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Alexander Grothendieck died in November this year. He wasn’t exactly a household name – for some reason, our culture considers our greatest mathematical geniuses to be unworthy of fame (not that this deeply private man would have welcomed it).

Still, he deserves to be remembered – and not just by his fellow mathematicians. In a post for 3 Quarks Daily, Jonathan Kujawa provides a brief biography:

“Grothendieck’s life was as interesting as his mathematics. It’s bound to be turned into one of those movies made to win Oscars. His parents were anarchist political activists and artists, he moved to France as a refugee of Germany in 1938, and for most of his life was legally stateless and traveled with a Nansen passport. Grothendieck was at the peak of his public mathematical life during the 50’s and 60’s, receiving the Fields medal in 1966. Starting in the 70’s he withdrew from the mathematical community and, ultimately, his family and friends as well.”

The significance of his work is profound:

With the help of others he rebuilt vast amounts of mathematics from the ground up. He had a vision that still seems futuristic many decades later. I compare it to Braque, Picasso, and company blowing up the art world with their entirely new vision of what art could be. In Grothendieck’s case you’ll have it about right if you imagine him as a visiting scholar from an alien civilization whose mathematics is to ours as ours is to one of those Amazonian tribes who can only count to three.”

For non-mathematicians, Grothendieck’s work is all the more inaccessible, but there’s something in Kujawa’s post that strikes me as hugely applicable to politics and government:

“…the high value Grothendieck put on understanding. For him it was completely unsatisfactory to answer a question by brute force or clever tricks. Rather, he took the view that if you truly and deeply understood, then the solution came without effort. The real goal was the understanding and, in the end, successfully answering the question should be viewed as the confirmation of your understanding. If you struggle with a question, then perhaps the real problem is that you don’t understand the question well enough yet! You should expand and deepen your understanding like a rising sea until it engulfs the problem.”

Reading this paragraph helped me to understand something fundamental about the contemporary process of policy development – which is that almost all politicians, and most of their advisors and officials, aren’t interested in understanding problems, they just want to solve them.

What ‘solve’ means in this context is achieving a degree of short-term control over the related political and news agendas. This doesn’t require that the issue be understood, but merely that something be done. As a result, that ‘something’ often goes wrong. For instance, the US and UK response to 9/11 betrayed a deep misunderstanding of the consequences of military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Other examples include ‘safeguarding’ democracy by resorting to torture; the reckless deregulation of the financial sector; the European single currency; various top-down reorganisations of the NHS; and the idea that people can be ‘lifted out of poverty’ just by giving them a bit more money.

It’s not that this approach to policy-making is necessarily insubstantial – the end-product could be anything from a short-lived gimmick to a full-scale military invasion. Rather, what condemns it to failure is a basic lack of curiosity as to the nature and origins of the problem itself.

It be might argued that this is what policy experts are for – and that politicians should concern themselves with operating the levers of power. In reality, the ‘wonks’ are probably also focused on issues of process, only at a more technical level of detail. As for the politicians, the bigger the decisions they make, the deeper their understanding ought to be.

There are those who do still demonstrate a genuine curiosity about the great policy challenges of our time. It’s not that they’re always right, but at least they try to see the wood for the trees. In this country, notable examples include Phillip Blond, Douglas Carswell, Jesse Norman and Dominic Cummings. Such individuals tend to have a rough time of it – dismissed as mavericks or, if they’re really unlucky, temporarily co-opted as purveyors of the latest ‘big idea’.

Ultimately, the only big ideas are the deep ones – and thus poorly understood by our shallow politicians.

5 comments for: Heresy of the week: We should stop trying to ‘solve’ policy problems

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