Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

A thoughtful politician


I was at the concluding conference today for the New Dynamics of Ageing research programme in London, and one of the talks was by David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science.

I won’t speak for his general politics — even if I knew how much of the policy of his ministry he is responsible for — but I was impressed with his thoughtfulness. He wasn’t academic, but he showed a nimble ability to deploy concepts from science and philosophy in response to questions, and a willingness to think on his feet that is far from the stereotype of the cautious time-serving politician.

One thing that impressed me was his answer to a somewhat vague and mundane question about ageism, and what we can do about it. It would have been easy to answer to give a conventionally pious answer, saying that we all need to recognise the contributions of blah blah blah. Instead, he spoke about the problem of increasing segregation by age in British society, related it to nurseries being more inclined to separate 2-year-olds from 3-year-olds, and concluded by saying that teenagers are at least as likely to be stereotyped and discriminated against as the elderly. I think this is true, and hardly a politically safe position to take.

In response to a question about adult learning he drew a contrast between “Calvinist education” (not quite predestination or reprobationism, but he seemed to mean more that everything is determined in the first few years) and neural plasticity. He said, “The large hippocampus of a London taxi driver isn’t because people with large hippocampus become taxi drivers.” Not a highly original point, one that I’m sure is made in any number of popular science books, but he clearly had mastered the outlines of this science, and was able to weave it in with policy considerations on the fly.

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