DUNCAN Black is a name almost unrecognised out of the rarified and abstract world of symbolic logic and mathematical economics. In my view, and in the view of wiser men than me, Black was the most important Scot of the last hundred years.
His discoveries are not easily rendered in a succinct form: algebra does not offer itself to popular exposition. Nonetheless, Black has described with shattering, and sometimes comical, detail why politicians are such rascals, civil servants such rogues and committees incapable of coherence. But his work is far more than cynicism. Black has given us mathematical propositions about human combinations which prove valuable insights.
Born in Motherwell in 1908 and brought up in Tayvallich in Argyll, then educated at Glasgow and Dundee, Black has no recognition in Scotland. In time, I predict, he will become national hero.
Black himself describes his âEurekaâ moment: âActing apparently at random, I wrote down a diagram bearing three curves. I saw in a shock of recognition that if I interpreted points on the horizontal axis as motions before a committee, and took the preferences of the members in relation to these motions to be represented by the three single-peaked curves, the decision by committee using a simple-majority procedure must correspond to the median optimum."
This may not make your blood race, but Black had opened up a new way of seeing how people really collaborate. Black was later to discover that other minds had tried to reach similar conclusions.
Machiavelli was dismissed as subversive. Condorcet, the French philosopher, was called impractical. Lewis Carroll â the Rev Charles Dodgson, a mathematics don at Oxford â had come close. Alice in Wonderland is a sort of allegory of political folly backed by sophisticated formulae.
What Black achieved was the ability to express politician âbehaviour as more interesting than merely venal. They are trading, or trying to trade, votes. They do it at elections but they do it among themselves, too. Public choice theory has also proved a tool for observing civil servants or local authority employees. Politely, they serve the public interest but co-opt resources for their own interests.
It would have been splendid to hear Black âs comments on the vast over-run of the new Scottish Parliament. He was able to describe how all political projects go over-budget.
Black died in 1991 without a ripple, leaving all his assets to Motherwell Cricket Club. But his
great bequest has been the analyti