Yuval Noah Harari in his highly celebrated book\u00a0Sapiens\u00a0says that human values are shared myths and that there is no objective basis in humanism. I agree with him.\r\n\r\nIn several separate exchanges on Twitter, I\u2019ve debated the claim that technology has caused progress in human society or that there\u2019s never been a better time to live than\u00a0now.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nI\u00a0personally\u00a0agree with the evidence that\u2019s presented in favor of progress: infant mortality rate has been reducing, education levels have gone up and poverty has been reduced world over. (I follow\u00a0Human Progress\u00a0handle on Twitter, believe in\u00a0Effective Altruism\u00a0and donate to\u00a0GiveWell\u2019s\u00a0recommended charities).\r\n\r\nBut I also hold two other views:\r\n\r\n \ta) the claim that human society has made progress (because of tech or anything else) cannot be made objectively;\r\n \tb) it\u2019s meaningless to say human society had made progress without stating areas that you\u2019re considering\u00a0and\u00a0not considering when it comes to assessing such progress.\r\n\r\nThis perspective is not unique and has been discussed by social scientists and philosophers for a long time. However, the paper\u00a0Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning\u00a0(PDF) by Rittel and Webber takes this idea and expands it by distinguishing problems that involve humans and human society (which they term as \u2018wicked problems\u2019) and problems of sciences, mathematics, and engineering (which they term as \u2018tame problems\u2019).\r\n\r\nThe main distinguishing feature between them is as follows:\r\n\r\n \tTame problems are closed in formulation (e.g. building a bridge using known rules) while wicked problems are comprised of openly interacting systems (e.g. reducing poverty in a city)\r\n \tTame problems have\u00a0objectively\u00a0right or wrong solutions (e.g. we can calculate if a proposed design for bridge will take the expected load) while wicked problems have\u00a0subjectively\u00a0good or bad solutions (e.g. if a solution proposes raising tax rate for universal basic income to reduce poverty, is that a good or a bad solution?)\r\n \tTame problems can be stated independently of solution (design a bridge using X material that takes Y load) while for wicked problems, defining the problem is coincident with searching for solutions (to \u201csolve\u201d for poverty, you have to define poverty and state the metrics using which you\u2019ll measure poverty. Once this description of poverty is clear, the solution is usually trivial: reduce one or more identified metrics)\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nThere\u2019s no right or wrong solutions, only good or bad (and that\u2019s subjective)\r\n\r\nAuthors of the paper argue (and I agree) that\u00a0it\u2019s a big mistake to apply engineering or scientific method for solving societal problems (or problems in any other human system like a company) and believing that there\u2019s a right or wrong solution to that problem (when in reality there are only opinionated good or bad solutions).\r\n\r\nFor determining goodness or badness of a solution, the scientific method of putting our hypothesis and testing it against evidence fails because full consequences of a solution in an open interacting system is never captured in a limited time. All such solutions (say increasing tax rate to fund education) leave a trace in history and impact future in unmeasurable ways.\r\n\r\nThis is because society is an open system where the solution to one formulation of a problem (poverty happens because of lack of education) can lead to more problems (more taxation for funding education, rising costs due to expensive labor, and so on). Thus anyone claiming an objective basis for a problem in society is taking a simplistic view. And\u00a0that\u2019s\u00a0my issue with saying technology is causing progress.\r\n\r\nIt isn\u2019t just theoretical that you cannot solve wicked problems in a scientific manner. Psychologists have found out that\u00a0intelligence doesn\u2019t correlate with perceived leadership abilities. (Perceived leadership abilities peaks at IQ of 120 and then starts going down with an increase in IQ. Surprised?)\r\n\r\nMy hypothesis is that perceived leadership abilities decreases because there\u2019s no right or wrong solutions to wicked problems, only good or bad solutions. And that\u2019s where persuasion abilities of a leader come in. While a leader with an engineering mindset works hard at finding at a better solution, other leaders use their personality, power or charm to persuade people that their solution will be in everyone\u2019s benefits, even if it actually isn\u2019t.\r\n\r\nThis is why despite his IQ, Donald Trump got elected as the president of US.\r\n\r\nThis insight will seem to be unpalatable to readers of a scientific bent, but it\u2019s what the reality is. The Internet is connecting more people in the world with each other, and that\u2019s increasing the plurality of opinions and values of subgroups in the world. Some argue drugs should be legalized, some argue against it. Some refuse to believe Earth is round while others make fun of them.\r\n\r\nThe issue isn\u2019t why certain people believe what they believe, it is that do and we have to live with the fact that values and opinions of others are as valid to them as ours to us.\r\n\r\nHow to resolve this diversity in opinions and values to get measures and methods of pursuing society\u2019s progress? Now\u00a0that\u2019s\u00a0the wickedest problem of all.\r\nNotes, highlights and observations from the paper\r\nI recommend reading the original paper as it\u2019s full of insights, but if you want you can read my notes. Hat tip to\u00a0Alan Klement\u00a0for sending me this paper.\r\n\r\nNotes from\u00a0General Planning Dilemma:\r\n\r\n \tSociety is composed of variety of groups where\u00a0one\u2019s output becomes another\u2019s inputs\r\n \tIncreasingly, getting a consensus on what-ought-to-be is becoming difficult because different sub groups have difference of opinion\r\n \tWherever there\u2019s a system,\r\n\r\n \tDefining desires outcome becomes difficult (what system ought to be)\r\n \tDefining and locating problems becomes difficult (where you think a problem is may not really be a problem)\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n \tKnowing which actions to take from what-is to what-ought-to-be\r\n\r\n\r\n \tWicked problems v\/s tame problems\r\n\r\n\r\n \t\u201cThe kinds of problems planners deal with \u2013 societal problems \u2013 are inherently different than problems that scientists and engineers deal with\u201d\r\n \tProblems in natural sciences\/engineering are definable, separable and have solutions that are findable\r\n \tProblems of society are ill-defined, and they rely on political judgment for resolutions (not \u201csolution\u201d. Social problems are never solved. Only re-solved again and again) 10 characteristics of wicked problems\r\n \t\r\n\r\n\r\n \tThere is no definitive formulation of wicked problems\r\n\r\n\r\n \tThe information needed to understand the problem depends on one\u2019s idea of solving it. (Is this because societal problems are human preferences \/ moral framework? And since no two people agree on preferences \/ moral framework, there\u2019s no objective understanding of the problem (only subjective interpretation) This is in contrast to the problem of designing a bridge, where Physics serves to be common objective ground\r\n \tFor example, what is the problem of poverty? (People usually feel free to define it like themselves)\r\n \tThe process of formulating a problem and conceiving a solution is identical since every direction in which the problem is explored is also a direction where solution potentially lies.\r\n \tWicked problems do not have stopping rule \/ they\u2019re never fully solved (that is why utopias are delusional dreams?)\r\n \tWicked problems cannot be stated in an exact manner because of the interacting open systems.\u00a0Literally, an exact specification of a wicked problem would contain entire universe as an environment\/ system.This is a solver can always do better if she puts more time and investment, and that is why a solver stops wrt to an external criteria: \u201cI have run out of time\u201d or \u201cthis is the best that can be done with these resources\u201d, or \u201cunemployment levels are below 1% and that\u2019s good enough\u201d\r\n \tSolutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad\r\n\r\n\r\n \tAs there are no independent, objective criteria for such problems,\u00a0different people\/expert will have different opinions on a \u201csolution\u201d to be good or bad, depending on their moral framework and personal values.\r\n\r\n\r\n \tThere is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution of a wicked problem\r\n\r\n \tSolutions to wicked problems are interventions to open interacting systems, and these interventions impact many lives\/people in many different ways, that have further consequences, and so on. So there\u2019s no way we\u2019ll know full repercussions\/consequences ahead of the time\r\n\r\n\r\n \tYou don\u2019t get multiple chances to solve a wicked problem, every trial counts\r\n\r\n \tFor contained problems of science and mathematics, if we\u2019re wrong, we can usually try again to solve the same problem. But\u00a0for wicked problems, every attempt at a solution matters significantly as every solution has consequences that cannot be easily undone, and reversing such consequences created its own wicked problems\r\n \tExample, the decision for a new highway has a long half-life (people have been displaced, money has been spent, political careers spent, cities connected, traffic reduced\/increased).\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n \tWhen actions are effectively irreversible and whenever the half-lives of the consequences are long, every trial matters.\r\n\r\n\r\n \t\r\n\r\n \tSolutions to wicked problems cannot be comprehensively listed\r\n\r\n\r\n \tIn pursuit of wicked problems, a number of solutions come up; and a number of solutions do not come to mind. Then it\u2019s a matter of judgement whether to expand that list or not, and of course which solution to pursue\r\n \tEvery wicked problem is unique\r\n \tDespite seemingly related characteristics of wicked problems (say poverty problem in Delhi and Mumbai), there could be always one or more significant difference in characterization of the problem that ends up having major consequences for any solution that\u2019s proposed or accepted in Delhi or Mumbai difference could be of rate of immigrants, municipality effectiveness (that\u2019s entangled with local political situation), cultural norms (poverty may be accepted as normal or not normal in these cities)\r\n\r\n\r\n \tBecause all wicked problems are unique,\u00a0the engineering mindset of \u201cI recognize the problem before, here\u2019s a solution\u201d might do more harm than good\r\n \tThe art of dealing with wicked problems is\u00a0not\u00a0knowing too early which type of solution to apply\r\n\r\n\r\n \tEvery wicked problem is a symptom of another wicked problem\r\n\r\n\r\n \tWicked problems are related other wicked problems, at a higher level\r\n \tSay the problem of crime. We can say it\u2019s a symptom of moral decay, wealth inequality, which further is a problem of media, democracy and so on\r\n \tThere\u2019s no \u201cright\u201d level on which a wicked problem should be solved, it\u2019s a matter of judgement\r\n \tPeople usually think the solution of wicked lies at one level below them\r\n \tTeachers think students aren\u2019t studying, parents think teachers aren\u2019t teaching, administration thinks parents aren\u2019t creating right conditions for studying, people think administration isn\u2019t adopting latest scientific research\r\n \tWorldview of the one who is analyzing the wicked problem is the strongest determinator of its explanation, and hence resolution of the wicked problem\r\n \tSince exact controlled experiments cannot be done for wicked problems, and since all wicked problems are unique (and rich in complexity as they\u2019re embedded in open interacting systems), any argument for or against particular viewpoints can be argued and defended. This is unlike science where hypotheses can be definitely accepted or rejected.\r\n \tIn social problems, solutions are agreed on through discourse or power, and not through rightness or wrongness of solutions.\r\n \tThe one who\u2019s responsible for \u201csolving\u201d a wicked problem must live with its consequences\r\n \tSince, unlike scientific, mathematical or engineering problems, there\u2019s no right or wrong solution, only good or bad, the solver is held responsible if the \u201csolution\u201d has bad consequences\r\n \tAs technology makes more people connected to each other, the plurality of opinions and values in society will grow and there could not be an aggregate measure of societal progress (of a highly diversified society).\r\n\r\n\r\n \tSolutions to problems of one group maybe problem generators of one group\r\n \tThe de facto approach so far has been individualism, but we all live in interconnected interacting systems.\u00a0If an individual\u2019s actions driven by his values has an external impact (say pollution), someone else bears the cost. Some groups (say extremists) might have a value system that do not recognize individualism.So let alone deciding that individualism is a preferred mode of policy, getting everyone to agree on individualism is a wicked problem in itself.\r\n \tMoreover, there\u2019s no escape from the knowledge that even an expert solving a problem is promoting his\/her preferred worldview.\r\n \tThe heart of the issue of wicked problems lies in the subjectivity of morals and values.\r\n \tThere\u2019s no theory that can tell the right measure of progress or societal welfare, only tell good or bad and the audience is free to agree and disagree.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nThe article was first published on Inverted Passion\u00a0and has been reproduced with permission. Stay tuned for more posts by Paras Chopra.