Word of the Day: Systems and Wicked Problems

Lots of wires, but ENIAC didn't replace GodWe all deal with systems—computers, cars, or communities, for example—and a few concepts may help see things a little more clearly.

This is an excerpt from another book of mine, Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change.


Perfection means not perfect actions in a perfect world,
but appropriate actions in an imperfect one.
— R. H. Blyth

Systems are difficult to work with, and seeing things for what they are is an essential first step.  Horst Rittel in the late 1960s distinguished between “tame” and “wicked” problems.  This is not the distinction between easy and hard problems—many tame problems are very hard.  But wicked problems, while not evil, are tricky and malicious in ways that tame problems are not.  The unexpected consequences we’ve seen have been because systems problems are wicked.  We will understand systems better—and why they spawn unexpected consequences—if we understand a little more of the properties of wicked problems and approach them with appropriate respect.

Tame problems can be clearly stated, have a well-defined goal, and stay solved.  They work in a Newtonian, clockwork way.  The games of chess and go are tame.  Wicked problems have complex cause-and-effect relationships, human interaction, and inherently incomplete information.  They require compromises.

For example, mass transit is a wicked problem.  Everyone likes mass transit—unless it comes through their neighborhood, it consumes road lanes, or they have to pay for it.  The difference between something that works in the lab, on paper, or in one’s head versus something that works in the real world and is practical to real people is a characteristic only of wicked problems.

Tame and wicked problems differ in many ways.*  See if the traits of wicked problems as described below sound familiar, either with the examples mentioned here or with situations you have experienced yourself.

  • Problem Definition.  A tame problem can be clearly, unambiguously, and completely stated.  Math problems are tame.  By contrast, there is no absolute statement of a wicked problem.  To state a wicked problem means to also state its solution.  That is, the problem can’t be stated without a proposed solution in mind, and coming up with a new solution means seeing the problem in a new way.  Avoid locking in a problem definition too soon.
  • Goal.  A tame problem has a well-defined goal, such as the QED in a proof or the checkmate in chess.  With a wicked problem, you could keep iterating and refining your solution forever—or go back and consider other solutions.  After all, if a wicked problem is something you can’t define, how can you tell when it’s resolved?  You don’t stop because you’re done (you’ve reached the goal) but rather because of external constraints (you’ve run out of money, time, or patience, for example).  You must strive for an adequate solution, not a perfect one.
  • Solutions.  Solutions are unambiguously correct or incorrect with tame problems.  The solution to a wicked problem is not judged as correct or incorrect but somewhere in the range between good and bad.
  • Time.  The solution to a tame problem can be judged immediately (that is, there is no maturation time), and the problem stays solved.  Euclid’s geometry proofs are still valid today.  Evaluating the solution to a wicked problem takes time (because the results of implementing the solution take time to be appreciated) and is subjective.  Is that a good design?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Like the response to art, different people will have different answers, and the solution causes many side effects (unintended consequences), like medicine in the body.  Additionally, a “solved” wicked problem may not stay solved—wicked problems aren’t solved but are only addressed; they’re treated, not cured.  Your perception of how good the solution is may change over time.
  • Consequences.  Trial and error may be an inefficient approach with a tame problem, but it won’t cause any damage.  Implementing or publicizing a proposed solution doesn’t change the problem.  With a wicked problem, however, every implementation changes reality—it’s no longer the same problem after an attempted solution.  After a failed attempt, the solution you realize you should have tried may now not work.
  • Reapplying Past Solutions.  A class of tame problems can be solved with a single principle.  A general rule for finding a square root or applying the quadratic formula will work in all applicable cases.  By contrast, the solution to a wicked problem is unique.  We can learn from past successes, but an old solution applied unchanged to a new problem won’t produce the old result.  Many unexpected consequences arise when we rush to reapply (without customization) a particular solution we’ve seen before—there will likely be unseen differences between the old and new problems.
  • Problem Hierarchy.  A tame problem stands alone.  It is never a symptom of a larger problem, but a wicked problem always is.  For example, if the cost of something is too high, this can be a symptom of the higher-level problem that the company doesn’t have enough money.  Often, we can’t see the higher-level problem (“This new software is terrific!  I can’t imagine what could be better.”).

Systems are large, complex, and real-world, and they are the domain in which technology is applied.  Industry’s dreams and expectations for its new high-tech products are formed in the lab, but it is in the system of society that they’re put to use.  This brief summary of wicked problems as well as these cautionary examples give some insight into the inherent difficulty of meddling with systems.  This is not to say that we can’t address systems problems but that they should be approached with caution and respect.

Let’s end this chapter with a final example of unexpected consequences due to technology.  In the 1954 short story “Answer,” Fredric Brown envisions many great scientists working for years to build a giant computer network, connecting the computing power of billions of planets.  As the inaugural question for this technological marvel, the gathered dignitaries ask, “Is there a God?”

The computer doesn’t hesitate before answering, “There is now!” 

Everything has both intended and unintended consequences. 
The intended consequences may or may not happen;
the unintended consequences always do.
— Dee Hock, president of VISA

* Rittel and Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences, 4:155–169, 1973.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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The Christian Message

The Thinking Atheist has put together another high-quality and humbling video (humbling because this sets the bar very high for the rest of us trying to add to the discussion).

Here’s the Christian message told in a frank but sympathetic way (4:16).

“God Did It” Explains Everything … or Maybe Not

"Creation of Adam" painting raises the question: does God even exist?It’s time once again to check in with apologist Greg Koukl. In a recent podcast (“Is Consciousness an Illusion?“ 12/4/11), he talked about Daniel Dennett’s 2006 book Breaking the Spell.

Let me first seize the opportunity to agree with something. Koukl says, “Reality is the kind of thing … that will injure you if you don’t take it seriously.” It’s good to see us with the same goal of seeing reality clearly.

But we don’t agree on everything. Koukl said:

[Dennett has] made a claim in this book about something that is very, very difficult for a materialist to deal with that makes sense completely within a Christian worldview. (3:05)

The “something” is consciousness. So Koukl says that the scientist has a tough time explaining consciousness, but it’s easy for the Christian.

While it’s true that science has much to discover about consciousness and how it works, I don’t see anything in particular that ought to keep the naturalist up at night. Science has an unanswered question—big deal. Science has lots of unanswered questions. It also has a marvelous track record for answering them.

But what trips me up here is the idea that the Christian worldview adds to the discussion. How does God explain anything?

Let me make clear that I can never prove that God didn’t do something. For example, let’s consider a few claims about God by Pat Robertson. He said that God is “lifting His protection from this nation” to allow terrorist attacks (2001). And that Hurricane Katrina might be God’s doing (2005). And that the people of Haiti made a pact with the devil, in response to which God allowed the earthquake that killed 300,000 (2010). These are assertions without evidence (and, in the case of Haiti in particular, of much contrary evidence), but I can’t prove that “God did it” is false.

The fact is, “God did it” can explain everything. As a result, it explains nothing.

“God did it” is simply a repackaging of “I don’t know.” It tells us nothing new. I’m no smarter after hearing “God did it” than before. It tamps down one set of questions, but others pop up: Who is God and how does he act in the world? Is he one of the thousands of gods that humans have already formed religions around or someone new? Why did God do what he did? What natural laws did God use to do it, and what laws did he suspend? How can we communicate with him?

And think about the size of various claims. The claim “1 + 1 = 2” is not controversial. The claim “I had a sandwich for lunch” is unsurprising, and thorough evidence could be provided to back it up. But the claim “There is a being that created the universe” is without scientific precedent—that is, science knows of no supernatural anything, let alone a being that could create the universe. I can think of no bolder claim than “God did it.” It’s baffling to me how apologists can toss out that immense claim and simply let it hang there, supported by nothing more than wishful thinking and tradition.

“God did it” doesn’t do it. It satisfies only those who want their preconceptions affirmed.

But let me take a step back for a moment. I’m treating this claim with the dignity due those that make testable pronouncements about reality. Perhaps that’s my mistake—if it’s simply a theological claim divorced from reality, fine. In that case, it’s a claim to be taken simply on faith, with no pretense of evidence or verifiability, and I have no use for it.

Let me end with a song, “Tell Me Why” by Pat Benatar*, which nicely makes the “God did it” claim.

Tell me why the stars do shine,
Tell me why the ivy twines,
Tell me what makes skies so blue,
And I’ll tell you why I love you.

Because God made the ivy twine.
Because God made the stars to shine.
Because God made the sky so blue.
Because God made you, that’s why I love you.

This Christian explanation is poetic, but for those of us who prefer to actually understand the world, Isaac Asimov has a new and improved refrain:

Nuclear fusion makes stars to shine,
Tropisms make the ivy twine,
Rayleigh scattering make skies so blue,
Testicular hormones are why I love you.

I’ll stick with the discipline with the track record for explaining reality.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

*Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, EMI Music Publishing.

Related posts:

  • Don’t Move the Goalposts. Apologists often say about the puzzling questions at the limits of science, “If you can’t answer them, we can!” For the old questions (such as “What causes disease?” or “What causes drought?”) this claim is now laughable. Why is Christianity’s claim to answer the new questions any less so?
  • Philosophical Grounding: A Parable. We’re told, “The atheist borrows from the Christian worldview!” But dig into this claim, and you’ll see there’s nothing there.

HTML 101 (For More Expressive Comments)

HTML makes you wonder about the Christianity versus atheism debateSome of the discussions through comments at this blog have been long and involved, and I thank all the participants for making this a more interesting place.

Comments here on WordPress can use HTML, so I wanted to give a couple of suggestions in case you want to make comments a little easier to read.

To quote a previous post or comment: surround the quoted material with <blockquote> and </blockquote>.

To italicize something: surround the words to be italicized with <em> and </em>.

To insert a hyperlink: surround the text to get the link like this: <a href=”entire URL goes here”> and </a>.

And it doesn’t hurt to start with the name of the person you’re replying to.  Example:


<blockquote>That was a savagely witty comment.</blockquote>

Thanks!  You’ll find <em>nothing but</em> savage wit at <a href=”https://galileounchained.com/“>Galileo Unchained</a>.



That was a savagely witty comment.

Thanks!  You’ll find nothing but savage wit at Galileo Unchained.

Related links:

Word of the Day: CE and BCE

How does the dictionary define "morality"?  There's no objective there.It’s easy to overlook how recent our calendar system is.  Our Gregorian calendar is defined by a number of features: that this is the year 2011, that we use a solar calendar of 12 months, “30 days hath September” and all that, that the year starts roughly 10 days after the winter solstice, the calculation of the leap year, and so on.  Developed during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII, it was introduced into Roman Catholic regions beginning in 1582, but it wasn’t adopted by the British Empire (including America) until 1752, and it wasn’t the world’s predominant calendar system until China adopted it in 1949.

Year 1 must be fixed to some point in history, and myriad dates have been used (and are still being used).  Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Short) in the 6th century used the birth of Jesus as the starting point, and this has been the custom in the West since.  Unfortunately, Dennis was off by a few years, and Jesus is now thought to have been born 4–6 years before year 1.

So how do we label years 1 and following?  The Anno Domini (year of our lord) label for this era gradually came into vogue centuries after Dennis, and BC (Before Christ, for the years before) came in later still.

International standard ISO 8601 specifies date and time representations, but it uses plus and minus signs instead of BC and AD.  Unlike conventional dating, it doesn’t bypass the year 0.  Year 10 AD is written as 0010 (4 digits are always used for the year), and year 10 BC becomes –0009 (because of the addition of year 0).

The convention that has become widespread is the use of CE (Common Era) to replace Anno Domini and BCE (Before Common Era) to replace Before Christ.  “Common Era” has been used in English in this sense for over 300 years.  This convention is seen as a way to eliminate outdated religious baggage from the calendar, though there are objections.  Indeed, it was opposition to this convention that prompted the formation of the Conservapedia wiki.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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War on Christmas?

Are atheists grinches for their war on Christmas?Catholic League president Bill Donohue is hot under the collar about the War on Christmas.  He’s annoyed at some of the requirements of living in a country governed by a secular Constitution.  He laments:

A school counselor at an Arkansas elementary school has been told that she must remove her posting of a nativity scene on her billboard; her decoration was permitted for more than 20 years. Tulsa, Oklahoma has long had a Christmas parade, but this year it was renamed the Holiday parade.

And would it have been a problem if a school counselor had been told to remove public displays of a Wiccan celebration for Samhain or a Satanic celebration for the winter solstice?  Or if city money had been prevented from funding celebrations of the Hindu festivals of Holi or Diwali?

The Constitution demands that public schools and publicly funded celebrations be religion-neutral.  Isn’t that the best for both the Christian and the atheist?

In another article:

There are two ways government can practice neutrality: the tolerant way, which is to allow all world religions a limited period of time to display their wares in the public square; and the intolerant way, favored by liberals, which is to censor everyone.  We vote for the former.

And then you have cases like Santa Monica, in which 21 spots for displays in a public park were distributed by lottery.  Atheist organizations won 18 of them, and some Christians are up in arms.  Sometimes when you play the “allow all religions time to display their wares” game, it backfires.

Here’s a simple solution: avoid using public land or buildings for religious displays.  Easy, right?

Donohue seems to imagine that religions don’t have the opportunity to spread the word or that their existence is a mystery to people.  Or perhaps he fears that Christians are so precarious in their faith that they must be frequently reminded of it.

Either he’s out of touch with reality or he doesn’t trust that Christianity’s message is compelling.  Neither casts him in a good light.

Photo credit: Wikimedia