Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy

Writing in The New Yorker almost half a dozen years ago about health care issues, physician-researcher Atul Gawande riffs on the theme of Wicked Problems ("Something Wicked This Way Comes"):

In 1973, two social scientists, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, defined a class of problems they called "wicked problems." Wicked problems are messy, ill-defined, more complex than we fully grasp, and open to multiple interpretations based on one's point of view. They are problems such as poverty, obesity, where to put a new highway—or how to make sure that people have adequate health care.

They are the opposite of "tame problems," which can be crisply defined, completely understood, and fixed through technical solutions. Tame problems are not necessarily simple—they include putting a man on the moon or devising a cure for diabetes. They are, however, solvable. Solutions to tame problems either work or they don't.

Solutions to wicked problems, by contrast, are only better or worse. Trade-offs are unavoidable. Unanticipated complications and benefits are both common. And opportunities to learn by trial and error are limited. You can't try a new highway over here and over there; you put it where you put it. But new issues will arise. Adjustments will be required. No solution to a wicked problem is ever permanent or wholly satisfying, which leaves every solution open to easy polemical attack.

Two decades ago, the economist Albert O. Hirschman published a historical study of the opposition to basic social advances; "the rhetoric of intransigence," as he put it. He examined the structure of arguments—in the eighteenth century, against expansions of basic rights, such as freedom of speech, thought, and religion; in the nineteenth century, against widening the range of citizens who could vote and participate in power; and, in the twentieth century, against government-assured minimal levels of education, economic well-being, and security. In each instance, the reforms aimed to address deep, pressing, and complex societal problems—wicked problems, as we might call them. The reforms pursued straightforward goals but required inherently complicated, difficult-to-explain means of implementation. And, in each instance, Hirschman observed, reactionary argument took three basic forms: perversity, futility, and jeopardy. ...

"Perversity" means that the proposed solution will only make things worse; "futility" means that it won't make any difference; "jeopardy" means that costs will be so high as to hurt in other areas. All three are possible, and all three require modeling and systems thinking to confirm or refute. They aren't arguments; they're possibilities to analyze.

And then Gawande turns to the larger ethical and moral issues of selfishness and caring and good ...

(cf The Rhetoric of Reaction, Fifth Disciplinarians (2000-09-10), Circle of Concern" (2012-07-18), Thinking in Systems (2017-11-03), The World We Truly Want (2018-10-13), ...) - ^z - 2019-02-18