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Want better policymaking? Go ask a mathematician

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Professor James Franklin - The Catholic Weekly
Professor James Franklin. Photos: Australian Catholic University

Policymakers aren’t accustomed to taking advice from mathematicians, but a course in geometry might be just what they need to make better decisions, according to Professor James Franklin.  

Professor Franklin, a respected mathematician, philosopher and historian, delivered the Australian Catholic University’s PM Glynn Lecture on Religion, Law and Public Life on 27 June, on “Politics, Law and Policy, and the Abstract Principles of Practical Action.”  

He was introduced by the institute’s director, Dr Michael Casey, who welcomed descendants of Patrick McMahon Glynn, the Catholic “founding father” of the Australian Federation, for whom the lecture is named. 

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Prof Franklin put his well-known dry wit to work for the benefit of the large audience, describing his “Rip Van Winkle” journey into, and out from, the world of abstraction.  

He left the passionate and confusing 1970s activist scene of his undergraduate years, spent decades studying and teaching pure mathematics and philosophy, and then decided to return to the so-called “real world,” to find little had changed. 

“Now I’m back. The world of profitable labour, of policy, law, politics and economics still looks to me unutterably strange, and more so than in 1971,” Franklin said.  

“But this time, I’ve concluded it’s not just me that’s confused, it’s them.” 

Politics and policymaking could use a touch of the mathematician’s love for first principles, Franklin continued, which are far more practical than people might think. 

“Geometry rests on solid foundations; you can see the foundations and you know exactly what they are, and you know how the more complex truths follow from them,” he said. 

“If you drove here and asked Google maps to plan the route, or you came by Uber, a mathematical spatial algorithm plotted your shortest route.  

“Sure, you need real-world information for the principles to work on, but the principles tell you what to do with the data.” 

Professor James Franklin - The Catholic Weekly
Professor James Franklin. Photo: Australian Catholic University

Professor Franklin, who in 2022 published a book on ethics entitled The Worth of Persons, said a moral life was also governed by principles.  

The Golden Rule to love God and neighbour (Mt 7:12), and Jesus’ explanation that “all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments,” was Our Lord’s “Euclidean moment.” 

“What does ‘hang on’ mean? It can only mean one thing, the same as in Euclid: deducibility from. This is Jesus’ ‘Euclidean moment,’ where he lays down axioms and invites the derivation of theorems,” Franklin said. 

“And plainly a lot does follow from loving one’s neighbour—once Jesus has laid down, as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that everyone counts as neighbour. Any kind of deliberate harm is ruled out, for a start, which covers a great deal of ethics.” 

Professor Franklin’s search for “better-grounded thinking” and disdain for “clashes of free-floating, one-sided ideological packages” led him to see examples of policymaking so illogical as to be “not even wrong,” as physicists say. 

He gave several cases where he thought a lack of correct principles had led policymakers astray. 

The extreme violence and poor health in remote Indigenous communities was one case, which could benefit from philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ principle that the first condition of civilisation “is the control of interpersonal violence.”  

“With the levels of interpersonal violence in remote communities, you can’t expect to make progress by supplying resources for education and health, and you’ll just keep scratching your head about why ‘Closing the gap’ is not happening,” he said. 

“We will walk out of this building in half an hour confidently expecting life, liberty and security on the way home. People in remote communities should have the same rights.” 

He also criticised the “collectivist error,” which leads people to attach moral blame or praise to groups over individuals, as the false principle behind the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism and the growth of affirmative action policies, among other issues. 

ACU Vice-Chancellor Professor Zlatko Skrbis thanked Professor Franklin, on behalf of the university, PM Glynn Institute, and attendees, among whom were senior academics, members of the clergy and school students from Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College and St Aloysius College. 

Professor James Franklin - The Catholic Weekly.
Professor James Franklin. Photo: Australian Catholic University.

“Professor Franklin has given an important and challenging talk, challenging some of the defaults that have taken hold in our thinking about policy, politics, ethics and law,” the vice-chancellor said.  

“In doing so, Professing Franklin has not been afraid to mention some difficult and important issues as examples. 

“He has reminded us that in addition to using the best evidence in decision-making, we also need the best principles. 

“Few will argue about the importance of best evidence but … sometimes we can take principles almost for granted.” 

Professor Skrbis said that human dignity, or as Professor Franklin calls it, “the worth of persons,” is particularly important to ACU and is the principle at the heart of the university’s strategic plan, Vision 2033 

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