A colleague tells me that among students and faculty in economics these days, it’s hard to find people who are genuinely interested in how economies work. Instead they are wrapped up in the technicalities of the mathematical models they have been trained to analyze. Give the students an exam question that requires thought about fundamentals, he tells me, and rather little comes back.

It’s the same in mathematics! It may sound paradoxical, but here, too, students and researchers are distracted, and excessively impressed, by mathematical technicalities. Give the students an exam question that requires thought about what the *point* of a mathematical construction is and — I speak from long experience — they will hurry off in search of more technical questions, where they can turn the crank.

One might have thought that mathematics would be the one field immune to the problem of being dazzled by mathematics. But in…

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