May 22, 2016
Introduction: Among the most difficult problems that scientists, engineers and other STEM personnel face are Nested Problems: a technical or tame problem that seems straight forward enough but is actually nested within the larger social and cultural situation – a tame problem in the middle of a wicked one (See the essays on this website for June, 2015 where nested problems are explored in depth). When controversial findings are presented to the larger society, scientists, engineers and others who work on technical problems are often blindsided by vigorous expressions of disapproval, resistance and anger. If they wish their scientific findings to be considered and adopted by the larger society, their best alternative is to move beyond their scientific and technological arguments and enter into a dialogue with the community. This requires learning and practicing the principles and skills of Dialogue.
“It is not naught, it is one!”
Two men sit together at a small table at Trinity College in England in the 1930′s. Around them are a dozen or so people, waiting patiently for something to happen. No one says anything. An hour passes, then another. No one speaks. Suddenly, without warning, one of the men breaks the silence: ”It is not naught” he says, “it is one.” The person who spoke was Harold Davenport, the other was Paul Erdos, widely known as “the man who loved only numbers,” and one of the greatest mathematicians of all times.
After Davenport announced that he had solved the problem, his wife Anne recalled that “all was relief and joy” among the people gathered to watch the process. ”Everyone around them thought they were mad,” she said. “Of course, they were.”
Davenport and Erdos did what mathematicians everywhere often but not always do: they worked out solutions to problems in their minds, silently and alone. “That’s the beauty of it,” said Ronald Graham, a mathematician at AT & T. ”You can lie back, close your eyes and work.”
Scientific Work is Problem Work
All scientists work on problems; that is the nature of science. But they do not work on all problems, only the ones they believe that can be solved. The ones they choose are always “solvable” problems, or, in the language of wicked problems, convergent or “tame” problems. ”Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve.” writes Nobel Prize Winner P. B. Medawar in The Art of the Soluble. “It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.” When scientists begin to work on a problem, they are never sure if it can actually be solved. If they decide that it cannot, at least with the methods or technologies available, they will abandon it and turn to a more promising one. Eventually, further down the road, new methods and technology may open the possibility of returning to the earlier problem that they abandoned. But “good” scientists are interested in “solving” and not, in Medawar’s language, “merely to grapple with them.” They never set out to invest time and resources on a problem that they know cannot be solved.
When Davenport and Erdos were working out the same mathematics problem at the same time, they had no need to talk to each other. They worked inside their minds, speaking at the end only to announce the solution. While working on their own problems, most scientists are more verbal that Davenport and Erdos. Yet conversational skills and communication competencies are often not seen as part of their armamentarium. Much of the work of science can be done in relative silence: identifying a problem, reviewing the relevant literature, formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, gathering and analyzing data, and writing up their results. This is not to say that scientists do not talk about their work. They do, frequently and often vigorously, especially when their methods or conclusions are challenged by others. But when they are engaged in this kind of argument, they have left the role of scientist and have adopted one we all know well: “Person-Defending- a-Conclusion-or-Point-of-View.”
Working With Wicked Problems Means Talking
Compared to working with convergent problems, working on divergent or wicked problems is an entirely different experience. Wicked problem work is social work in its most comprehensive sense. Since divergent work always involves the beliefs, values, preferences, and often the biases, of other people, emphasizing as it does their differences, disagreements and arguments along the way are inevitable. From the first moment when someone expresses a concern to another person or persons, to when a team, having worked out an action plan designed to improve the situation, sets out to implement it, people are always talking to, and occasionally shouting, at each other. One way to think about working with wicked problem work is understand that it is non-stop conversation. And for those of us who are “conversationally-challenged” (most of us as it turns out), this presents us with a new problem: In order to work on our problem, we are expected to keep talking to each to other about it, often touching upon difficult and threatening issues and subjects. This requires a wide range of skills. Most of us are not very good at this and frequently prefer to ignore it.
Geneticist Eske Willerslev’s Contributions
Eske Willerslev, director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, is consider to be among the world’s greatest geneticists. Over the past several decades, by inventing new technologies and discovering new paths of inquiry, he has moved the science of genetics forward. His pioneering work involves using DNA to reconstruct the past 50,000 years of human history. ”The findings have enriched our understanding of prehistory, shedding light on human development that can’t be found in pottery shards or studies of living cultures,” reported the New York Times on May 17, 2016. ”He remains at the forefront of an increasingly competitive field.” Archeologist David J.Melzer, from Southern Methodist University described Willerslev as playing “[the] roles as catalyst, choreographer, conductor and cajoler, and sometimes all at once.”
Willerslev’s Wicked Problem
In 2010 Willerslev became interested in studying the genetic history of the aboriginal Australians. Convinced that earlier studies of the origins of the earliest Australians were flawed by data gathered from living aboriginals, most of whom had DNA contaminated by the presence of European DNA, he wanted to find and analyze DNA from the earliest inhabitants that had lived before the arrival of the Europeans.
In 2010 he had a stroke of good luck. At the University of Cambridge he found a piece of hair collected in Australia in the 1920′s and which proved to be free of European contamination. He took the hair to his laboratory in Copenhagen and by applying the technological innovations that he had pioneered, was able to reconstruct the owner’s DNA.
The analysis revealed that the ancestors of aboriginal Australians split off from other non-Africans about 70,000 years ago. That finding answered an important and much debated question: the original settlers in Australia were the ancestors of today’s aboriginals.
Convinced that he and his team had come up with an important discovery, Willerslev was anxious to publish the findings. But then he ran into a problem. One of his colleagues, Rasmus Nielson of the University of California, was opposed. The research team had made a “grave mistake,” Nielson believed, by not getting the consent of the living aboriginal Australians to do the research on the hair sample or to publish the results. ”It didn’t seem right to circumvent the wishes of the aboriginal community by using the sample. I was [ready] to remove myself from the study due to these concerns.” What Nielson knew, and Willerslev didn’t, was that the native inhabitants felt resentful and angry at being exploited by European anatomists who had for decades plundered burial grounds and carried off bones to put in museums.
Willerslev was both perplexed and confused. He could not see a problem. Why would his colleague be opposed to publishing new and important discoveries? And the opposition that Nielson claimed existed among the aboriginal Australians made no sense to him. ”My view was that human history belongs to us all because we’re all connected, and no people have a right to stop our understanding of human history.”
A Nested Problem
In the beginning, Willerslev saw his problem as a technical one: Find a “pure” sample, take it to the lab, use the technology to reconstruct the genome, analyze the results, interpret the findings, and publish. He was Doing Science, something in which he excelled. Even after Nielson expressed his concerns, he had no idea that the was facing not one but two problems. The first was a scientific one – a tame one- and for this one he was well prepared. His second problem was a social, cultural problem – a wicked one. There were people who cared deeply about the history of the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia who were adamantly opposed. Even if he had known that it existed, he would not have had an idea what to do about it.
The tame problem was nested in the middle of the wicked one. Willerslev understanding of his problem ended where the wicked problem began.
After hearing Nielson’s concerns, Willerslev had several options: He could ignore Nielson’s concerns and push forward with his scientific agenda; or he could pause to consider the possibility that Nielson could be on to something important. Fortunately for all concerned, he chose the latter course. Before publishing his results, he decided to travel to Australia and meet with the aboriginal representatives. His willingness to enter into a conversation with them demonstrated respect. After listening to their concerns and taking them seriously, he had an “aha” experience. His consciousness was raised to another level. “Paying attention now, I could see why they had this skepticism and resistance” to European scientists. ”In retrospect, I should have definitely approached those people before undertaking the study. Just because it’s legally right doesn’t make it ethically right.”
Talking Is Required – And Can Help
Their conversation provided new understanding for everyone involved. In Australia, Dr. Willersley arranged a meeting with the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, which represents aboriginal people in the region where the hair sample had been obtained. He not only gained a greater appreciation for their resistance and hostility, he was also able to describe the nature of his concerns, his methods of research, and explain why he thought it was important. He then asked for permission to publish his findings. The Council, now feeling respected and involved in the conversation, gave their permission. When the study was published, they praised the results. ”Aboriginal people feel exonerated that they are by far the oldest, continuous civilization in the world,” the council said in a statement. Rather than having something taken from them, Willerslev gave them something they valued.
Discourse, Discussion, Debate, Dialogue
When Willerslev went to Australia to have a conversation with the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, he had several approaches to choose from:
- Discourse: Willerslev could have made a speech, emphasizing the values of science, how it has benefited humankind, and why his work was important. If he would have chosen this option, his audience would probably at first felt patronized and then bored. Almost certainly he would have made things worse.
- Discussion: Discussion is defined an extended exchange of views on a subject. While they are often useful, and occasionally productive, discussions tend to be casual and at times superficial. The situation that Willerslev faced as he began his conversation with the Land and Sea Council was unsuited for a discussion: It was emotional, tense and fraught with the potential for negative outcomes. Trying to have a discussion in such an environment increased the risks of an unproductive eruption of emotions leading to an escalation of tensions.
- Debate: The purpose of a debate is for one side to win and the other side to lose. If they would have entered into a debate, both sides would have lost.
- Dialogue: A dialogue is an entirely different experience. There are five aspects of a conversation that, when present, change it from a discussion or a debate to a dialogue: A strong feeling that all parties in the room are equal; lack of coercion, or manipulation; exchanges characterized by open expression and empathic listening; the beliefs, assumptions, goals and purposes of all parties are brought out into the open; and an absence of judgement or criticism.
Dialogue is the preferred language for working with wicked problems. In fact, it is the only communication skill that consistently helps make things better rather than making things worse! When done well, it avoids the most predictable outcome of people trying to talk about their problems: Ending up with new problems!
The reason that Willerslev and the Goldfields Land and Sea Council achieved such impressive results was that rather than that debate or discuss the issues, they entered in a dialogue: They treated each other as if they were equals; they listened; they shared openly their goals and assumptions; they made an effort to understand the position of the other, and both sides saw that the benefits of collaborating rather than opposing each other.
Learning the Skills for Dialogue
All progress with wicked problems requires us to talk with other people. No forward movement is possible with silence, holding back, belittling, or criticizing. If any progress is to be made, there can be no winners or losers. Dialogue is by far the most important communication skill available when the problem is a wicked one. Yet for most of us, it is a foreign language. When it comes to effective communication skills, we grew up learning and practicing communication patterns that are the opposite of dialogue.
Like all skills, dialogue consists first of concepts and principles that provide background and context for behaviors, and then learning of new behaviors. Dialogue only happens when people actually talk to each other. Concept and principles can be learned by reading and listening. New behaviors can only be learned by taking those principle and concept and enacting them – by speaking the language of dialogue. Learning to speak a new language requires hours and hours of practice, preferably in situations where feedback and support are available.
In a future essay I will describe in more detail the concepts and principles of dialogue. For now, here are three references that I have found useful in learning the basic ideas:
- Danial Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation, 1999.
- William Issacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, 1999.
- Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard, Dialogue: Rediscovering the Transforming Power of Conversation, 1998.
A Success Story
Whether Eske Willerslev ever learned that what he was struggling with had a name – a nested problem – is unimportant. What is important is that while in the midst of a solving a technical problem for which he was eminently prepared, a colleague signaled to him that another, more nebulous and undefined one existed – a wicked one – one for which he lacked understanding and skill. What happened next is not only important, it is praiseworthy. Rather that becoming defensive, ignoring Nielson’s concerns, or attacking him return, then moving on to publish his findings, he paused long enough to listen to his reasons for resisting and take them seriously. And opened the way to learn something new. By traveling to Australia and meeting with the aboriginal Australians, he learned that talking together – practicing dialogue – is the path to creating outcomes that are satisfying and productive for all.