My essay on an ‘Odyssean’ Education

On the evening of Friday 11 October 2013, the Guardian published a draft essay of mine – ‘Some thoughts on education and political priorities‘ (links here and here).

You can download that version (2.0) here. Below is a summary of the main ideas.

It describes a) some fundamental aspects of the world that make it complex and inherently hard to predict (p. 9-21), and b) some problems with political institutions and the education and training of those who control (and influence) them that compound this inherent complexity (mainly p. 84-94).

For example, very few in Parliament, Whitehall, or the media have any training in statistics. They therefore do not understand terms such as ‘normal variation’ (bell curve) or ‘variance’ which makes it impossible for them to make informed decisions about some things for which they are responsible, or to understand scientific discussions. Issues such as ‘how financial models contributed to the 2008 crisis’ or ‘intelligence and genetics’ cannot be understood in any depth without some basic statistical knowledge.

Courses such as Politics, Philosophy and Economics (and economics in general) do not train political leaders well. They encourage superficial bluffing, misplaced confidence (e.g. many graduates leave with little or no idea about fundamental issues concerning mathematical models of the economy (cf. p.21-5 & 214-229)), and they do not train people to make decisions in complex organisations. Ministers are selected from MPs but MPs are not selected for their ability to devise policy, prioritise, manage complex organisations, or admit and fix errors. In the absence of effective training, many default to gimmicks and attempts to manipulate the media. In the choice between ‘to be’ or ‘to do’, insiders tend to choose the former because the system incentivises behaviour that is contrary to the public interest.

Much thinking and discussion in Westminster is either a) vague ‘dinner party’ speculations about the distant future, or b) gossip about the daily crisis – amazingly little involves concrete operational planning to get from A to Z. Most media commentary on politics overstates the extent to which news derives from ‘plans’ (‘strategy’ being the most abused word) and understates the extent to which news derives from panic driven by chaos exacerbated by lack of operational grip. In Government, there is constant panic but little urgency. (A few footnotes deal with specific issues concerning Westminster. E.g. footnote 191 & 200 (media); 198 & 199 (Westminster dysfunction).) ‘We do not have a problem with “too much cynicism” – we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much.’

The essay describes why these failings are increasingly dangerous. It sketches some of the most important scientific, technological, economic, and military trends that can both enhance and harm the world (e.g. energy technologies, space science (e.g. hypersonic space planes to reduce dramatically the cost per kg into orbit, the search for ‘earth twins’, experiments with quantum communication from space platforms), genetic engineering and synthetic biology, machine intelligence, digital fabrication, algorithmic trading, drone swarms, cyberwar). See Section 7 for a discussion of various geopolitical trends (particularly p. 125-33). (A brilliant essay (here) by one of the 20th Century’s best mathematicians describes these issues connecting science, technology, decisions, and political institutions.) It also discusses changes to the scientific process itself and prospects for 1) large scale collaborations (such as PolyMath) and 2) better coordination of expert attention, brilliantly described by Michael Nielsen in Reinventing Discovery.

The essay also describes some ways to limit these problems by improving education and training and creating new institutions. It touches on various ways to improve government including: institutionalised Red Teams, ‘information markets’ (already being used by innovative companies), experiments in crowdsourced policy-making, the use of prizes / Grand Challenges as used by DARPA (and which produced the Spitfire in the 1930s), and the integration of scientific advice and robust evaluations of new ideas (to avoid reinventing ‘square wheels’ and wasting money).

Instead of trying to solve problems centrally and manage complex projects, Whitehall ought to reconsider what goals it incentivises centrally while decentralising decisions about methods. Other fields have developed empirical design rules and quantitative models (such as aircraft engineering). Whitehall needs to devise rules that encourage evidence-based policy where feasible and decentralised decision-making as a default mode. It also needs new methods to regulate, monitor, and when necessary intervene in complex systems: e.g. financial markets (high speed ‘algorithmic trading’, involving automated conflict at the microsecond scale, is likely to spark crises, cf. p120, 126. ). This requires the development of artificial immune systems (i.e. systems that produce robust defence via evolved decentralised solutions) and equivalents to products being developed to deal with manufacturing failure such as statistical stress modelling software.

We need (civilian) British versions of DARPA (pursuing ‘high risk, high return’ projects that markets won’t fund (i.e. failure is normal) and funding existing labs rather than setting up its own labs), the Santa Fe Institute, and TALPIOT (all operating outside Whitehall HR and EU procurement rules). From professional sports to the intelligence world, people are developing new training programmes, such as those based on online games: politics and education need to do the same in order to raise performance substantially. One of the most promising experiments is Tetlock’s Good Judgment Project which involves a systematic attempt to improve training of political decision-makers so their predictions are more accurate. It is telling that Tetlock’s groundbreaking research on the accuracy of predictions by ‘political experts’ is ignored in Westminster (cf. p. 84ff). In economics, physicists are devising new approaches to modelling and prediction, such as ‘agent-based models’ (cf. p.118ff and Endnote). (See mainly Section 6, p. 94-102, and footnote 227 for some Westminster-specific ideas about what to do, such as appointing non-MPs as Secretaries of State and scrapping Whitehall’s HR rules to open institutions up to people who have experience of dealing with very complex problems and organisations.)

Overall, the essay is an attempt to sketch some ideas for what the Nobel-winning physicist Murray Gell Mann called an ‘Odyssean’ education – an education that starts with the biggest questions and problems and teaches people to understand connections between them (‘integrative thinking’). Universities need new inter-disciplinary courses. For example, in March 2014 Stanford announced new undergraduate degrees such as Computer Science and English. It would be great if Oxford created alternatives to PPE such as ‘Ancient and Modern History, Maths for Presidents, and Coding‘. Instead of bluffing through essays on competing views of macroeconomics, future leaders should be rigorously trained to understand and apply probabilistic reasoning to problems – and know when the situation is so uncertain there is no useful help from the sciences. New courses could embed students with leaders managing complex projects. Schools need to change their curricula to provide the building blocks for such courses. (This should be an addition to – not a replacement for – traditional subjects and disciplines.)

Part of Section 6 (p. 62-83) sketches some ideas about education policy, some of which lay behind various policies enacted in the Department for Education 2010-14, which could provide a basis for further decentralisation of education so that as little as possible is controlled by Westminster and Whitehall. Both are fundamentally unfit to have the degree of power that they do and even if they were not unfit they still should not control all they do. For example, more money needs to be spent on our research universities and the basic science budget. There must be a determination to be a world-leader in basic science – not just a focus on applications. (The decision in this parliament by BIS to divert funding from pure maths to statistics, on the spurious grounds that the latter is more important for applications, was a mistake. The entire computer industry emerged from work in the 1930s on the logical foundations of mathematics – perhaps the most esoteric and apparently least ‘practical’ branch of mathematics.) The broken PhD pipeline needs repair. There should be far greater effort to make the environment around research Universities friendly to start-up businesses. Section 6 also touches on some projects that I worked on at the Department for Education that could contribute to the overall ‘Odyssean’ goal (e.g. Professor Mark Warner’s Cambridge project to redo the 16-18 physics curriculum; funding MEI to turn the ideas of Fields Medallist Tim Gowers into a ‘Maths for Presidents’ course) though it should go without saying that the merits of such specific projects are entirely separate from the merits of my ideas.

If English state schools are to improve substantially, it will require good Academy chains to integrate: a) more demanding and interesting maths and science curricula (such as the Gowers and Warner projects), including hard skills in modelling and problem-solving, including statistics such as conditional probability (the inclusion of ‘natural frequencies’ in the new GCSE is a step forward); b) more focus on essay writing and serious projects; c) the use of frequent testing to see if pupils are learning, particularly ‘Concept Inventory‘ tests developed and used increasingly (and successfully) in US undergraduate physics courses by the likes of Nobel-winner Carl Wieman, and (soon) in Professor Warner’s Cambridge University physics 16-18 project (these tests show whether students have actually understood fundamental concepts or the teaching was a waste of time); d) teacher hiring, firing, pay, and training; e) a learning feedback loop (idea-experiment-learn-embed-new idea) inside the chain that is connected to a broader external network (including the research community) which allows incremental improvements in performance based on solid information about what works.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of English politics and education is the lack of structured, disciplined thought about what works and doesn’t work, and how to build reliable systems that allow improvement in performance. (Most of those with power in the English education system are much more interested in appearing to be ‘on the side of the poor and less able’ than they are in raising standards, so many policy debates are really just exercises in moral exhibitionism. Oxbridge power structures are much more interested in appeasing political forces than they are in raising standards, and they deliberately suppress the views of their own leading academics in order to avoid political controversy.) Most activity in Whitehall occurs without asking ‘who, somewhere in the world, has already solved this problem?’, and people can be remarkably resentful if one asks this question. A ‘learning feedback loop’ would bring a scientific approach to education that would allow the system overall to deliver high performance even though most of the people involved are (by definition) of roughly average ability. Many of the changes made 2010-14 were aimed at allowing such a ‘learning feedback loop’ to develop. Without it, education will remain a patchy cottage industry dominated by ‘house price rationing’ and avoidable problems.

The essay also suggests a fundamental principle for the reorientation of British policy. It states: ‘After 1945, Dean Acheson quipped that Britain had failed to find a post-imperial role. It is suggested here that this role should focus on making ourselves the leading country for education and science…’

I know from experience of Whitehall (spending rounds, budget discussions with the Treasury etc) that it would be easy* to make significant overall savings (tens of billions), spend a large fraction of those savings on education and science (of course combined with policy changes), and still be able to save taxpayers money overall. Such a change could make us better educated, more prosperous, safer, and better able to lead the world in various fields. It would be a big improvement on the depressing spectacle of watching politicians thrash around with no priorities and fundamentally little idea about what to do other than try to stay a step ahead of the media with badly implemented gimmicks and avoid blame for our institutionalised dysfunction, while tweaking (usually ineffectually) the bureaucracy and trashing the opposition.

My advice to those trying to get things done in Westminster is: focus, ‘know yourself’ (face errors), think operationally, work harder than others, don’t stick to the rules, and ask yourself ‘to be or to do?’.

(* By ‘easy’, I mean that the task is not intellectually hard nor would it require very rare management skills: the scale of waste remains vast, partly because Whitehall works on hidden dodgy accountancy. (E.g. MOD’s procurement is disastrous (the aircraft carrier project remains shambolic). ‘High speed rail’ is a huge waste of money. Welfare reform has barely scratched the surface of waste and fraud. Energy policy wastes large amounts that could be spent on basic research instead. There remains a lot of low hanging fruit in Whitehall savings. Negotiation of contracts is appalling – e.g. officials consciously enforce EU Frameworks that they know in advance will prevent them from withholding payment in the event of failure.) The main difficulty arises from the lack of suitable people in positions of power and the need for overturning existing power bases, which is always politically tricky. The most likely way it will happen is, as usual, by the exploitation of crises. Of course there is also a feedback loop: the institutionalised dysfunction of the state makes it hard for any political force to make significant changes – and the more the priority of insiders is to remain insiders (‘to be’, not ‘to do’), the harder it is to make changes.)

Footnote: genes and IQ

Only a tiny fraction of the essay dealt with genetics and IQ though the media focused on that.

There were various responses. One came from Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist, who later apologised. Unfortunately, he wrote an article in the Telegraph (15/10/2013) attacking how I used the research on ‘heritability’. He based his article not on my actual essay but on false media reports. He made similar comments to Polly Toynbee who wrote a column on the same day (this column completely confused what I had said about ‘heritability’ and claimed that ‘wealth is more heritable than genes’, which is meaningless if the word ‘heritability’ is given its scientific definition).

In my essay, I had used the standard definition of heritability and explicitly warned about a common misunderstanding (‘[Heritability] is a population statistic – it does not mean that for every individual x% of one’s IQ score is accounted for by genes’, p.196). I also warned that the media routinely confuses such debates by getting these things wrong. Unfortunately, many media reports, ironically, reported my account of the research along the lines of ‘Cummings says x% of a child’s performance is predetermined by its genes’ alongside furious denunciations. I replied to Professor Jones and Polly Toynbee here (Telegraph, 15/10/2013).

Professor Jones graciously apologised for his mistake in assuming the accuracy of media reports and suggested that I add the text that appears at the bottom of my article.

Most commentary repeated factually wrong ideas about what people thought I’d written about genes. Some thought I was giving my own views about genes and IQ: in fact, I did not try to give my own views – I do not have my ‘own’ views on such technical subjects – but merely tried to summarise the scientific consensus. The world-leading expert on this, Professor Robert Plomin (King’s), told the media that I had not misrepresented the science.

There were some interesting blogs – for example:

Edge piece by Timo Hannay here.

Blog by Dr. James Thompson here.

Matt Ridley blog here.

Article in Prospect here.

Nick Pearce (IPPR) blog here.

Duncan Brown blog here.


For the first time since it appeared I am going through it and collecting errors pointed out to me. I will keep a tally below and update it some time…

In Section 2 I shift between energy and power without correcting the units, which means some of them are wrong. (Thanks to @michael_nielsen)

25 thoughts on “My essay on an ‘Odyssean’ Education

  1. The problem isn’t the education of competent people but their election. When we’re lucky this gets sidestepped by having them in the Civil Service instead.

  2. Your musings on how the press did/didnot misrepresent your views gets to the heart of the problem. And deserves more thinking. Businesses, academics etc conduct their affairs in a relatively benign press context. CEO of Tesco is not forced daily to defend ‘out of stocks’ in a store in Barnsley, the resignation of a team member etc. And if you had been a former advisor to a PLC this blog would not have attracted the attention it did. But the news cycle (necessary as it is what holds politicians to account) prevents sensible decision making. We need a way to balance legitimate concern for information, the opposition’s reasonable desire to point score constantly, and the reality that governments need space and time to experiment. And to fail.

  3. The concept of an ‘essay’ is derived from the French ‘essayer’: ‘to try’ (as I’m sure you know). As conceived by Michel de Montaigne, its purpose is to test out one’s ideas and theories against others; to lay out new arguments in the hope of provoking thought and development.

    Unfortunately your ‘essay’ does no such thing. It is polemical, insofar as it is packed with undissected quotes and opinions, and putting “Nobel Prize Winner” or “famous mathematician” next to names is no convincing argument for their truth. Nobel Prize Winners, august though they be, are equally capable of erroneous analysis. In the world of economics, half of them fundamentally disagree with the other half. In short, you must do more to convince me.

    Secondly, from page 10 onwards your ‘essay’ becomes a textbook. Perhaps some sections merit a place on Wikipedia. But if we are to give the rest of your work a title, it should be “Things That Interest Me” (to borrow an insult from Clement Attlee). It’s very interesting that the world receives enough sunlight in an hour to satisfy the world’s energy needs. But how is that vital to an interdisciplinary education? Is your suggestion that solar power is the way to go? Or are you just trying to sound clever? It’s an excellent fact, it’s quite fun, and I seem to remember a similar remark being made in a GCSE physics lesson. I’d like to know how it fits into a more rounded education.

    I am further concerned by your unrefined attacks on PPE as a degree subject. First, your project seems to be to promote interdisciplinary education, and yet ‘PPE it the broadest degree it is possible to study in UK Higher Education’. Those aren’t my words, but an admissions officer at Oxford. And it’s true. Moreover, the economics undergraduate courses at the university are the most intensive, in-depth and critical of any institution in the country. In fact, visiting students from Stanford University were regularly astonished by their comparative ignorance in the subject. Because we specialise a full two years before undergraduates at America’s top universities, graduates in the UK are often more competitive in their chosen fields. You may be aware of the story behind PPE: it was introduced in Oxford in the 1920s to replace Classics, because skills in economics and maths were becoming increasingly desired in the civil service. This is not to defend certain PPEists in politics, whom you seem to have little time for, but some more substance to your suggestions here would be very helpful. If you want an integrated education, yet shun the most flexible of degrees, I’m afraid you aren’t going to get very far.

    It’s difficult to wrestle with your claim that an interdisciplinary education is better, because you put forward so few arguments to dismantle. However, I will to make two points here. In secondary education, it is the most interdisciplinary subjects that are considered to be the least rigourous. General Studies, Business Studies, Media Studies are but three examples of interdisciplinary subjects that are less rigourous than, for example, Mathematics, History or Physics. Whilst prima facie it is better to say simply “study everything”, it is a naive approach to education, and one that at secondary level seems hard to rigourously teach and examine. Here I’m thinking for the benefit of the 15-18 yr olds at the bottom of your 18-25 spectrum.

    Next, you should appreciate that many of the breakthroughs mankind does have are when intellectuals have spent their lives specialising in one field of study and then been able to transfer their skills to another. You recognise Hume and Darwin as two, I believe, if I remember correctly. I suggest that simply educating everyone as a “jack of all trades” cannot be enough. What makes science progress forward are lives dedicated to study and the fine-tuning of ideas, not throwing often ill-fitting concepts from one side of the academic spectrum to the other. Moreover, whilst these transmissions may be useful in the sciences, I’m still puzzled how English and Maths can mutually benefit from contemporaneous study.

    Plato, in the Republic, instructs that the Philosopher-King must be versed in all things. Knowledge, he believes, is the key to good governance. Democracy would struggle, in part, because all people cannot be educated in all things: in the modern world this is all too true. There is simply too much knowledge out there. The politics of tomorrow will not succeed because of academic super-intellectuals, able to masterfully store and process information from all comers. The politics of tomorrow will instead succeed by building strong relationships of trust and confidence between specialists.

    I am training for the Bar, and over the past month have asked two Crown Court judges and three barristers in different cities for their opinion of the criminal legal aid cuts. Every time I have had the same answer: the 1990s were excessive, the criminal bar was too expensive, but the cuts have been made in the wrong way, damaging the wrong people, and I just wish the government listened to our advice on how to do it.

    Today’s problem is not that politicians are uneducated. Today’s problem is that politicians will not consult the professionals, they will not seek the advice of those who know best. Good governance must be an exercise of collaboration between the country’s brightest, in good faith. And your ‘essay’, as I have understood it, makes no helpful contribution to further this project.


    P.S. Thucydides the most realistic introduction to politics? Really?

    • I think it is no longer true that ‘PPE is the broadest degree that it is possible to study in UK Higher Education’ – see e.g. Further, the claim that the PPE Economics courses are ‘in-depth and critical’ is dubious to say the least. See e.g. Oxford PPE educated economist Kate Raworth at and also the movement of Oxford students seeking to redefine their economics curriculum

      I take your point about not relying too heavily on ‘Nobel laureates’ to make an argument, but then you seem to want to rely on ‘professionals’.

      The point is surely that we need *both*: narrow experts and those with a broader, ‘Odyssean’ view. A country without both generalists and specialists will struggle to negotiate contemporary complex problems. Both sorts of thinkers will find niches in late capitalist economies.

      There are currently about 30,000 degrees on UCAS which are single-subject or joint-honours with no real attempt at connection of disciplines. There are (generously) about 30 which could be called fully interdisciplinary. So currently about 0.1% of the population have the opportunity to become wider, interdisciplinary thinkers in their undergraduate studies. We can very safely expand this number at least 10 times without any risk to a decline in national standards and with the benefit that we may produce some excellent, high-powered undergraduates, educated in a range of fields and perhaps better equipped to address some of the problems above.

      • Interesting comment, thanks. Yes we need both. I say that in Intro of my essay. Need people to carry on in narrow fields – but that will happen naturally cos it’s inherent in the structure of academia. But transdisciplinary is not – it’s rare. Our generalists now aren’t generalists – they are almost exclusively humanities students. Most MPs can’t do ‘what’s the P of two heads in a row?’ but they think they can (cf. Royal Society study). I agree on need for new degrees. E.g. ‘The history of ideas, and maths & physics for Presidents’. Best, D.

    • Dear S,
      My ‘essay’ as it emerged into the media was a draft so yes the structure is decidedly iffy. However, it is intended, as I made clear, mainly as something useful for 15-25 yr olds to show them some of the big questions and some of the connections between fields.

      NB. ‘Nobel winners’ in economics are VERY different to those in science – first, it is actually a completely different prize, second, many scientists think – reasonably – that the name should not attach to Economics given how badly it compares with proper science. Cf. Von Neumann’s description of how economics should develop with the reality of forecasts that are already wrong at the time they are made, in Section 1.

      My complaint is not with the Economics modules qua economic modules of PPE, which I’m sure are excellent, but with the fact that PPE students are not taught the history of the subject, how the modern subject nicked various bits of 19th century maths, how its methods compare to physics and other subjects that DO have accurate predictions etc.

      And that PPE-ers are not taught other things relevant if one is trying to train senior decision-makers. E.g. the brilliant Physics for Presidents book and course at UC.

      Yes to Thucydides – really. This is not an eccentric view but one that has been held for centuries and if one reads him and works in politics one immediately sees why.

      Best wishes

  4. On the solar power comment – having had another look, it’s clear you were putting that into an argument for harnessing the sun’s energy. I stand by what else I said there though – why speculate specifically about the potentials of unlimited solar power with other options like tidal or fusion available? Your comments are useful to stimulate discussion, but again it feels like the ‘solar power’ section of wikipedia’s ‘renewable energy’ page.

    • I do mention fusion and link to why it is considered unlikely to provide an option within the next 20 years. Cf. Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents re why tidal is dismissed by experts.

      • What is needed is an alien invasion to make cracking the engineering challenge of fusion as imperative as it was with fission in the second world war effort 😉

        The genetic component of intellect is always going to be emotive especially when no-one can agree what intellect actually is. However given that most properties of populations are normally distributed it would be surprising if this intellect thing wasn’t. The real issue is to what degree education has the capacity to modify development towards an optimised potential. Here are some thoughts on that

  5. just read your bio – so you’ve never really had a proper job that wasn’t just a pulpit for you to shout about your own world views? You’ve never been properly trained in anything useful, or done anything practical, or gathered expertise in any specialist field. Please tell me how you got your SPAD job as they’re obviously giving them out like confetti.

    • Mmm, I’m not sure which bio you read. Unlike many people in politics now, I did not enter it after University. I went and lived in Russia then did some other things before getting involved in politics – and also between political episodes. I have done ‘practical’ things. Best wishes, D

  6. Aren’t you effectively trying to reconcile the irreconcilable?

    As you point out, Ministers are chosen from a small pool of MPs that form the governing party. All of them politicians, which means that they achieved their position by treachery, back-stabbing, skulduggery and low cunning. To ask such people to make decisions based on factual evidence – or even to ask them to understand such evidence – seems a little utopian.

    I worked in Government for many years and you are quite right about how Whitehall works, but I came to the conclusion that it was unfixable because it was based on single false premise – that money is better spent by unaccountable bureaucracies than it is by the people that earned it in the first place.

    There’s no real incentive to succeed, only to either be re-elected or (in the case of bureaucrats) to expand their empires. This will never lead to anything good. We need to recognise some basic facts of human nature and just scrap the system. And no, it doesn’t need to be replaced with anything.

    • I agree re the incentive problem. I also agree it should all be radically smaller than it is. E.g. DfE could be <1/4 and maybe <1/10 of the total pre-2010 DfE+quangos figure. And whole departments can be closed. But what remains of Whitehall needs to embed different incentives or else we are indeed stuck. We cannot scrap all of it. Best wishes, D.

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  13. Very interesting and could not agree more on the importance of science and mathematics for education, and stats and evidence (e.g. natural experiments, other organizations) for policy making…. but why on earth were you working for someone who obsessed about the teaching of English history and what novels were read at 15?

    What a waste of political capital when that energy could have been used elsewhere…. All the students to do at least one A level in Maths, Stats, Physics, Chemistry (like the Irish) would have been a start…

  14. Read essay a couple of years ago. Target audience (under 20) and found reading list v helpful. To this day general argument still informs thinking.

    My 2 cents: add a contents page with hyperlinks. Would make it much easier to navigate.

  15. You are one of the rare politicians who really understands the role of mathematics and mathematically intensive scientific disciplines in the modern world, and who can use this understanding. Please write more!

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