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Corona as a Wicked Problem (11/11): No right to be wrong

Almost half a century ago, Horst Rittel en Melvin Webber, both professors at the Berkeley University of California, coined the term ‘Wicked Problems’. Their description of wicked problems may help in shedding some light on the current Corona-situation, which is why I have decided to create a series of posts on this topic. This is part 11.

No right to be wrong

Property 10: "The planner has no right to be wrong" (Rittel & Webber, 1973, pp. 166-167).

According to Karl Popper in 'The Logic of Scientific Discovery', it is a principle of science that scientists have a right to be wrong. The famous example that is always referred to is that you can never prove that the statement 'all swans are white' is true, because you cannot know all swans, that's impossible. But if someone shows you a black swan, you immediately know that the statement 'all swans are white' is false and if you had been making that statement you would be wrong. So falsifiability is the crux of science according to Popper's theory of science. And no one would hold it against the scientist if his or her hypotheses were refuted. As long as everyone follows the rules that scientists agreed upon the refutation of your hypothesis is merely a sign of learning: we know better now.

That's all fine and dandy for Popper's view of scientists working with tame problems but for people who are working with wicked problems the situation is quite different. It's not okay if in a wicked situation you just propose random ideas and see what happens. I can only hope that when you work in the area of wicked problems your intention is to make things better. We have stipulated that you cannot solve wicked problems but you can make improvements. So just releasing trial balloons or run ideas up the flagpole to see what the reaction will be is not a good idea. We already saw in earlier discussions of properties that there can be all sorts of consequences of what we do with wicked problems and they can matter a great deal to the people involved.

But still: 'No right to be wrong'. This is always a tricky one. In the beginning when I had to explain this property to Dutch people I thought I was clever and I used the Dutch translation. Unfortunately 'Je hebt het recht niet het niet bij het rechte eind te hebben,' didn't really help ;-)). What often happens is that people interpret this property as ‘Thou shalt not make any mistakes.' But that is not what Rittel and Webber meant. It would have been very weird had they meant this, because the previous properties clearly showed that we don't know what the problem is or what the causes are, and that the problem is unique. So we have to figure things out, and with many options to deal with it and no knowledge of whether we are successful or how to evaluate our interventions, we are bound to make mistakes. While figuring out the uniqueness, the unknownness and the VUCAness, there of course is a chance that we will make mistakes. It would be some lucky strike if the first idea we think of would end up being EXACTLY what the problem required. Fat chance.

So no right to be wrong doesn't mean we aren't allowed to make mistakes because that's impossible. But wickedness doesn't mean that you have a carte blanche for trying out whatever you please either: 'Hey, it's wicked, we are clueless so let's experiment!' No, what Rittel and Webber mean is that even though you find yourself in this enormous messy heap of wickedness, you have a responsibility to think of the consequences of what you are doing. The fact that the problem is wicked shouldn't mean that you have a blank check for messing around because you don't know better.

According to many we are in fact experiencing a greatmassivevastmisguidedbizarre, grim, involuntary social experiment called Corona. And just as experiments like those of Milgram (the one with the electric shocks) and Zimbardo (better known as the Stanford Prison Experiment) are still subjects of ethical debates, we need to reflect on the ethics of our situation. When we find ourselves in the presence of a wicked problem we have to take responsibility for what we are doing to all parties involved. Because we don't have the right to be wrong.

All the other properties have hopefully made it clear how little we know. We don't know what the problem is (1), we don't know when it ends (2), we don't know what to do (3) and how to know whether what we did was successful (4), we don't know what the consequences will be (5), which tools we have at our disposal (6), we don't know what we can learn from other situations (7), we don't know at what level we should be dealing with the problem (8) and we only have a partial view of some morphing phenomenon (9). Let the games begin...

This lack of understanding calls for modesty or as Edgar Schein calls it "here-and-now humility". We should tell less and ask more, he says, because in wicked problems where we don't know it all, we are dependent on each other if we want to figure out what is happening and what we should do. So by asking questions you can learn something you didn't know, and when people want to hear your opinion they can ask you questions too.

I always call it: DNA: Do Not Assume. Do not assume that you know what is happening, that you know where we're headed, that you know what should be done, that you know what others think, what's good for them, where they come from etc. Because you don't. So postpone your judgment and before you act: ask questions. Stay critical of your assumptions because again: you probably will get it wrong sometimes but you don't have the ‘right’ to be wrong.

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