“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) famously quipped. But when it comes to social and environmental problems nowadays, nearly everyone thinks he is entitled to his own facts, and an army of experts is on hand to manufacture and promote the carefully curated truths they require. The Progressive Era dream of empowering nonpartisan experts to solve social, economic, and environmental problems has failed spectacularly. What happened?
Breakthrough Institute founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger grapple with this question in their recent essay “Wicked Polarization: How Prosperity, Democracy, and Experts Divided America,” which in turn highlights insights from a 1973paper by the urban planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. Rittel and Webber drew a useful distinction between “tame” and “wicked” social problems. Tame problems are the sorts of issues that are routinely addressed by scientists and engineers: sanitation, higher agricultural productivity, electrification. They aren’t necessarily easy, but they can be clearly defined, relevant information can be gathered, and the effectiveness of proposed solutions can be tested. Solving such problems resulted in improved health and greater affluence, leaving the public and policymakers to focus on less tractable social and environmental problems—that is, wicked ones.
The hallmark of a wicked problem is that the way an expert conceives of it determines the solutions she recommends. For example, Rittel and Webber observe, “‘Crime in the streets’ can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many guns, phrenologic aberrations, etc. Each of these offers a direction for attacking crime in the streets. Which one is right?” Forty years later, each theory still has its devotees.