All solutions have a problem

About 400 guests fill the hall. Federal politicians and the ultra rich are at the elevated head table, facing renowned physicians and researchers strategically seated among lesser philanthropists at tables below. Dinner is being served at the glittering fundraiser; the speeches have not yet begun.

"Why can't you cure cancer?"

The researcher has had a rough day. He looks at the crotchety donor asking the question. Speeches are sententious at philanthropic functions, but the table talk can be brittle and irreverent.

"Actually we can," he answers, putting down his fork and raising his voice over the din of the dinner table conversation. "It's that other requirement that's giving us trouble."

"What other requirement?"

"Making patients survive the treatment." The researcher gestures dismissively. "We call it the solution problem. We've got the lesions licked; we just have to find a way to lick the cure."

The philanthropist is no slouch at cynical banter. "Chemotherapy is a pretty expensive protocol for killing patients," he says. "Shooting them gets rid of lesions for much less."

The researcher mimics a bow. "Bravo," he says, "what a simple, elegant idea. To kill a malignancy, shoot the host. And I thought you were just another pretty wallet. Clearly, you're a scholar."

Gallows humour aside, people know that all problems have a solution, but few realize that all solutions have a problem. The popular song insists that every cloud has a silver lining, but there's no song about every silver lining having a cloud. It's true, though.

Where are yesterday's solutions? You need to look no further for them than the morning headlines. Yesterday's solutions appear on the front page of the paper as today's problems.

For a solution to metamorphose into a problem it first has to work. Solutions that don't work fade away, like Esperanto. The solutions that haunt us are the ones that function well, like the private automobile. Today's "oh, yuck!" is the echo of yesterday's "eureka!" So long, infant mortality. Come right in, population explosion.

Stripping the paint off any current problem is likely to reveal a previous solution. Problems are reincarnated solutions. One could say that problems get second leases on life as solutions, or solutions get second leases on life as problems. In fact, solutions have a way of becoming the problems they solve — not invariably perhaps, but often enough to amount to a rule. A solution that's no solution is usually no problem either (nor is it any help, but that's a different matter). One could say that the world's most persistent and universal problems are solutions.

"If you think you have a problem, wait until you solve it." A solution is something that substitutes itself for the problem it has eliminated. The alchemist has to fail because if base metals could be turned into gold, gold would become valueless. Educating people for economic advantage has been the alchemy of our times. Literacy could secure a glamorous career in the Middle Ages as the King's scribe (the word "glamour" comes from grammar) so we pushed for universal, compulsory education and made "high school dropout" synonymous with delinquency. All it achieved was moving the goalposts. Soon an applicant for cleaning toilets will need a PhD.

There are no solutions, only replacements of one problem with another. This doesn't mean that all problems are equal, only that all problems are problems. The best we can hope for is that our solutions will be problems we prefer to the problems they have replaced.