Chop logic for your lunchbox

21 September 2001

I have forgotten which European philosopher it was that succumbed in debate to a sly adversary who presented an irrelevant equation and asserted that it proved his case. The verbal thinker was dumbfounded by the algebra (which was incomprehensible to him) because he was overawed by anything mathematical. There is a phrase for that kind of intellectual legerdemain – ‘blinding with science’. Mathematics is, after all, the acknowledged queen of the sciences, so magic passes with that regal lady’s sceptre must be maximally powerful.

Engineers, and now economists too, know better. One of the most extraordinary recent shocks to the business world in this regard was administered by the application of an internationally renowned mathematical strategy. The latter had been developed on the principles of what moneymongers only a quarter contemptuously (and the other three-quarters reverentially) call ‘rocket science’. The application, by an American financial house, was too successful: only a few years ago the house was led to overreach itself. So gross was the error that Alan Greenspan, the all-but-deified chairman of the US Federal Reserve, had to intervene to contain what could have become disastrous global consequences.

Weighing qualitative (verbal) arguments against mathematical (quantitative) ones is an art in which successful engineers are perhaps more adept than most other professional practitioners, although even among engineers there are extremists who stray toward idolatry of either empiricism or theoretical analysis.

Scott A Sandford, a NASA astrophysicist in California, is reported to have demolished spectroscopically what has been a debater’s clincher: “You can’t say so-and-so because it’s like comparing apples with oranges”. Sandford obtained spectra of the pulverised fruits and they (the spectra) proved remarkably similar. According to one of my newspapers he declared that these results could therefore ‘be anticipated to have a dramatic effect on the strategies used in arguments in the future’. But any electrical power system engineer who has consumed an apple and/or an orange from his lunchbox might take the Sandfordian finding to show only the more conclusively that either ingenuous or disingenuous science can confound not just sight but other senses – and common sense – as well.

Ultimate generator trips earthly one

The ancient Greeks had a god for each of the most fundamental things of their time but of course their pantheon did not include a god of electricity. The nearest they got to any such deity was in fact their top god, Zeus, whose responsibilities included what one UK newspaper columnist question-beggingly called ‘the ultimate in power generation ... lightning’. The writer in this case was telling the sad story of Nick Baldwin, then executive director of operations at Powergen, a UK corporation whose business you will not find hard to identify from its name.

The less clearly denominated German electricity enterprise, E.on, found no difficulty either. E.on was, indeed, so attracted by what it identified that it went on early this year to make a multi-billion-dollar take-over bid for the British corporation, which is the UK’s second biggest generator and does substantial business in the USA. The progress of the E.on bid, with its profound implications for European-American power, is quite another story, however, and you have no doubt been following it in the serious pages of MPS. Interestingly, it was Nick Baldwin, now chief executive of Powergen, who was last month reportedly looking forward to completion of the takeover early next year.

But let me recount that columnist’s sad story. It was about Baldwin’s failure to turn up at a meeting of financial analysts whom he and colleagues were to brief on the health of Powergen. The audience was guardedly informed that there had been an accident abroad. Different details were dispensed to different people, but the aforementioned columnist claimed to have learnt the truth from a US source, The Salt Lake Tribune. Apparently Baldwin had been on holiday in Utah and had been scorched by lightning in Bryce Canyon National Park. He was airlifted to hospital, where happily he got over the shock (of hitting his head against a tree as he fell after the stroke).

One does feel sympathy for Baldwin, and regret that such an accident should have kept the executive from his financial meeting. But, if the ancient Greek gods were the agents who felt that they had to interfere on this occasion, one is tempted to observe that they must have chosen their strategy with all the Olympian concentration and subtlety of a board of directors intent on getting its logo right.

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