Why We Can’t See COVID as a Wicked Problem

I have been thinking about concept of the wicked problem and how it could explain our debate and deep division over COVID’s public health management.

What’s a wicked problem?

Proposed by University of California professors W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in a 1973 article in Policy Sciences journal, a wicked problem describes a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve due to: incomplete or contradictory information and knowledge, stakeholders with conflicting values and competing interests, heavy economic burden and the interconnected nature of the wicked problem with other problems. The last criterion means that when you pull at one element of the tangled system it impacts something else.
The rules for slaying a wicked problem are sketchy or just don’t exist. So there is no precedent for a wicked problem. Traditional medical approaches won’t work.

This concept of the wicked problem came about when it was realized that data and science couldn’t solve our broader social problems. So in that sense it’s a great model for what we’re facing. Wikipedia of all places serves as a great jumping off point for this idea.

Why we have a hard time seeing COVID as a wicked problem?

Seeing COVID as wicked doesn’t fix anything but it gets us closer to understanding why it’s hard to make it go away. A few things have conspired to blind us to COVID’s wicked complexity.

Our drive to simplify

The COVID problem is less about the fact that it’s wicked and more about the fact that we want to spin it as a linear problem with a simple solution. You will see this every day on cable news and on Twitter. But as humans it’s our nature to do this. Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan captured it nicely:

Both the artistic and scientific enterprises are the product of our need to reduce dimensions and inflict some order on things. Think of the world around you, laden with trillions of details. Try to describe it and you will find yourself tempted to weave a thread into what you are saying. A novel, a story, a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness.

Even the battle cry to follow the science makes our path forward seem so simple. But science won’t fix COVID. Science is a process of building knowledge. Science changes the way we understand our world. And only when science helps us to understand COVID can we begin exert our agency and fashion solutions.

Our discomfort with uncertainty

When we’re not reducing COVID to simple terms we’re looking for answers. But if there is one theme central to our COVID age it is uncertainty – we don’t know what’s going to work and we don’t know how to balance the needs of multiple stakeholders. This captures the nature of the wicked problem.

But not having an answer drives us crazy. So we go looking for answers. And the media is where we go. Because if you have the bandwidth, they are happy to occupy it. Cable news brings thought leaders to sell us the kind of simplification and medical certainty that that can only come from carefully rehearsed soundbites. Their unique brand of manufactured insight makes for entertainment but rarely much else.

Except fear, maybe.

Fear as a potent fuel for attention

Fear is central to our failure to see COVID for what it is. Fear keeps us from isolating even the most approachable elements of COVID. And some of this is by careful editorial design. Fear is central to media messaging around COVID. Douglas Rushkoff in Team Human summed up the media game pretty well:

When media is programmed to atomize us and the messaging is engineered to provoke our most competitive, reptilian sensibilities, it’s much harder to muster a collective defense. We lose our ability to distinguish the real from the unreal, the actual from the imagined, or the threat from the conspiracy.

This careful cultivation of fear makes perfect business sense because in an attention economy emotional responses draw attention. And money follows attention.

So we’re drawn in by the perception of a disastrous near-future. Then we’re held with the predictions of self-annointed experts who seem to have the answers.

Our trained view of the world as being this or that

Oversimplification, our quest for certainty, and fear are all fueled by the endless power of social networks. Social media forces a two-way, zero-sum view of the world and COVID. But the complexity and nuance of our wicked problem becomes trivialized when our dialog is limited to the false dichotomy of Great Barrington or John Snow.

This too is by calculated design. Joanne McNeil in Lurking – How a Person Became a User (a great read, btw) captures this binary phenomenon pretty well:

Content is liked or it isn’t liked. Yes or no. Friend or Unfriend. When it comes to ambiguity, Facebook conjures up what it believes are answers; because even if the answer is wrong, the company can try again, iterate, and get closer to it—or further away. A wrong answer is not nothing; a wrong answer is content. A wrong answer is something the company can sell ads against.

It seems fractured thinking is all we know in politics, personal beliefs, and now pandemics.
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So how do we frame this?

So how should we see the wicked problem of COVID? Only when we embrace uncertainty, quiet our fear and accept the complexity of the problem at hand can we begin to approach the problem sensibly. More specifically..

Understand what we can control (and what we can’t)

Central to a wicked problem is that it’s dangerously hard to solve. Without a vaccine we can’t stop COVID. We can only work to mitigate its transmission and optimize care for those afflicted. Small, incremental interventions are all we have at this point.

Be careful of those selling certainties

Uncertain times create a market for those selling solutions. Be careful of cable news blowhards and politicians who have answers. Be more careful confronting them.

This from a brilliant read in the BMJ:

…thinking of the many rational people with scientific credentials making assertive public pronouncements on covid-19 who seem to suggest there can be no legitimate grounds for disagreeing with them. If you do, they might imply, it’s probably because you’re funded by dark forces or vested interests, you’re not evidence based, you’re morally blind to the harm you would do, you’re ideologically driven (but I’m objective), you think money matters more than lives, your ideas are a dangerous fantasy . . . . On they go, duelling certitudes in full view of a public desperate for simple answers and clarity — even when, unfortunately, these may not exist.

Taleb in The Black Swan references this brand of knowing as epistemic arrogance, essentially our hubris concerning the limits of our knowledge. But facing the wicked problem of COVID may call for what Taleb calls epistemic humility. That is, ‘someone heavily introspective, tortured by the awareness of his own ignorance.’

Separate scientific issues from moral dilemmas

Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek was critical of the the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of knowledge to graphs and curves. He suggested that we tend to overestimate our ability to understand the world and how it works. He called this scientism. We need to be careful of overly reductionist thinking when looking at the complex problem in front of us.

And as I suggested in The Great Barrington Declaration letter last week, science is critical to our understanding of COVID’s wicked behavior. But, for example, the question of whether the benefits of flattening the curve outweigh the harms of shutdown and prolonged isolation is a moral question, not a scientific one.

Part of the complex system that is COVID is the reality of tradeoffs. To date, the policy and public debate surrounding COVID has failed to consider little other than curves. As noted in The Lancet when describing diabetes as a wicked problem, The aim should be a resolution with the least bad outcome for the majority. Stanford Medicine health economist Maria Polyakova, PhD suggested this week, Finding the optimal policy is challenging, since most decisions end up hurting someone in some way.

But heroic twitter posturing about ‘a single life lost’ when discussing the broadest public approach will do nothing to save a life. Introspection, balance, courage in leadership and humility in viewing this issue is a good place to start.

Accept our state of becoming

We have to recognize what we don’t know while remaining open to what we are coming to know. We’ve got to operate in an unchartered kind of dynamic state where we are willing to accept new things and change our views. We are, as suggested by futurist Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable (a mind bending read) in a state of becoming around COVID. We have to pick at the wickedness with determination and intention. And our hardwired beliefs and approaches need to morph in time as the science presents itself to us.

This is the challenge.

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