The Telescope and the Microscope: Public Policy Wisdom from Victor Hugo


Aug 12, 2014

Man looking into a future virtual world

Photo by lighthouse/Fotolia

This commentary originally appeared in RAND Review on August 8, 2014.

Michael D. Rich, president and chief executive officer of the RAND Corporation, made the following remarks at the Pardee RAND Graduate School Commencement Ceremony in Santa Monica, California, on June 21, 2014.

For 55 years, RAND has published an annual calendar with inspirational quotations. I hope many of you noticed the quotation for April in the 2014 calendar. It happens to be my favorite line from Les Misérables. I am sorry to say that the line didn't make it into the musical or the film; it's only in the book. It comes in the section of the story when Jean Valjean and Cosette are living incognito in Paris. Victor Hugo wrote an entire chapter about the overgrown garden on their compound that served to conceal their houses. The chapter includes a very detailed passage about the interconnectedness of nature. It is fascinating to read, but what caught my eye about halfway through the chapter were this statement and question:

"Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of the two has the grander view?"

Hugo leaves that question unanswered, hoping, I am sure, to get readers like me to ponder it. I like the question because I think it has deep meaning for policy analysis, particularly the kind invented and practiced here at RAND.

So, which has the grander view? Both reveal truths that are not observable with the ordinary eye. The telescope enables us to see far into the distance, beyond our immediate horizons, and beyond our reach. The microscope enables us to look deeply, closely, to reveal the hidden workings of what's all around us. Both often show that what might, at first, seem obvious or simple is anything but that.

Much of what you have learned in the Pardee RAND classrooms probably seemed like looking through a microscope. You've learned how to use advanced data collection techniques, statistics and economic modeling, complex computer simulations, rigorous case studies, and a lot more. Those are tools we use to unpack trends, distinguish correlation from causation, surface latent opportunities for savings, and reveal hidden costs. You've learned how to use those tools to dissect policies and programs — breaking apart systems into essential elements, searching for the factors that matter most in producing desirable outcomes, devising ways to reconfigure the pieces to produce a more effective or efficient whole.

But, because you've been a part of RAND, I hope you've also had a view through the telescope. I hope you have lifted your head from the focused field of the microscope to look up and to look out, in order to explore the larger context in which today's discrete challenges reside, take the long view, and think about society's largest challenges, even when — and perhaps especially when — those challenges are too big, too complex, and seemingly too distant to be on current policy agendas.

So which has the grander view — is it the microscope or the telescope? My answer is that for a policy analyst, the grandest view is achieved by embracing them both. Your experience in two interlocking institutions, the Pardee RAND Graduate School and the RAND Corporation, has served you well in this regard.

I am afraid that the policy problems you will tackle in your careers will be more challenging than the ones I have addressed in mine. The world is more complex than ever, and there are many factors with potential to make it even more dangerous.

My wife and I just became grandparents for the first time, so we have a brand new stake in the future. Naturally, we want a world in which people are healthier, safer, more secure, and more prosperous. We are counting on you to see the biggest problems first, to create bold solutions that work, and, most important of all, to see them through. In my judgment, you can best accomplish this by using both a telescope and a microscope.

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