Problems are either wicked or tame concluded Horst Rittle and Melvin Webber in the early 1970′s, an insight that has turned out not only to be interesting, but central to all attempts to solve problems. Whether a problem is one or the other determines everything that follows: what should be done, by whom, for how long, and so on. Perhaps the most important conclusion they arrived at is that while some problems can be “solved” and no more attention is required, other problems cannot be solved, and must be revisited over and over again.
Rittle and Webber made it clear that by calling some problems wicked, they did not mean that they were “bad” or “evil.” In 1973 they wrote:
We are calling them wicked not because [they] are ethically deplorable. We use the term ‘wicked’ in a meaning akin to that of ‘malignant’ (in contrast to ‘benign’) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky (like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb).
While wicked problems are not evil problems, there are times when there are moral and ethical issues involved, not in the problems themselves, but in how they are defined and addressed. Rittle and Webber believed that it was immoral to
- confuse tame and wicked problems;
- attempt to “tame” a wicked problem prematurely;
- treat wicked problems as if they were tame.
Yet telling the difference between tame and wicked problems turns out to be a problem! Wicked problems are usually messy, confusing and complicated, but they need not be. They can also be simple and straightforward. Tame problems generally are more transparent and understandable than wicked ones, but not always. They can also be extremely complex, confusing, and opaque. For example, on September 12, 1962, when President Kennedy said “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth,” what he proposed was a tame problem (though the process of making it happen was rife with wicked ones). It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Everyone would know if the many technical problems had been solved and when a successful solution reached. In the beginning, however, the scientists who were in charge of the project had no idea what to do or how to begin. Most of the technology that would be needed did not exist and had to be discovered and invented. Yet when the astronauts returned safely to earth after walking on the moon, the problem was solved!
One of the best ways to tell the difference between tame and wicked problems is listen carefully to the disagreements and arguments over the nature of the problem and what needs to be done. When problems are tame and not wicked, the evidence that is introduced to support one side or the other can eventually be determined to be true or false. As a result, the intensity and frequency of serious disagreements diminish over time. ”Getting to Yes” is more frequent as the parties converge toward a correct solution. Eventually, a spirit of cooperation and may emerge. People cease being enemies and may even become collaborators.
When the problem is wicked, however, it is a completely different story. The more time spent on the problem, the greater the gap opens up between them. Instead of “Getting to Yes,” it is more like “You are wrong, wrong, wrong!” Any evidence presented by one side is almost always rejected by the other as being incomplete or inaccurate. Rather than diminishing, arguments escalate, become louder, more shrill , more insulting and even more abusive. Rather than moving closer together, the people involved usually become more entrenched in their original opinions; rather than becoming collaborators, they continue being opponents, even enemies.
Here are examples that make clear these differences:
Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege
In June of 1902, British philosopher Bertrand Russell, weary of struggling to find an answer to a paradox that had surfaced in his work and threatened to derail his progress, disengaged from his own work to read the recent work of a German mathematician named Gottlop Frege. Frege had been working from 1893 through 1902 on a project that was in may ways similar to Russell’s, and had the goal of doing “for arithmetic what Euclid had done for geometry…reformulating the hodgepodge of arithmetical results that had accumulated over the centuries into some kind of logical format.” In 1902, declaring victory, Frege published his first volume and turned to finishing the second, both of which would be the culmination of his life’s work.
As Russell read the work of Frege, he was surprised to find the same paradox that had bedeviled his own work, and realized that one of the principle axioms upon which Frege’s work was based was false. On the 16th of June, Russell wrote a short note to Frege to tell him the bad news: ”Dear Mr. Frege, I have discovered a paradox in your set theoretical approach.” He then named the problem: “Contemplate for a moment the set of all sets which do not contain themselves as an element…”
For Frege, Russell’s letter was a thunderbolt, one which presented him with a terrible predicament. He was 82 years old, and at the end of his very distinguished career. His book was the culmination of his life’s work. What to do?
Eventually, in a sad postscript to the second volume, Frege wrote: ” A scientist can hardly meet with anything more undesirable that to have the foundation give way just as the work is finished.”
Frege’s reply to Russell is remarkable for its candid acceptance of the catastrophe that had befallen him. As Russell’s biographer, Ray Monk observed, “his letter has become one of the most often quoted documents in the history of analytical philosophy:”
“Your discovery,” wrote Frege to Russell
of the contradiction surprised me beyond words and, I should like to say, left me thunderstruck because it has rocked the ground on which I meant to build arithmetic…Your discovery is at any rate a very remarkable one, and it may perhaps lead to a great advantage in logic, undesirable as it may seem as first sight.
Russell was amazed and impressed with Frege’s response: ”As I think about acts of integrity and grace,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I realize that there is nothing in my experience to compare with Frege’s dedication to truth. His entire life’s work was on the verge of completion…and upon finding that his fundamental assumption was in error, he responded with intellectual pleasure, clearly submerging any feelings of personal disappointment.”
Frege’s admirable response can be seen not only as a sign of his personal integrity, but also an acceptance that he was wrong and Russell was right. Once Russell pointed it out, he could see it as well. If he had responded defensively, attacking Russell, accusing him of being jealous, insisting that Russell was at fault, nothing would have been gained and much would have been lost. As it turned out, Frege’s honorable acceptance of the error served to enhance his reputation.
“It’s An Act of Love”
Among the many wicked problems we face as a nation, the immigration “mess” is among the “wickedest.” Over 11 million people are in the country without documentation, and no knows what to do about them. There is no agreement on what should be done. And making things worse, hundreds of thousands more are making an effort every year to join them. Over the past several years, the shouting and the accusing and the blaming has only grown louder and more shrill, bogged down as it is in political wrangling and posturing. Each time someone comes up with an idea or a plan, it is attacked mercilessly by the opposite side.
In the midst of all of the anger and the rancor, a new voice with a very different perspective is heard. In April, 2014, Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and possible future presidential candidate, addressed the question “Why are they here?” and then offered a dramatically different answer: “…they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family,” he said. ”Yes, they broke the law but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.”
Bush reframed the issue from breaking the law to caring for families. How was it received? As an opportunity for reasonable and respectful discussion? As a door opening so that new ideas for an intractable problem could be explored? On the contrary. ”Bush’s ‘act of love’ comments ignited a firestorm of criticism from conservatives,” reported Politico on April 10, 2014. Rather that encouraging Bush to expand on his remarks so that a conversation could begin, his critics moved en masse to the attack, closing down immediately any possibility that new approaches could be explored. And any chance of the disagreeing parties moving closer together disappeared in a barrage of viscous and hateful attacks.
Tame or Wicked?
When the problem is tame, even though at the beginning the conversation may be heated and energetic, as people examine the evidence and listen to each other’s arguments, they tend to move closer together until usually they arrive together at the answer.
With wicked problems, one can expect the opposite. As soon as one side hears the others’ ideas or proposals, a “firestorm” of criticism is unleashed. Rather that subsiding over time, things usually move from bad to worse.
Tame problems, by definition, are “Right vs. Wrong” problems. At the end of the day, there is a “right” answer to be found. Wicked problems, on the other hand, are “Right vs. Right!” Both sides claim to be right, and since there are no true or correct answers to be found, they can usually make a case, even though it usually turns out to be ”I’m right because I believe that I’m right!”
“Right vs Right” problems are the most difficult and intractable of all since each side makes its claim and then refuses to consider the position of other side.
How can you tell a wicked problem from a tame one? Listen to the conversations, the debates, the arguments. Whenever there is more heat than light, more shouting that sharing, more anger than respect, you can be sure that the problem is wicked.
Postscript to the Russell-Frege Exchange
Frege’s response to Russell’s letter left him favorable impressed with Frege’s honesty and integrity. In part, in a desire to collaborate, Russell decided to tackle the paradox that he had discovered in Frege’s work, one that was not unlike one that he had been wrestling with in his own work. Throughout June and July of 1903 and into 1904 he tried without success to find a solution. ”Every morning,” he later wrote in his autobiography,
I would sit down before a blank piece of paper. Throughout the day, with a brief interval of lunch, I would stare at the blank sheet. Often, when evening came it was still empty…It seemed quite likely that the whole rest of my life might be consumed in looking at the blank sheet of paper.
Sometime in 1905, Russell found a solution: ”The solution to the paradox is simple,” he declared. ”I WON’T ALLOW IT! I FORBID IT!” and with this declaration he elaborated his Theory of Logical Types, a creative reframing of the paradox which allowed him to declare victory.