15 January 2010

Taking refuge in equations

Not only was [David Bohm] not given full credit for his plasma work, but most physicists appeared uninterested in the deeper philosophical questions of their subject. To make matters worse, they even ignored the underlying physics they were studying, preferring the surface brilliance of mathematical techniques. Infinite potential: the life and times of David Bohm, F David Peat
Sadly economists and, increasingly, policymakers have exactly the same tendency. You might think or hope that their cynosure would be the wellbeing of ordinary people. But no. Like the foremost physicists of their generation, their focus is on intellectual elegance, symbol manipulation and mathematical consistency. And, in truth, it is easy to be distracted or hypnotised by the numbers and to work on the assumption that relationships that held in the past hold true today. So we have the lazy, implicit, targeting of Gross Domestic Product per capita, which takes no account of, amongst other determinants of wellbeing as the state of the environment or leisure time. Or, when the maths manifestly fails, the substitution of ideology for pragmatism, when pragmatism would do the job.

But the pragmatic approach, in policy, means some humility on the part of our politicians and bureaucrats. Social Policy Bonds, about which I have been talking for 20 years now, have gone nowhere, partly I suspect because governments would have to relinquish some of their assumptions about how policy goals are to be achieved. The bonds would encourage diverse, adaptive approaches to solving our social and environmental problems. Nobody - least of all governments - would know in advance which approaches would work and which would not. Much easier to preserve the illusion of emotional security by adopting an ideological position or taking refuge in the internal consistency of elegant equations.

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