Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Wicked, epic fail problem

with 6 comments

Two strategies used in problem solving are reframing and rebadging. A problem can often be reframed or looked at in a different way. Any parent who uses reverse psychology to turn a chore into a game knows that one – Tom Sawyer getting his friends to whitewash the fence for fun is a classic example.

Expert and operating languages around a problem-solution sequence has one or more specific grammars. These terms become the labels for a particular narrative that contains a problem, a process and an outcome. So when Paul Harris, Deputy Director of the HC Coombs Policy Forum at the ANU has a go at wicked problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973) for being, well, wicked – is he rebadging, reframing or is a he just erecting a straw man and flaying it to bits in an attempt to change a prevailing narrative?


Harris’ complaint is about wicked problems. They are everywhere and their number is constantly growing:

Researchers talk and write about these “wicked” problems all the time. The term has become a kind of catch-all, a shorthand used to describe the big challenges facing Australia and the world, and the role of research responding to these challenges.

He then adds that:

the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) released a guide to “Tackling Wicked Problems” as part of its series on Contemporary Government Challenges. Along with climate change and obesity, the Commission added indigenous disadvantage and land degradation to its list of the most pressing problems.

And complains that climate change has been named as a super-wicked problem, which to my mind is the same as saying an original artwork is singularly unique. So he has a point. But this is language as marketing, where terms are used to “sell” a concept, and examples of knowledge marketing are everywhere. Ross Garnaut did the same thing by re-badging climate change as a diabolical problem instead of a wicked problem. Why give an established term a different label, unless you’re marking territory for some kind of personal gain or reframing the problem? So what is Harris doing, reframing or rebranding?

Coining an issue as a wicked problem is for a reason – a wicked problem has a range of attributes that doesn’t lend it to conventional problem-solving. Later in the article Harris admits this, so his objection is not a framing issue, it is a labelling issue. And here the argument goes seriously off the rails. Harris claims that because after 40 years of thinking about wicked problems, we still feel as stuck as ever, that the wicked problem approach has failed. For a start, thinking about a problem doesn’t solve it but working with it might. The APSC 2007 report on wicked problems still has not been seriously applied in mainstream Australian policy-making – if it was applied in the Murray-Darling Basin instead of the technocratic  optimised planning response used, the whole exercise might have got somewhere instead of being scrapped and tried again.

“Perhaps the answer lies deep within the nature of the problems we face”, Harris says. Hmmm, that would make them wicked problems. “If this is the case, labelling the big problems that society faces “wicked” is only going to make things worse.” Non sequitur. This is a claim that the label wicked is sufficient reason to derail efforts to address such problems.

If the issue was with the label, then regions of the world where such problems are not labelled as wicked, as in South America, Asia and Africa, solutions should be emerging. I doubt whether labelling is the issue with conflict in the Sudan, the drug trade in Mexico, or with religiously motivated violence in Nigeria.

Then the unconscionable claim. Witches are wicked, he says. In the article, the word wicked links to a theatre character in dress-up and green make-up, and the article photo portrays a vaudeville witch with potions and skull. Harris then follows up with the words evil, malfeasance and irrationality, clearly linking these to wicked witches. An argument straight from the coat-tails of the Alan Jones school of gender politics. Overlooking the fact that wicked witches were a construct of patriarchal religious oppression, mainly of women, and the wholesale rejection of their collective wisdom because the only true wisdom can come from god. Wicked witches are #destroyingthejoint.

Why go back to the 16th and 17th centuries to rely on a deeply sexist, patriarchal image of wickedness? The etymology of the word wicce is sorcerer or wizard, and was transferred to witch for obvious reasons. Why not point to the modern slang of wicked as being something excellent, awesome or crazy; one reason why I’m drawn to wicked problems – because they are a challenge to solve.

The remainder of his piece, about the folly of applying “scientifically rational” solutions to messy situations I agree with and have published papers saying just that. This is a point the science community constantly needs to be reminded of but during a recent debate on whether science is central to policy making held at the recent National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) conference, the discussion revealed that climate adaptation research community is very well aware of this point. It is perhaps the more traditional natural scientists who need to be made more aware of wicked problems and messy solutions. So the latter part of his article, about solutions for such problems is not about wickedness, it’s about the inappropriate use of bounded rationality, which applies not only to science but also to most conventional economic approaches to problem-solving.

Note also that Harris used irrational pejoratively earlier in his argument, linking it with witches, but it is now part of messy solutions.

So Harris wants us to stop using the term “wicked” problem but admits such problems exist, yet has no suggestion for how we use language to distinguish solutions for messy, complex problems from those suited to tame problems. He uses John Keane’s term of hyper-complex, then says this:

We need to work at our democracy, to encourage bright young people – in research and in government – to be filled with enthusiasm for spending their lives working on the big difficult problems of the time.

Well why not give them something wicked to work on, but leave the patriarchal, deeply offensive sexist references to wicked witches out of it.

So the argument is not about reframing, it’s about rebranding. With this article Harris has hung out his shingle with a poorly argued advertorial: all straw and no evidence.


6 Responses

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  1. Wicked! Shared in Care2 News Network


    September 11, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    • Hi Roger,

      Thanks for you article. I was very relieved to see it because I had some major anxieties when I read the original post in The Conversation. It also got me thinking more about misunderstanding generated due to people holding different ‘rationalities’. You might be interested in a blog article I just wrote on this here: http://freshwatergovernance.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/are-we-thinking-the-same-language-why-rationality-is-important/

      I’d be keen to hear yours and others thoughts on this.

      Cheers, James


      October 3, 2012 at 12:37 pm

      • My reply to James repeated here:

        Hmmm. Different concepts of rationality don’t help me much – would rather use something else – although the hierarchy Ulrich’s definitions cover is useful. I also think it is useful to deconstruct what rational is intended to mean. It is clear that human behaviour is not rational in that behaviour does not conform to ratios. The rational consumer is a figment of positivist economics. The constructivist position where varying normative positions are recognised and a valuation and decision-based system generally agreed to in order to make transparent decisions is a good way forward. The trouble is that incommensurate values (socially constructed) mean that people have to give way in order to compare and contrast those values. E.g., how do we compare wetland values against pasture production in an irrigation system? Both points of view need to be respected, and valuation methods generally agreed to. One may call the accommodation rational, but there’s more to it than that, I think.

        Roger Jones

        October 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm

  2. […] with colleagues, and come across some articles on wicked problems (this one followed by this one) that got me thinking about rationality. I am sometimes surprised when concepts like wicked […]

    • They are definitely interesting thoughts… although perhaps we’re meaning different things by the word ‘rationality’? I borrow it directly from Ulrich, who I as understand it, in fact uses it similarly to what you describe, by expanding its meaning to social situations. This draws on the philosophical approach of Habermas in recognising that what is ‘socially rational’ is a product of collective understanding, negotiation and argumentation, rather than just some sort of ‘objective’ knowledge alone. Hence the ‘rational consumer’ you mention would be a classic case of ultra ‘instrumental rationality’ – and exactly the reason why it is vital to expand our understanding of concepts of rationality. I see that this encompasses a broader perspective that asks: “by what logic are decisions made and actions taken in social situations?”, and different answers to this question based on different types of assumptions or boundary conditions is what Ulrich outlines. So in short, I see that this very much aligns with the sort of example that you raised.


      October 3, 2012 at 9:38 pm

      • James, I agree with your broad framework. I think though that rationality where strictly meaning that 20% of effect should mean 20% of effort in response, is too limited a word-meaning for what we are discussing.

        Roger Jones

        October 3, 2012 at 10:44 pm

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