Can We Solve the World’s Biggest Problem?

An episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast I heard focused on a team of brilliant researchers competing for a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The prize will be given to the group with the best idea for curing one social problem anywhere in the world. Angela Duckworth and Katy Milkman are competing for the prize because they believe they’ve identified the biggest problem in the world—us. Even when we possess the right knowledge and resources, they say, humans still make bad choices that hurt themselves and others. Duckworth and Milkman, along with an all-star team of academics, think they can find the solution by perfecting the science of behavior change.

While helping people make better decisions is a worthy goal, I was struck by the almost utopian tone of the podcast. “Could solving this one problem,” the host asked, “solve all the others?” If a system were developed to ensure people made wise decisions, the podcast speculated, then every other great dilemma—including poverty, climate change, and even terrorism—could be overcome. Perfecting behavioral change through science was framed as the holy grail of human progress; the ultimate tool to vanquish our depravity and finally bring lasting peace and prosperity to the world.

Despite their lofty goal, I’m fairly certain what plagues humanity is beyond the healing power of PhD’s with $100 million. The project is just the latest example of a reoccurring modern dream—the eradication of evil through human ingenuity and social progress. Karl Marx tried with enforced economic equality. Adolf Hitler tried through racial purity. Even Walt Disney tried with his “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” (a.k.a. EPCOT).

Combating the effects of evil and solving the world’s problems is a calling we ought to embrace, but Jesus makes clear in his parable of the Wheat and the Weeds that completely eliminating evil in this age is not our calling nor is it possible. The final work of eradicating evil from creation is God’s alone. History shows that when we arrogantly assume we alone possess this divine vocation, rather than solving the greatest problem in the world we become part of it.

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From Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662)

O Lord, let me not henceforth desire health or life, except to spend them for you, with you, and in you. You alone know what is good for me; do, therefore, what seems best to you. Give to me, or take from me; conform my will to yours; and grant that, with humble and perfect submission, and in holy confidence, I may receive the orders of your eternal Providence; and may equally adore all that comes to me from you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Can We Solve the World’s Biggest Problem?