Thursday, August 4, 2011

Wicked Problems

Charles Stross has a great blog where he shares all kinds of interesting ideas.  Recently he had a guest blogger write about the topic of Wicked Problems.  I highly encourage reading the article, and although the comments are really interesting they are also really long.  One thing I think was left out of the definition of a Wicked Problem there is the idea that the sizes of the groups that believe in particular definitions of the problem and their attendant 'solutions' need to be comparable.

For example, abortion is a Wicked Problem.  There is no right answer, just lots of answer of varying degrees of wrong.  Defining the issue is very hard, the solutions are myriad and testing out those solutions in some safe, scientific way is impossible.  However, if 99% of people concluded that abortion is fine up until 20 weeks then we would pretty much all conclude that abortion is not a Wicked Problem even though it meets the other criteria.  Note that I am not redefining the problem here, just suggesting that when people think of things that are Wicked Problems they will only include the ones that have a significant element of controversy - that is, those that have two or more groups of substantial size in disagreement.  That sometimes is going to correspond to problems that aren't actually all that challenging to solve but sometimes not since whether or not people agree on a topic is correlated to it being solved, but certainly there is no causality there.

Religion is the same way.  Religious conflict is clearly a Wicked Problem both by the definitions in the article and by near unanimous belief but that wouldn't be true if basically everybody was an atheist (not so if we all shared a religion since there is no end of examples of religious infighting) since we would all basically ignore the few crazies who don't follow the party line.  We would fight over something else, no doubt, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone thinking that religious conflict was a Wicked Problem.  To my mind it is less about the actual nature of the problem being looked at and far more about what people think about the problem.  Once we mostly agree on the nature of the issue and the goals involved the rest is just engineering.

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