Doing the Math

Fred Kaplan, who is usually not a total idiot, attributes Paul Wolfowitz's disastrous careers at the Defense Department and the World Bank to his undergraduate math major.

Two years ago, when Paul Wolfowitz was named World Bank president, I wrote that he was "not so bad a choice" for the job. Now it seems he was a terrible pick, and for reasons that should have been plain.

My (unenthusiastic) endorsement stemmed from an impression that, of all the neocons, Wolfowitz seemed to be the most genuinely idealistic—that, despite his disastrous misjudgments on Iraq, he was the sort of "optimistic globalist" who believed in the bank's basic tenet: that the developed world can improve the underdeveloped world with the aid of rational principles.

What's clear in retrospect is that judgment and character trump dedication and belief—and, in this regard, Wolfowitz's doom was all but fated.

Several factors shaped this fate, but not least was the fact that his major in college was math. I've known a few mathematicians who have gone into policy analysis, and they share not merely an intolerance of bureaucracy but a disdain toward all political processes. In math, methodologies and answers are right or wrong, and those who choose the wrong ones are properly ignored or savagely dismissed. Mathematicians who enter the political realm tend to retain this attitude.


This pisses me off, not only because it's such ridiculous bullshit but because it might contain a grain of truth. I do resent him calling Wolfie a mathematician just because it was his undergraduate major. That's sort of like calling Ben Stein an economist.

Of the hard sciences, math is the least connected to the real world, and least tested by it. Perhaps failed mathematicians, like failed artists (think Hitler), are a real scourge on the world, and possibly the distance from the messy details of reality makes those mathematically inclined more "impervious to evidence." Certainly some great as well as miniscule mathematicians have been detached from reality.

Naturally, there have been plenty of opposite types in math, like von Neumann or James Simons, who understand reality very well. (There may even be string theorists in touch with reality.)

Where Kaplan has it right is that judgment and character trump dedication and belief—and, in this regard, Wolfowitz's doom was all but fated. I don't for a minute believe that the mathematically trained are inferior in judgement and character to the general populace. It is possible that their high IQ's permit them to be better at hiding such defects of judgement and character.

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