of cyber attack, Slayton offers valuable insight into how different kinds of expertise can limit or expand our capacity to address novel technological risks.


$40.00 X ISBN: 9780262019446 344 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 11 figures


  • Slayton finds an ingenious and novel way to tell the history of missile defense systems anew: as a stage on which physicists and computing experts—computer professionals? software engineers? this group's muddled identity is part of Slayton's point—performed for one another and for policy-makers and the public, while using those performances to forward the individual and community objectives.


  • In addition to providing new insights into the debate over missile defense, Slayton raises valuable questions about the broader interaction between scientific expertise and advocacy.

    Foreign Affairs

  • This complicated, fascinating, many-layered story is told with clarity, insight, and intelligence. For policy makers, it is a cautionary tale about the reliability of ballistic missile defense. For students of social science, it conveys insights that will prove useful to historians and sociologists of science and technology, students of American politics and security studies, and even anthropologists seeking to understand the curious culture of high-tech war in the space age.


  • Rebecca Slayton's book is an important addition to the literature on BMD, and also a significant and original contribution to how we think about and conceptualize the role and efficacy of advanced military systems....Fundamentally, Slayton's ability to bridge the gap between the computer science and political science literatures provides a much broader contribution to our thinking about how weapons systems and debates over national security are intrinsically socialized, and are therefore unpredictable and...'arbitrarily complex'.

    International Affairs

  • Rebecca Slayton has given us a very informative and original study of the relationship between science and public policy in her book, Arguments that Count: Physics, Computing, and Missile Defense, 1949-2012....It should be of interest to academics in the field of national security studies as well as to those actively engaged in policy formulation and technology development related to missile defense.


  • In her subtle and understated style, Slayton concludes that we must 'recognize that the risks we face can only partly be addressed by the physical ingenuity of America's top scientists and engineers'. She adds that all 'complex technological systems...can never be only physical, but...are simultaneously social and political to the core'.

    Physics Today


  • This well-researched, well-argued book provides insight into the history of American missile defense systems and the complex software that controls them. While this is an interesting and important topic in its own right, the book engages an even broader theme: how experts form judgments about complex technological solutions to societal problems, how they make their arguments politically persuasive, and what role these experts play in modern society. Historians and policy scholars of software, physics, and other complex technological systems will find much of interest in this volume.

    William Aspray

    Bill and Lewis Suit Professor of Information Technologies School of Information, University of Texas at Austin

  • Rebecca Slayton's comprehensive and well-researched history of the science—and politics—of missile defense sheds new and valuable light upon a consistently under-appreciated aspect of the challenge: computer software.

    Gregg Herken

    Emeritus Professor of History, University of California; author of Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Legacies of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller

  • Based on extensive new research, Slayton's groundbreaking book dissects the long-running debates over missile defense. Her analysis of how scientists make arguments persuasive and authoritative is important for understanding not just the history of today's military systems, but also the very ability of these systems to function at all.

    Gabrielle Hecht

    Professor of History, University of Michigan; author of Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade


  • Winner, 2015 Computer History Museum Prize awarded by SIGCIS, the Special Interest Group for Computers, Information and Society