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Pranks and unexpected consequences

Picking up a cup of coffee at the counter in the coffee shop, the old man went out on the deck under the large oak tree, briefly enjoying the view – the park, the walkway along the shore of the little lake. Habit, for many years now. Looking for an empty seat at a small table, — not the large round one where there used to be conversation between the regular customers. There was no such conversation anymore. The old friends and acquaintances  had disappeared. Some had died, others had given up on conversation for the same reasons he did not even expect it now:  his failing hearing that even hearing aids could not assist: they only delivered more noise but no understanding. Most of the tables were occupied by studious-looking people — all younger — laptops or cellphones  diverting their attention even from the arrival of new customers.  But his habit kept him coming back He picked a seat  with some sun, — it was still early spring, with a chill breeze — and a view of the lake. His little notebook and the four-color pen at the ready for any insights that might occur to him, about various ideas and projects he was still ‘working’ on, that might perhaps, one day, turn into a book. 

No new ideas came to him today. Instead, curious memories of events he had thought were long forgotten. One, in particular, kept him reflecting about how the most innocent little incidents, — pranks, jokes,– sometimes had unexpected larger consequences. Interfering  in others’ plans and strategies in ways that even the most thorough efforts at anticipating forces that might help or interfere would not have been able to conceive or foresee. 

One such incident involved a prank from his school days — a secondary education institution in a mid-size town. Its principal had the curious habit of sending out brief memoranda with announcements or new rules he kept inventing or reminding his students and faculty about. Such as invoking, at the first snowfall, the stern prohibition of snowball fights in the courtyard.  

These memoranda were always typed (this was long before computers or even electric typewriters) on a single sheet of cheap newsprint paper. On the bottom,  there was a stamp — like the old office rubber stamps that showed the sender’s address or  read ‘copy’  or ‘file’ — that listed all the classes by level and number, and a space for the instructor’s initials to sign off after they had been read out in the respective class. This stamp was unusual in that it had a wonderful violet hue ranging unevenly from blue to red — evidently, because the secretaries having typed the messages randomly used a blue or red stamp pad, whichever happened to be closer at hand. The ritual was for the first teacher to come by the secretary’s desk  on his way to his next class, to pick up the memo, read it to the students, and then send a student to take it to the next class, and so forth, until every class had been duly notified.

It so happened that one such memo had been left in the class of the old reveler in ancient memories, The last one that day, of no further use. One student was intrigued by the graphical uniqueness of the stamp, and had an idea of an unusual prank:  what if such memo could be constructed on a similar-looking paper, with some ridiculous but sufficiently plausible new rules to fool at least some instructors into reading it in their classes, and perhaps cause some confusion? The very uniqueness of the memo, the stamp, the paper, the old typewriter font, made it a challenge. But it also ensured, if successfully forged, would make any strange message seem quite in line with the principal’s unusual communication habit, that seemed to serve some need to remind everybody of his position of power. 

The challenge led to a conspiracy by a small group of students, that turned out surprisingly successful. A matching sheet of typewriter paper, slightly yellowed like the original, was found; as well as a parent who owned an old typewriter with the same font. The two or three conspirators had a lot of fun concocting plausible-sounding messages, and settled on three or four.  He only remembered two: One referred to the usual chaos of the area where students using bicycles were allowed to store them.  The message declared that only students who could prove that they lived a certain distance from the school would receive a permit card to store their conveyance in that place in an orderly fashion on penalty of losing the permit. They would be able to pick up such cards in the chart storage room where the rolled up maps of the Roam Empire, the pictures of mammals, fishes, birds and of course the map of the country as well as that of city were stored.  A geography teacher or a janitor would be there, to check the distance on the city map before issuing the permit.  

Another new rule involved the grand central staircase of the school’s four-story building. It was an elaborate affair, with a first broad run going from the main corridor up to a  landing, from which there were two further runs,  one to the right, one to the left — returning to the central hallway at the next level. At the bell ringing for breaks, this stair was often the venue of confusion and even collisions between students running up or down in different directions. So the memo declared succinctly that from now on, there would be a strict right-hand traffic:  going up on the right side of the main central run, and using the right-hand upper run; and going down on the opposite run and then the ‘left’ side (seen from below).  The old man could not remember the third and fourth message, to his consternation —though he had actually been one of their collaborative authors,  but he satisfied himself thateven remembering the two was a good sign, considering his advanced age. 

The forgery of the stamp, he did remember well, however, was the masterpiece of the plot. Evidently, no stamp with the classroom pattern was available, nor could two adequately faded red and blue  stamp pads be found. It was achieved with a fine-point calligraphy pen dipped in watercolor of the varying blue-to-red colors, letter by letter,  and took some time and patience on the part of a student who had good grades in art class.  He wistfully regretted that no grade would be given for this homework. The result was indistinguishable from the original, at the expected cursory sight by the teachers. A sloppy pair of initials  resembling a hastily written ’47’ more than a faculty signature (to protect any of the faculty from suspicion of being the author) was scrawled on one of the class check-off spaces, indicating that it had already been read there.

It remained to get the memorandum into proper circulation. None of the conspirators were seated close to the door, but fortunately, a new student who had rcently been transferred from another school had been assigned to that (otherwise undesirable) seat. Being new and needing to gain respect and acceptance in this new tribe, he could be persuaded into taking the memo, and at the call from one or two of the conspirators that ‘someone knocked on the door’ would jump up to open the door, and then hand the memo to the teacher. Accompanied by some other random noise, the call came as soon at the teacher had ventured far enough from the door, the hand-over was performed without raising suspicion. The message was read — any chuckles from students were common enough at such readings and did not alert that teacher to anything unusual, and the memo was sent to another class without incident. 

The next break revealed the unexpected great success. There was a line in front of the chart storage room — but no teacher was there to issue bike permit cards. At the staircase, however, one faculty member had taken it upon himself to direct the traffic, loudly hollering “Righthand traffic!” — to the consternation of other students and faculty who had not gotten the news:  it turned out that after a few successful proclamations, the memo had arrived in a class taught by the principal himself, who confiscated it, visibly shaken by some emotion that students could not identlify.  The new, peaceful traffic pattern had just taken hold when the principal interferred to cancel the new rule. 

No further mention nor efforts at implementation of the new policies came to the attention of the conspirators;  after a few days, it seemed that the incident had just been forgotten.

However, several weeks later, a few students had gone to a new public  sauna outfit in town, that had announced a special promotion student discount on Thursday afternoons. It so happened that there also was a group of distinguished (by corpulence) men sweating away in the same hot venue, who turned out to be members of the liberal party in the city council  of that town. And they were discussing a crisis that had arisen in the very school — which was under the jurisdiction of the city.  It seemed that a vicious struggle had arisen between the principal’s effort to get one particular faculty member fired, whom he suspected of having launched a forged memo to the school (for unclear purposes other than self-promotion); and that faculty member who accused the principal of having lost control and confidence of the faculty. It was known that this very faculty member himself had previously insinuated ineffectiveness on the part of the principal, and made no effort to hide his own aspiration to that post. As luck — bad or otherwise — would have it, it was also the same teacher who had so impressively directed the new traffic pattern in the staircase. But he vehemently insisted that accusing him of the authorship of that memo was  just a lurid part of the principal’s own efforts to denigrate and discredit him so as to get him fired and removed as a competitor for the position. 

The poor city council members seemed at a loss about what to do about this affair. The discussion in the hot room got hot — it seemed that there also were issues about party affiliations involved — but had to be discontinued for the group to get into the ice cold pool to cool off.  So there was no opportunity, if there had even been an effort on the part of the students, to enlighten the council members to the naked  truth of the matter — that they were looking at the very authors of the infamous memo. 

There was no indication as to whether and how that crisis had been resolved — neither one of the suspected/accused parties were fired from their respective positions, at least for some time after that incident. And the old man had lost track of any further developments, since his family moved to another city soon afterwards and he had enrolled in a different school.  

But he could not resist a secret chuckle at the memory of the incident. And he resolved to use it in his social network activity to remind his social network systems thinking friends of the unpredictability of spurious context interference into social systems behavior patterns and change strategies.

TAMING POWER AND THE PUBLIC PLANNING DISCOURSE SYSTEM

Last update: 4/5/2022 (Adding section 10 on Evaluting Discoures Contributions)

Thorbjørn Mann

I submit, for discussion, that better controls of power are desperately needed, as are public (global) decision-making tools that better — that is, more transparently — link the merit of discourse contributions with the decisions, and that the development of a better discourse platform with some provisions for evaluation of contributions can offer both: 

1  THE URGENT NEED  FOR PUBLIC (GLOBAL?) PLANNING DISCOURSE PLATFORM ,  DECISIONS BASED ON DISCOURSE CONTRIBUTION MERIT, AND 

CONTROL OF POWER

Tall order: I agree, and I expect that many will find it impossible, if only because  it  looks too complex. Plausible — but is it reasonable to expect that complex problems can be ‘fixed’ with simple tricks? Some potential provisions I have found while working on improvements to planning decision-making suggest to me that better tools for both the discourse decision-making and the power control issue are  possible, and that they should be discussed, as well as that the search for other, better answers should be pursued more intensively than what I currently see.  

To support my perhaps naively optimistic hypothesis but also to invite critical comments and better ideas, I suggest to break up the discussion into ‘chunks’ that can be discussed in more depth;  the effort to present the whole ‘system’ in its overall complexity has always led to larger, even book-size articles whose very size discourage discussion if they even get read. 

So I would like to post some of the components (chunks) one by one — posting one a day or so, just keeping the overall scheme in mind that holds them all together: the diagram shows the relationships between the topics. 

At any time, participants in the discussion or interested observers who get the feeling that it  — and the topics listed  — are somehow ‘missing the problem’  or wasting time on a ‘wrong question’ should  feel free to make that objection, but  try to state the ‘real problem’ or better question for consideration. So all the topics will have this ‘wrong question?’  reminder at the end, that may lead to changes in the sequence, and will be summarized in the end, before a final question or effort (hope) to articulate some ‘conclusion’ or recommendation based on the information and questions contributed.  

A first suggested list of ‘chunks’  for discussion: (Items added in response to reader suggestions (from FB discusion) shown in italic)

  • The need for a public planning discourse support system (1 abiove)
  • The need for better controls of power
  • The Goals of the System (2)
  • The platform (3)
  • Participation Incentives (4)
  • The ‘Verbatim’  record (5)
  • Power and the discourse platform (

*  Procedural agreements 

*  Formalization of entries (6)

*  Displays of the process

*  ‘Next Step’? 

*  Decision Modes

*  Evaluation

Formal ‘Quality’ Evaluation

Solution plausibility based on Argument Evaluation

*  Decision Criteria

*  Discourse contribution merit accounts 

*  ‘Paying for power decisions’

*  Pricing power decisions

* Transfer of merit points 

*   Other possible uses of merit accounts

  • Implementation: Experiments, Games: ‘Skunkworks”

Brief discussions of these topics  for discussion will be added — not necessarily in the same order,  in response to reader suggestions

Wrong question?  (E.g. “Is the Power issue -Discurse Platform connection appropriate?”

2    THE GOALS OF THE SYSTEM 

(In response to the question by T. Markatos:  “What are the goals of the system and how do they all interrelate? Until we can answer such, we can only guess at the causalities”)

The focus of the post wasreally somewhat limited: to explore the connection between the platform and the Power issue:  Specifically; the notion that the evaluation provisions of the platform  would offer some new opportunities for ’taming’ power.  This was based on the two assumptions  

a)  that such a platform is needed — for a number of reasons (or goals) I have written about  and will try to summarize below — and 

b)  that better controls of power  is also urgent,  as current events demonstrate but of course also must be explored.  

Let me start with (a):

Humanity faces various challenges  of the ‘wicked’ kind, for which collective (even global) agreements and decisions may be needed. The current  planning and policy-making tools are still inadequate to deal with these challenges:  Some specific aspects needing improvements are, briefly:

–  Better provisions and incentives for public participation  in the planning / policy-making and decision process;

–  Besides the desire for participation itself, the ‘distributed’ nature of the information about how problems and proposed solutions affect different parts of society (i.e. information not yet documented) calls for better access and incentives for collaborately contributing such information in a timely fashion;

–  Current media and governmental means of informing the public increasingly suffer from  polarization (channles only presenting information supporting selected perspectives and interests, from repetition of claims, but lack of concise overview of the essence of available information;

–  The lack of transparency of how the contributions  support (or fail to support)  governments’ eventual decisions,  thus meeting the aim that  decisions be transparently based on the merit of the available information;

–  The lack of adequate measures of that merit’;  that is, the pervasive inadequacy of  systematic evaluation in the process, supporting understandable decision criteria that can be compared with actual decisions;

–  The inappropriateness of decision modes  (such  as voting, even in the form of referendum-like procedures, that do not  apply well to problms and crises affecting populations across traditional governance boundaries;

–  The vulnerability of even the best  ‘democratic’ government structures to the corrosive effects of money  (corruption) and  and the effects and temptations of power.

–  The potential of innovative information technology appears to have contributed more to the increase of the problems than to their resolution. 

These are some of the major concerns and expectations for a better planning and  policy-making platform; that have guided my suggestions so far; more can certainly be added; all for discussion. For example, the paper Towards a Model for Survival” (Academia .edu)  that resulted from my observations of a lengthy (2011-2015) discussion on the Systems Thinking  group on LInkedIn addresses the concerns of such a platform in view of mutual sharing  and ealuating the information of the many  small ‘alternative’ initiatives already underway to grapple with the challenges leading then UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon  to call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action for an economic model for survival’  at the 2011 Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum. The many experienced and thoughtful  participants in that Systems Thinking group did not come to an agreement on what such a model would look like. 

3  PUBLIC PLANNING DISCOURSE: THE PLATFORM 

There ought to be a common PLATFORM for a better organized public discussion of plans, issues and policies?  Inviting all affected, interested, concerned parties to participate, to contribute questions, information and opinions in a way that transparently influences the eventual decisions about the plan. 

Such a platform is needed for plans, policies, agreements  involving  societal (and global) ‘wicked’ problems  and issues  that transcend traditional governance boundaries and for which conventional decision-making practices are inappropriate or inadequate. 

Ideas for such a platform have been described in  e.g.  ‘P D S S’ papers on Academia.edu. and other posts on Facebook and this blog Abbeboulah.com.) 

The diagram shows its basic components. It must be impartial, that is, open to all parties in controversial issues, even offer meaningful incentives for participation, but have provisions for the critical assessment of contributed, and aim at developing guidelines and criteria for decision that are transparently based on such assessments.

4    INCENTIVES FOR PARTICIPATION

The platform should have provisions for acknowledging and rewarding contributions.

This is necessary not only to encourage public participation for its own sake, but also to help getting the ‘distributed information’ about wicked problems into the process for consideration — the different perspectives of how both problems and proposed solutions affect different segments of society, and also to establish the mechanism for meaningful evaluation.

Incentive rewards must be distinguished according to the kinds of contributions (questions, answrs, solution proposals, pro and con arguments etc.

The incentives will have to be in a different ‘currency’ from money, but ‘fungible’ that is, potentially becoming practically useful in some way, within the process and outside.  

It is of course necessary to prevent the system from becoming overwhelmed by ‘information overload’ and redundant, useless or even disruptive content. This could be done by offering initial ‘empty’, mere ‘acknowledgement’ points but

  • ’activating the value’ of these points only for the ‘first’ entry of essentially the same content, (which will also encourage getting information ‘fast’, and
  1. modifying the value of the points in the later process of evaluation, according to their merit, not only upwards’ for positive, important and helpful contributions, but also ‘downward’ for false, disruptive, meaningless content.

Expressions of ‘endorsement’ of other posts or positions will be accommodated in the later ‘evaluation’ stage.

5    THE ‘VERBATIM’  RECORD

The platform will have  provisions for accepting entries in various ‘media’:  letters, phone calls, text messages, recordings of interviews, emails, citation from other documented sources.  They must be recorded in the form they were submitted (even though this may not be in a format suitable for systematic evaluation yet, and appear irritating to some).  They must be accessible for reference  («what did the author really say?»)  Each entry must be tagged with the author’s ID — a question to be discussed is whether and to what extent authors’ actual names should be publicly visible. 

For evaluation of contribution merit, this may not be needed or appropriate (a comment should be taken on the merit of its content?) But it will be necessary if assignment and valuation of merit points to their authors is to be provided. The collection of entries should be structured according to topics and issues, in chronological order. Authors will therefore have to indicate the issue an entry is aimed at. 

 A common habit is the posting of links to other sites or documents; should there be a rule to state explicitly what claims are to be taken as being introduced or supported by a link or reference? The question of how general ‘arguments from authority’ be treated will become critical in any later more systematic evaluation; if that task requires consideration of specific parts or premises — when and how should that be inntroduced into the process? 

6  FORMALIZATION OF ENTRIES 

Meaningful overview display of the state of discussion as well as  systematic evaluation will require organized presentation of entries in some commonly understandable, coherent format (For example, ‘pro’ or  ‘con’  arguments out proposed plans might be represented in a format or ‘template’ such as 

“Plan A ought to be adopted 

because

A will result in outcome B’

and 

B ought to be pursued (desirable)”

Such templates will have to be developed and agreed upon for the different types of planning discourse contributions:  Questions, answers, problems, solution proposals, evaluation criteria and judgments, etc.  Participants may be encouraged to submit or ’translate’ their  verbatim comments into an appropriate template, or the support system will have to do this, perhaps call for the author’s consent («Is this what you mean?»)  Many verbatim comments will be ‘enthymemes’ — e.g. arguments in which some premises are left unstated as ‘taken for granted’ — but for overview and systematic evaluation, they must be stated explicitly.

The templates may look unsatisfactory and too crude to trained logicians — forms like the ‘planning argument’ proposed above have not been acknowledged and studied by formal logic since it is not a ‘deductively valid’ form.  Arguably, for lay public participation, the templates should be as close to conversational language as possible, at the expense of disciplinary rigor. (Of course, this is an issue requiring discussion. 

[ 7 ]  DISPLAYING THE STATE OF DISCOURSE

A planning discourse aiming at providing adequate information for making collective decisions will need a system of displaying the proposed plans or questions to be discussed, as well as the state and content of the discourse. This will include a public ‘Bulletin board’ that shows what plans, issues are being proposed (‘candidates’) and those accepted for discussion, and their state of process until decision and closure.  

The important principle is that all different positions about controversial issues must be properly represented, to avoid the polarization of political discourse currently caused by news media channels only presenting material supporting one partisan perspective. 

For initial purposes such as to determine whether a proposed issue candidate should be accepted for full organized discourse, the common current format of social media may be sufficient. That format will soon become too unwieldy for participants to gain and keep an adequate overview of the state of discussion. Topic and issue ‘maps’ (diagrams showing the concepts and topcis that have been raised, and their relationships )— may be needed, to be updated as the discourse evolves. The relationship connections in issue maps are simply those of ‘issue or question x  has been raised in response to question y’. Diagrams of systems models’ and system behavior over time would focus on relationships such as cause-effect or ‘flows’ between ’stocks’. Ideally, the support system would provide such understanding and orientation aids, drawing as needed on the service of consultants or ‘special technique’ processes for gathering specific information, predicting the expected benefits and cost performance of proposals, etc. the participants may call for.  

Comments? 

8 POWER AND THE DISCOURSE PLATFORM

The general question whether new tools for dealing with the problems of power should not need much explanation. In almost all current societies and government forms as well as in view of the issue of a ‘world government’, the presence of power-related corruption in various forms, and the abuses of government leaders who have gained even just close to ‘total’ authoritarian power are well known and much deplored. And the provisions of ‘democratic’ constitutions that have arguably proven successful within the governance systems are showing increasingly disturbing vulnerability to the intrusions and influence of money and partisan information — from wealthy oligarchs, religious institutions, and huge national and multi-national corporations that control public information media and election financing. 

However, the problem of power in general  is too vast for this discussion, and a more general discussion is urgent in its own right. The key thesis of this limited discussion can be stated as follows:  “Some problems of power (and abuse of power) can be at least partially remedies or mitigated by certain provisions in a better organized public planning and policy-making discourse support platform.”  It is necessary to stress the ‘partial’ qualification; though it can be argued that it requires at least  some understanding of the overall problem to assess whether and how discourse  platform provisions can make a difference.

Platform provisions and power

How might a better public planning discourse make a difference in taming power? There are several  ways in which specific interrelated provisions could help:

* Empowerment of the public, through provisions that incentivize contributions to the discourse

* Evaluation features that help constructing measures of merit of proposed plans, based on discourse contributions; and thus guide decisions; 

* The establishment of contributors’ ‘discourse merit accounts‘ from the evaluated contributions (a by-product of the plan evaluation process);

* The use of these accounts by public officials to “Pay for decisions” and their implementation — merit points they have ‘earned’ as well as points  citizen supporters may have contributed to the officials’ accounts — for decisions too important to be paid for by a single person’s account. This different ‘currency’ may replace or at least lessen the role of money in public decisions. Citizens can also withdraw their merit point contributions if they lose confidence in the performance of officials;

* In this way, citizens become  empowered  but also ‘co-accountable‘ for the decisions they authorize officials to make, and the officials will eventually ‘use up’ the points that constitute their power, instead of amassing evermore power and wealth gained form illicit power abuse.

These ideas will of course have to be discussed in more detail, as well as, hopefully, any better alternative suggestions they provoke? 

Wrong question:?

a) ]What makes this issue a dilemma is the fact that some events, crises, problems require ‘fast’ decisions that can’t wait for lengthy public discourse; that is, these decisions must be made by people given the  responsibility and the power to decide. The power must be adequate to confront the scope of the problems, and to ensure that its provisions are then followed / adhered to. This usually involves some form of ‘enforcement’: logically by a power  greater (more forceful) than any potential violator. Does this mean that the power must also be greater that any entity trying to ‘tame’ or ‘control’ that power? 

b)  The real problem with power (in the public domain) is corruption;  so any efforts to deal with power must start with the role of potential sorption in the governance system; which may ultimately be seen as the problem of the role of money  in the governance and policy-making process.

—–

 9 PAYING FOR POWER DECISIONS

The incentive and evaluation provisions of the proposed platform offer an innovative opportunity for taming power: having public officials ‘pay’ for decisions  with the ‘merit points’ they have earned with their contributions to the discourse  

Rationale 

We think of the desire of people to strive for more freedom to make decisions for themselves and their community as a kind of human right: in line with the right to life, food, shelter, the pursuit of happiness:  “empowerment”.  And we are accustomed to the fact that we also have to work for, and pay for the realization of these pursuits or needs. But when the empowerment extends to decisions on behalf of or even over the desire of other people, (perhaps as one of those power decisions), the custom is curiously reversed: people with power expect to get paid for the satisfaction of that desire. And part of the temptation and addiction of such power is the forcefully pursued expectation to continually increase such payment. Which leads to the abuse of power. 

There are of course more features and systemic loops involved, that deserve to be studied more thoroughly, but for the current purpose of this study, we can go straight to the reversed question of “What if the power to making collective decisions that affect others, or the entire community, is a right that also had to be paid for?”  Of course, there would be objections to extenuating the already problematic role of money to this, But the proposed PPDSS platform provisions of incentives that become merit reward points that people accumulate in ‘merit point accounts’ constitute a different ‘currency’ — a kind of ‘reputation’ account, now given some actual measurement units — could offer a practical way of realizing this, and thus become a means for curbing the tendency for evermore powerful decisions:  If a public official  had to ‘pay’  for the power of making decisions, that power would diminish and disappear when those reputation merit points run out.  

Implementation. 

This idea could be realized with some technology that arguably is already available. 

One form might be upfront payments for the ‘license’ to make certain domain-specific decisions, and a mechanism to withdraw points from the officials’  merit point account, as a power decision gets recorded for iacceptance and mplementation of a plan or activity. Or there could be devices requiring such payments as a decision is attempted: the ‘button’ for activation can be activated only with the ‘merit point card’.

This provision would be especially useful to be applied to decisions that must be made ‘fast’, for which there is no time for lengthy public discussion. 

A further opportunity of this feature might be the ability of citizens to ‘support’ officials (or plans to be decided upon), that individual accounts of office holders would not cover, by transferring some of citizens merit points to the official. Citizen might be allotted a certain basic merit point amount — a version of voting rights — that  can be increased with discourse merit points (like the widely discussed basic guaranteed basic income), to actually become empowered and also co-accountable for collective decisions. Citizens would also have to be able to recall such support payments if the official doe not make proper intended use of them — but only before they are used… 

Of course, this idea needs development, discussion, experimentation — perhaps as a ‘game’ version’ or more elaborate opinion surveys ‘skunkworks’ projects — ‘parallel to existing practice, before actual implementation.

Comments?  

Wrong question?

——

10 EVALUATION OF DISCOURSE CONTRIBUTIONS 4/5/22

The general topic of evaluation and the literature about it is vast. So one might suppose that everything significant and useful has been said or written about it. Still, it is fair to state that practical application in planning and policy-making  lags far behind the theoretical and methodological insights that have been produced over time. Part of the reason for this discrepancy may be practical  and the lack of adequate technological tools.  And for the assessment of the role of evaluation in a better orchestrated planning discourse support system using available new technology, some new issues emerge that require consideration and discussion.

A first necessary step may be the clarification of different evaluation tasks that occur throughout the planning process: it is not just a final formal evaluation of  a proposed plan to guide the decision.  A distinction must be made between 

*  the ‘quality’ assessment of a proposed plan as compared to an existing (‘do nothing’) option,  and

* the assessment of the merit of discourse contributions towards that decision: even a ‘con’ argument against a proposal (that may be good enough for eventual acceptance) has ‘merit’ that should be acknowledged and rewarded. So the ‘merit’ assessment is a related but distinctly different task from the determination of the ‘quality’ evaluation of the proposed plan. The relationship, of course, maybe the cause of potential confusion and misunderstanding, as well as the continued controversy about  ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ properties and judgments in the assessment of both plan quality and contribution merit. 

Evaluation judgments of different kinds occur throughout the planning discourse. A quick overview shows this:

– Problems, Issues, Questions, Answers, Plan Proposals (‘Solutions’) are raised and must be assessed for acceptance on an agenda of public discussion;

– For each accepted agenda items, new entries must be assessed for pertinence and salience (importance?) to the topic (and sub-categories, if any), for acceptance and assignment sorting; ‘Netiquette’ considerations — e.g. language and ad-hominem comments etc. may play a role here as well.

– Assuming some forms of participation incentives and reward are going to be part of the process, each accepted entry may be given some ‘basic’ participation reward. If ‘only the first’ entry of the same content is to be entered into any organized assessment scheme (and to avoid ‘information overflow’ with essentially the same  content), a judgment of identity or similarity of items expressed in slightly different wording may be needed. Entries with different degrees of detail may have to be even given different ‘basic’ points that comments addressing only one feature or detail claim. (These ‘basic participation points (or vehicles for merit assessments) will be modified according to evaluation results by the participant community later on.)

– Depending on agreements regarding the procedures to be followed in each specific project, participants may  express first ‘overall offhand’ judgments about

* the plausibility, coherence, validity or other merit of an entry (according to the entry type); and 

* the ‘quality’ (goodness, desirability, or lack of such) of a plan solution or detail.

The judgments must be expressed on some agreed-upon scale- respectively, of plausibility (e.g. -1 ≤ pl ≤ +1)  ore 

quality q, (e.g. -3 ≤ q ≤ +3).

– For more  systematic deliberation and evaluation, It may be necessary to ‘formalize’ entries — that is, express the content of an entry, in some concise (agreed-upon) formal ‘template’; this may involve adding of e.g. explicit assumptions of premises not stated in a ‘verbatim’ comment but ‘taken for granted’. For example, argument ‘pro or con’ a proposed plan PP may be presented in the following ‘template’ form: 

(‘Conclusion’:) PP  ought to be accepted, because

(Factual – Instrumental Premise 1) “PP  will result in effect/outcome R, and

(Ought- Premise 2) Outcome R ought to be pursued.”

Or the more elaborate template

(‘Conclusion’:) PP  ought to be accepted, because

(Factual – Instrumental Premise 1) “Given conditions C1, PP  will result in effect/outcome R, and

(Ought-Premise 2) Given conditions C2, Outcome R ought to be pursued, and

(Fact-Premise 3) Conditions C1 are / will be present, and

(Fact-Premise 4) Conditions C2 are / will be present.”

– Participants may at this point, upon reviewing displays of all such formalized items, revise their earlier Overall Offhand Plausibility of argument merit or Quality of solution assignments. The initial merit points will be  modified with the results of the group statistics.

– If more detailed evaluation is agreed upon, the steps of Argument evaluation will require assignment of plausibility to each argument premise, and ‘weight of relative importance’  w to the ought-premises (on an agreed-upon scale of e.g. 0 ≤ w ≤ +1  such that ∑w = +1) to derive Argument weights and, adding all of those to a ‘Deliberated  Proposal Plausibility score PPPL. Statistical measures of these Judgments by the groups  will be used to revise the merit assignment to individual merit points.

For Quality evaluation, steps for e.g. the formal quality evaluation procedure  [1] can be followed: From the discussion, ‘Quality’ aspects may be derived, to construct an ‘aspect tree’;  each aspect given a weight w of relative importance, and a quality estimate (on the agreed-upon scales);  each aspect may be further deliberated, with each new sub-aspect branch being evaluated in the same way. It can be helpful if participants can express how their quality judgments relate to some objective performance measure or ‘criterion’ in a ‘criterion function’. For each participant, each quality judgment is then revised as a function of the respective sub-aspect quality scores and their weights. Again, the Individual Overall Deliberated Quality judgments can be revised to that Individual’s earlier judgments, and these be modified according to some agreed-upon statistic of all the group’s Individual judgments.

Delphi Method or similar additions to these procedures can be added to further deliberate the supporting evidence of judgments, as needed.

Thee procedures are recommended selections from any larger set of ‘special procedures’ such a group may draw upon.

– The group’s judgments may be used to derive statistical measures (not ‘group judgments”:  ‘groups’ do  not ‘have’ unified judgments, especially if there are significant differences in the individual participants’ judgments)  to for ‘decision guides. The group will have to discuss and decide on how these will determine their final decision or decision recommendation. 

– If participant entries are also to be modified according to whether and do what degree they have influenced the group’s decision, a measure of such influence must be developed and then applied to the respective contribution.

– If the merit point accounts are to be used for ‘Pay for Power” decisions, it will be necessary to devise a method  for setting the price for such decisions; this remains to be explored. Candidate considerations are, In a first no-particular order list::

*  The number of people affected by the problem a project is addressing, and of the proposed solution alternatives;

*  The total cost of a project — including the risk of expected failure over time; 

*  The difference between the decision guide results and the decision taken. 

Wrong question? 

–  The usual evaluation techniques do not easily include such aspects as ‘image’ (Who are we, as a result of a decision like this, as compared to the kind of person/people we wold like, or pretend, or feel obligated to be? This is, at best, brought up in the discourse, if at all, by comments such as ‘That’s not who we are’;  aspect difficult to explain and to quantify. As an example, the categorizations of movements in art or architecture are mostly labels that the actual artists or decision-makers and even critics are not consciously able to clearly articulate until much later. 

– The number of judgment types listed and the steps needed to construct meaningful contribution merit point accounts much less pricing provisions decision-maker would be asked to ‘pay’ for making  decision may appear too complex to be understandable and acceptable to the ‘public’ called upon to participate in. So participation in planning discourse may end up becoming even more of activities limited to a kind of experts or ‘elite’ than is currently the case. Will a consideration of the consequences of continuing current practices overcome such objections? 

– The need for improved global planning discourse and evaluation approaches is urgent; there is no time for the gradual education, familiarization and implementation required: More streamlined, simple, perspective-neutral and understandable tools are needed. 

Diagram: the relatiinships between discourse provisions and power

====

TAMING POWER AND THE PUBLIC PLANNING DISCOURSE SYSTEM

Thorbjørn Mann Updated (adding section 8) 3/27/2022

I submit, for discussion, that better controls of power are desperately needed, as are public (global) decision-making tools that better — that is, more transparently — link the merit of discourse contributions with the decisions, and that the development of a better discourse platform with some provisions for evaluation of contributions can offer both: 

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The Control of Power and the Public Planning DIscourse System

1  THE URGENT NEED  FOR PUBLIC (GLOBAL?) PLANNING DISCOURSE PLATFORM ,  DECISIONS BASED ON DISCOURSE CONTRIBUTION MERIT, AND CONTROL OF POWER

Tall order: I agree, and I expect that many will find it impossible, if only because  it  looks too complex. Plausible — but is it reasonable to expect that complex problems can be ‘fixed’ with simple tricks? Some potential provisions I have found while working on improvements to planning decision-making suggest to me that better tools for both the discourse decision-making and the power control issue are  possible, and that they should be discussed, as well as that the search for other, better answers should be pursued more intensively than what I currently see.  

To support my perhaps naively optimistic hypothesis but also to invite critical comments and better ideas, I suggest to break up the discussion into ‘chunks’ that can be discussed in more depth;  the effort to present the whole ‘system’ in its overall complexity has always led to larger, even book-size articles whose very size discourage discussion if they even get read. 

So I would like to post some of the components (chunks) one by one — posting one a day or so, just keeping the overall scheme in mind that holds them all together: the diagram shows the relationships between the topics. 

At any time, participants in the discussion or interested observers who get the feeling that it  — and the topics listed  — are somehow ‘missing the problem’  or wasting time on a ‘wrong question’ should  feel free to make that objection, but  try to state the ‘real problem’ or better question for consideration. So all the topics will have this ‘wrong question?’  reminder at the end, that may lead to changes in the sequence, and will be summarized in the end, before a final question or effort (hope) to articulate some ‘conclusion’ or recommendation based on the information and questions contributed.  

A first suggested list of ‘chunks’  for discussion: (Items added in rspnse to reader suggestions (from FB discusion) shown in italic)

  • The need for a public planning discourse support system (1 abiove)
  • The need for better controls of power
  • The Goals of the System (2)
  • The platform (3)
  • Participation Incentives (4)
  • The ‘Verbatim’  record (5)

*  Procedural agreements 

*  Formalization of entries (6)

*  Displays of the process (7)

  • Power and the discourse playtform (8)

*  ‘Next Step’? 

*  Decision Modes

*  Evaluation

Formal ‘Quality’ Evaluation

Solution plausibility based on Argument Evaluation

*  Decision Criteria

*  Discourse contribution merit accounts 

*  ‘Paying for power decisions’

*  Pricing power decisions

* Transfer of merit points 

*   Other possible uses of merit accounts

  • Implementation: Experiments, Games: ‘Skunkworks”

Brief discussions of these topics  for discussion will be added — not necessarily in the same order,  in response to reader suggestions

Wrong question?  (E.g. “Is the Power issue -Discourse Platform connection appropriate?”

—-

2    THE GOALS OF THE SYSTEM 

(In response to the question by T. Markatos:  “What are the goals of the system and how do they all interrelate? Until we can answer such, we can only guess at the causalities”)

The focus of the post wasreally somewhat limited: to explore the connection between the platform and the Power issue:  Specifically; the notion that the evaluation provisions of the platform  would offer some new opportunities for ’taming’ power.  This was based on the two assumptions  

a)  that such a platform is needed — for a number of reasons (or goals) I have written about  and will try to summarize below — and 

b)  that better controls of power  is also urgent,  as current events demonstrate but of course also must be explored.  

Let me start with (a):

Humanity faces various challenges  of the ‘wicked’ kind, for which collective (even global) agreements and decisions may be needed. The current  planning and policy-making tools are still inadequate to deal with these challenges:  Some specific aspects needing improvements are, briefly:

–  Better provisions and incentives for public participation  in the planning / policy-making and decision process;

–  Besides the desire for participation itself, the ‘distributed’ nature of the information about how problems and proposed solutions affect different parts of society (i.e. information not yet documented) calls for better access and incentives for collaborately contributing such information in a timely fashion;

–  Current media and governmental means of informing the public increasingly suffer from  polarization (channles only presenting information supporting selected perspectives and interests, from repetition of claims, but lack of concise overview of the essence of available information;

–  The lack of transparency of how the contributions  support (or fail to support)  governments’ eventual decisions,  thus meeting the aim that  decisions be transparently based on the merit of the available information;

–  The lack of adequate measures of that merit’;  that is, the pervasive inadequacy of  systematic evaluation in the process, supporting understandable decision criteria that can be compared with actual decisions;

–  The inappropriateness of decision modes  (such  as voting, even in the form of referendum-like procedures, that do not  apply well to problms and crises affecting populations across traditional governance boundaries;

–  The vulnerability of even the best  ‘democratic’ government structures to the corrosive effects of money  (corruption) and  and the effects and temptations of power.

–  The potential of innovative information technology appears to have contributed more to the increase of the problems than to their resolution. 

These are some of the major concerns and expectations for a better planning and  policy-making platform; that have guided my suggestions so far; more can certainly be added; all for discussion. For example, the paper Towards a Model for Survival” (Academia .edu)  that resulted from my observations of a lengthy (2011-2015) discussion on the Systems Thinking  group on LInkedIn addresses the concerns of such a platform in view of mutual sharing  and ealuating the information of the many  small ‘alternative’ initiatives already underway to grapple with the challenges leading then UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon  to call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action for an economic model for survival’  at the 2011 Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum. The many experienced and thoughtful  participants in that Systems Thinking group did not come to an agreement on what such a model would look like. 


3  PUBLIC PLANNING DISCOURSE: THE PLATFORM 

There ought to be a common PLATFORM for a better organized public discussion of plans, issues and policies?  Inviting all affected, interested, concerned parties to participate, to contribute questions, information and opinions in a way that transparently influences the eventual decisions about the plan. 

Such a platform is needed for plans, policies, agreements  involving  societal (and global) ‘wicked’ problems  and issues  that transcend traditional governance boundaries and for which conventional decision-making practices are inappropriate or inadequate. 

Ideas for such a platform have been described in  e.g.  ‘P D S S’ papers on Academia.edu. and other posts on Facebook and this blog Abbeboulah.com.) 

The diagram shows its basic components. It must be impartial, that is, open to all parties in controversial issues, even offer meaningful incentives for participation, but have provisions for the critical assessment of contributed, and aim at developing guidelines and criteria for decision that are transparently based on such assessments.

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4    INCENTIVES FOR PARTICIPATION

The platform should have provisions for acknowledging and rewarding contributions.

This is necessary not only to encourage public participation for its own sake, but also to help getting the ‘distributed information’ about wicked problems into the process for consideration — the different perspectives of how both problems and proposed solutions affect different segments of society, and also to establish the mechanism for meaningful evaluation.

Incentive rewards must be distinguished according to the kinds of contributions (questions, answrs, solution proposals, pro and con arguments etc.

The incentives will have to be in a different ‘currency’ from money, but ‘fungible’ that is, potentially becoming practically useful in some way, within the process and outside.  

It is of course necessary to prevent the system from becoming overwhelmed by ‘information overload’ and redundant, useless or even disruptive content. This could be done by offering initial ‘empty’, mere ‘acknowledgement’ points but

1 activating the value’ of these points only for the ‘first’ entry of essentially the same content,(which will also encourage getting information ‘fast’, and

  1. modifying the value of the points in the later process of evaluation, according to their merit, not only upwards’ for positive, important and helpful contributions, but also ‘downward’ for false, disruptive, meaningless content.

Expressions of ‘endorsement’ of other posts or positions will be accommodated in the later ‘evaluation’ stage.


5    THE ‘VERBATIM’  RECORD

The platform will have  provisions for accepting entries in various ‘media’:  letters, phone calls, text messages, recordings of interviews, emails, citation from other documented sources.  They must be recorded in the form they were submitted (even though this may not be in a format suitable for systematic evaluation yet, and appear irritating to some).  They must be accessible for reference  («what did the author really say?»)  Each entry must be tagged with the author’s ID — a question to be discussed is whether and to what extent authors’ actual names should be publicly visible. 

For evaluation of contribution merit, this may not be needed or appropriate (a comment should be taken on the merit of its content?) But it will be necessary if assignment and valuation of merit points to their authors is to be provided. The collection of entries should be structured according to topics and issues, in chronological order. Authors will therefore have to indicate the issue an entry is aimed at. 

 A common habit is the posting of links to other sites or documents; should there be a rule to state explicitly what claims are to be taken as being introduced or supported by a link or reference? The question of how general ‘arguments from authority’ be treated will become critical in any later more systematic evaluation; if that task requires consideration of specific parts or premises — when and how should that be inntroduced into the process? 

Comments?


6  FORMALIZATION OF ENTRIES 

Meaningful overview display of the state of discussion as well as  systematic evaluation will require organized presentation of entries in some commonly understandable, coherent format (For example, ‘pro’ or  ‘con’  arguments out proposed plans might be represented in a format or ‘template’ such as 

“Plan A ought to be adopted 

because

Plan A will result in outcome B

and 

Outcome B ought to be pursued (desirable)”

Such templates will have to be developed and agreed upon for the different types of planning discourse contributions:  Questions, answers, problems, solution proposals, evaluation criteria and judgments, etc.  Participants may be encouraged to submit or ’translate’ their  verbatim comments into an appropriate template, or the support system will have to do this, perhaps call for the author’s consent («Is this what you mean?»)  Many verbatim comments will be ‘enthymemes’ — e.g. arguments in which some premises are left unstated as ‘taken for granted’ — but for overview and systematic evaluation, they must be stated explicitly.

The templates may look unsatisfactory and too crude to trained logicians — forms like the ‘planning argument’ proposed above have not been acknowledged and studied by formal logic since it is not a ‘deductively valid’ form.  Arguably, for lay public participation, the templates should be as close to conversational language as possible, at the expense of disciplinary rigor. (Of course, this is an issue requiring discussion. 

Comments?


[ 7 ]  DISPLAYING THE STATE OF DISCOURSE

A planning discourse aiming at providing adequate information for making collective decisions will need a system of displaying the proposed plans or questions to be discussed, as well as the state and content of the discourse. This will include a public ‘Bulletin board’ that shows what plans, issues are being proposed (‘candidates’) and those accepted for discussion, and their state of process until decision and closure.  

The important principle is that all different positions about controversial issues must be properly represented, to avoid the polarization of political discourse currently caused by news media channels only presenting material supporting one partisan perspective. 

For initial purposes such as to determine whether a proposed issue candidate should be accepted for full organized discourse, the common current format of social media may be sufficient. That format will soon become too unwieldy for participants to gain and keep an adequate overview of the state of discussion. Topic and issue ‘maps’ (diagrams showing the concepts and topcis that have been raised, and their relationships )— may be needed, to be updated as the discourse evolves. The relationship connections in issue maps are simply those of ‘issue or question x  has been raised in response to question y’. Diagrams of systems models’ and system behavior over time would focus on relationships such as cause-effect or ‘flows’ between ’stocks’. Ideally, the support system would provide such understanding and orientation aids, drawing as needed on the service of consultants or ‘special technique’ processes for gathering specific information, predicting the expected benefits and cost performance of proposals, etc. the participants may call for.  

Comments? 

 [ 8 ] POWER AND THE DISCOURSE PLATFORM

The general question whether new tools for dealing with the problems of power should not need much explanation. In almost all current societies and government forms as well as in view of the issue of a ‘world government’, the presence of power-related corruption in various forms, and the abuses of government leaders who have gained even just close to ‘total’ authoritarian power are well known and much deplored. And the provisions of ‘democratic’ constitutions that have arguably proven successful within the governance systems are showing increasingly disturbing vulnerability to the intrusions and influence of money and partisan information — from wealthy oligarchs, religious institutions, and huge national and multi-national corporations that control public information media and election financing. 

However, the problem of power in general  is too vast for this discussion, and a more general discussion is urgent in its own right. The key thesis of this limited discussion can be stated as follows:  “Some problems of power (and abuse of power) can be at least partially remedies or mitigated by certain provisions in a better organized public planning and policy-making discourse support platform.”  It is necessary to stress the ‘partial’ qualification; though it can be argued that it requires at least  some understanding of the overall problem to assess whether and how discourse  platform provisions can make a difference.

How might a better public planning discourse make a difference in taming power? There are several  ways in which specific interrelated provisions could help:

* Empowerment of the public, through provisions that incentivize contributions to the discourse

* Evaluation features that help constructing measures of merit of proposed plans, based on discourse contributions; and thus guide decisions; 

* The establishment of contributors’ ‘discourse merit accounts‘ from the evaluated contributions (a by-product of the plan evaluation process);

* The use of these accounts by public officials to “Pay for decisions” and their implementation — merit points they have ‘earned’ as well as points  citizen supporters may have contributed to the officials’ accounts — for decisions too important to be paid for by a single person’s account. This different ‘currency’ may replace or at least lessen the role of money in public decisions. Citizens can also withdraw their merit point contributions if they lose confidence in the performance of officials;

* In this way, citizens become  empowered  but also ‘co-accountable‘ for the decisions they authorize officials to make, and the officials will eventually ‘use up’ the points that constitute their power, instead of amassing evermore power and wealth gained form illicit power abuse.

These ideas will of course have to be discussed in more detail, as well as, hopefully, any better alternative suggestions they provoke? 

Wrong question?

a) ]What makes this issue a dilemma is the fact that some events, crises, problems require ‘fast’ decisions that can’t wait for lengthy public discourse; that is, these decisions must be made by people given the  responsibility and the power to decide. The power must be adequate to confront the scope of the problems, and to ensure that its provisions are then followed / adhered to. This usually involves some form of ‘enforcement’: logically by a power  greater (more forceful) than any potential violator. Does this mean that the power must also be greater that any entity trying to ‘tame’ or ‘control’ that power? 

b)  The real problem with power (in the public domain) is corruption;  so any efforts to deal with power must start with the role of potential sorption in the governance system; which may ultimately be seen as the problem of the role of money  in the governance and policy-making process.

Comments?

——-

The Big Dilemma

The Control of Power

Just protesting and even ‘better understanding’ is no longer enough. 

I fully support the many calls for protest and condemnations against the Putin invasion of Ukraine. And to  contribute donations to help refugees and victims of this unprovoked war: providing band-aids for the wounds our inability to prevent the war has caused? 

What I am missing is more of an effort to discuss, understand, and find remedies for the underlying forces that led to this — and similar situtions. Because it seems obvious to me that the provisions humanity has tried to put in place so far, are critically ineffective. 

The problem is the use and misuse of power in societal governance and conflict. More specifically: the apparently unquestioned assumption that conflicts and violations of laws, treaties and agreements can only be prevented, and must be punished, by the threat and application of force or forceful ‘sanctions’. 

We have long known, from examples of abuses of power  form antiquity to current events, that power is addictive, that it seems to destroy the mental sanity of the holders of power — the more so, the greater the power they hold —;  because mistakes, arbitraniness and evil intent in its application will generate both fear and resistance, opposition.  Fear, both in the oppressed and the powerful. because if they adhere to the above assumption that power is acquired, and sustained by force, they must be afraid that force will be used against them as well. This creates a vicious circle of escalation of power use and abuse, and opposition resistance. 

 For the relationships among nations, this is the ultimate dilemma: the ‘World government dilemma’: If violations of treaties and human rights by force (and similar means) can only be ‘prevented’ by the threat of more powerful force, the question necessarily arises: what will prevent that superior entity itself from falling victim to the temptation and vicious cycles of power?  And equally likely: Given the kinds of weapons for conflict resolution by force that now is available to contenders for global governance, the outcome of such a conflict has best been described by the alleged Einstein comment that we don’t know what kinds of weapons will be used in WW3 — but we know that any WW4 will be fought with stones and sticks: ‘civilization’ as we know it will have destroyed itself. 

What is the lesson? Is this a dilemma that cannot be resolved? Then what? Can we afford to give up hope that better solutions can be found? Can we put our faith in future history books —if they won’t be burned — that will tell of our heroism in just resisting, fighting power in an unwinnable battle, if we don’t submit to the ultimate tyrranny or mutual destruction?  If there is the slightest possibility of finding better ways around the dilemma — is it not our responsibility to find and try to implement them, while there still is time? 

I believe there are possible answers. I believe one partial answer lies in the development of ‘sanctions’ that don’t rely on ‘enforcement’ by a greater power but that will be based on a principle of (agreed-upon) preventive measures automatically triggered by the very attempt of violation. There are already small scale examples using this approach; new technology and AI may be helpful in this effort.  I cannot believe that if more effort and resources would be devoted to this problem, humanity could not find other, better answers to this dilemma.  I believe that such efforts should be pursued with the highest priority, at all levels from local to global governance. 

I also don’t believe that implementation of such answers, if we can find them, should be attempted via the old ‘forceful’ revolution approach, ‘regime change’, violent overthrow and bloodshed. That would just be reverting to the old problem and vicious cycles, attempting to solve the problem with its own causes. This, too, needs a better approach, such as the old ’skunkworks’ of US research and development agencies in the cold war: devoting part of ‘official contract’ resources to ‘free’ research on issues on the principle that maybe the official project is asking the ‘wrong question’ and trying to ‘solve the wrong problem’? And it needs a global platform for the impartial discussion and evaluation of any proposed answers, as heretic als they may seem.  (I have  explored these issues in some papers  e.g. on  Academia. edu.)

I am surprised and disappointed that even the ’systems thinking’ community — as far as I can see, — is not even discussing this issue much less devoting any effort, official or ‘skunkworks’-like — to this dilemma. Just focusing on a ‘better understanding ‘ of the problems, much as we do need that, is no longer enough. 

The Conundrum of ‘Conduction’

Some comments on the 2019 article on A Dialectical View on Conduction: Reasons, Warrants, and Normal Suasory Inclinations  by Shiyang Yu and Frank Zenker in  Informal Logic, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2019), pp. 32–69. 

The following comments were triggered by the article but may not be pertinent to the stated aim of the article’s aim and “Focal question: Should one treat conduction as argument-as-product?” as opposed to a dialectical view on natural language argumentation. But since the arguments I have studied in the design, planning, and policy-making discourse have at times been labeled a type of ‘conductive’ arguments, and I am interested in the ways such arguments lead to reasoned decisions, some questions arise for the implications of its views on a more systematic and transparent evaluation process within that discourse.  This is, in my opinion, an urgent concern for humanity’s treatment of problems and crises that transcend traditional decision-making boundaries and practices. So I welcome any effort to devote more attention to these kinds of arguments, and hoped to find useful insights in this article. 

Seen from this perspective, I am not particularly concerned about the labels give to these arguments, or whether the understanding of ‘conductive’ arguments should be narrowed (as the article seems to imply) to arguments that contain both ‘pro’ as well as ‘con’ premises or considerations: It had been my understanding that the key criterion was the presence of deontic premises to support the equally deontic ‘conclusion’.  If I am mistaken in this,  my comments and questions  may not apply to the discussion in the article.  

In my efforts to develop better evaluation approaches for arguments to ‘ought’ issues  – which arguably humanity argues about as much if not more than the ‘factual’ arguments analyzed by the traditional logic sources I was aware of  [1]– I found the treatment by these sources of such arguments to be of little help.  In their aims for establishing compelling ‘validity’ if not ‘actually ‘truth’, some disciplines – e.g. ‘deontic logic’ seemed to actually sidestep the problem, basing the analysis on concepts like ‘permitted’, ‘mandatory’ (as e.g. by law) or ‘forbidden’, thereby turning the argument inference rule into patterns closer to the deductively valid rules such as the modus ponens, — but neglecting the subsequent issue of all such premises whether they ought to be permitted, mandatory or forbidden.  Does the article make substantial progress towards a better treatment of these concerns? 

Or is it possible that the effort to stay within the traditional ‘proper’ discipline approach caused the analysis to neglect to pursue key features of planning arguments that they just mention almost as side comments:  

–  That the presence of the deontic claims ‘ought’  or ‘should’ (as in the sample argument discussed) and its argument pattern makes the argument inconclusive by the standards of formal logic (the fancy term used is ‘defeasible’);   

–  That the ‘dialectical’ discourse may aim at reaching ‘normal suasive’ attitudes but that these attitudes cannot be taken for granted, in fact, the ‘arguments’ express disagreements which may be fundamental and based on irreconcilable principles;  

—  That planning decisions rest on often large sets of both pros and cons, not on single arguments, that arguments intended by discourse participants as ‘pro’ reasons for adopting the plan proposal, may turn into equally plausible ‘con’ arguments by other parties, if they disagree (negate) one or more of the proposed premises;  

–  That participants may, in the same sentence, offer both a ‘pro’ as well as a ‘con’ reason for the ‘conclusion’ (as in the ‘monster argument’ discussed [2]) 

My approach to these issues was the following: 

*  Acknowledging that planning decisions should be based on the due consideration of the many ‘pros and cons’ people affected in any way by the problems a plan aims to remedy, as well as the plan alternatives (there is always the alternative of ‘doing nothing’) the discourse should be set up to encourage and even ‘reward’ as wide participation as possible, calling for both ‘pro’ and ‘con’ arguments. 

* Accepting the fact that may comments from the public will be ‘messy’, incomplete (enthymemes), even containing the disturbing ‘counter-considerations’ in one sentence that makes horrified argumentation scientists scream ’monster argument!’, organizing a more systematic, transparent evaluation process will require some formatting many comments into common argument ‘templates’ that clearly shows argument structure and missing (implied) premises. (However, original contributions must be kept for reference in a ‘verbatim’ file.)

* That re-formatting should be as close to conversational language as possible, so that authors can recognize their own intended concerns and agree to the format. 

* I chose to turn the argument patterns around to state the ‘conclusion’—the plan proposal – first, with the approval or rejection claim first, linked to the following support premises with the  link ‘because’ (or ‘since’ or a similar word): resulting in the pattern:

“Plan proposal A ought to be adopted (‘Conclusion’, a deontic D- claim

because 

Plan A will imply or result in effect B (Factual-instrumental FI premise ) 

And 

Effect B ought to be pursued” (Deontic D- premise) 

Summarized as  D(A) since {(FI(A)B) & D(B)}.

A more elaborate version would include a premise stating the conditions  C  under which it is assumed that the factual-instrumental  premise would apply:

D(A)  since / because  { ((FI A  B)  & D(B) | C)  & F(C)} 

Or 

A ought  to be adopted 

Because

A will result in B given conditions C

And 

B ought to be pursued 

And 

Conditions C are (or will be) given. 

I was led to this because sometimes the third premise is present in actual arguments, often just in terms such as “Given the circumstances”  or ‘In the present state of affairs…) ,  but an argument could be made that this is really an argument supporting or questioning one of the other premises: ‘We can’t implement A because the needed resources just aren’t available to achieve B”.  

* The arguments do not have to (I suggest should not) be labeled as ‘pro’ or ‘con’ (other than perhaps as ‘intended’ by the author) because, as will be seen below, whether an argument is perceived as a pro or con by an individual, depends on the individual’s assignment of plausibility judgments to the premises.

* While the discussion may pursue the questions of supporting evidence or argument for any ot the premises, the assessment of  the set of all arguments will begin by individual participants assigning 

  a) plausibility judgments pl to all premises of the arguments (that can be seen as probability judgments  for FI and F premises), on a scale of e.g. -1 to +1, and

  b) weights of relative importance w, of the deontic premises in each argument, with the weight w(i) for deontic claim in argument i:  0 ≤ w(i) ≤ 1.0 and ∑w(i) =  1.0  of all deontic claims in the entire set of pro and con arguments. 

* For each individual participant:

   – The plausibility Argpl(i) of an argument i will be some function of  the plausibility judgments the participant has assigned to the premises of that argument;  e.g. 

Argpl(i) = ∏{Prempl(j) of all its premises, or Argpl(i) = MIN(Prempl(j ):   the argument is as plausible as its least plausible premise. 

  – The weight Argw(i)  of argument i  is a function of its plausibility and the weight w(i) of its deontic premise, e.g.  Argw(i) = Argpl(i) * w(i).

  – The plausibility of the proposed plan  (for an individual) is then a function of all argument weights:  e.g. Planpl = ∑(Argw(i) for all n arguments I considered.

* For the task of generating an acceptable ‘group” plausibility statistic to determine the group’s decision, each group or constituency will have to agree upon some such statistic, e.g. the average Planpl and a decision threshold for acceptance of a plan. There are several possibilities. For example,  it could be agreed that the group’s average Planpl should be at least positive (on the -1/+1 plausibility scale), or that it should be the highest one of several alternative ‘plans’ including the alternative of ‘doing nothing’, or a consideration of  the range of  plausibility values for individuals or subgroups (taking care of the ‘worst-off’ parties affected by the problem to be remedies and by proposed plan(s).  This important and controversial issue is beyond the scope of the issue at hand here – the treatment of pro and con arguments in the planning discourse.  

Whether these or similar provisions for collective design, planning, policy-making discourse can or should be applied to all ethical, moral, political discourse, is another much needed discussion. For now, just one significant implication of this view — that any measure of plausibility merit of social plans must be based on the distribution of individual judgments of affected or concerned people, not some general or universal  ‘truth’ or validity — should be noted: For any application of AI tools to collective decisions about controversial plans, is there any plausible basis for an AI system to make even recommendations for such decisions, unless the data base for its algorithms includes the individual  plausibility and weighting judgments of all human participants in the discourse? That is, much as machine assistance will be needed for the discourse of large or global planning projects or decisions, the AI tools or systems must be integrated into the human discourse and compute its results with the human judgment data as they evolve during the discourse. They cannot substitute for the discourse.  

Such implications may be lurking in the background for the theoretical discussions of arguments, whether deductive, inductive, or conductive. They must urgently be pulled out from the background into a human ‘planning–type’ discussion of its own. 

Notes:

[1]  At the time of my first efforts in this  (the early 1970’s) I was not aware of Wellman’s introduction of the term ‘conductive’ for these arguments but was disappointed in the modal logic and deontic logic sources. There was some discussion whether they should be considered forms of ‘abduction’ (in Peirce’s sense). But the common understanding of abduction also did not seem to match the kinds of arguments I saw in the planning discourse. Abductive reasoning can play a role in the development of solution proposals, however, but not in the weighing of those different solutions. 

[2]  The statement simply combines two considerations, one ‘pro’, one ‘con’, which simply means that it offers two separate arguments to two different ‘conclusions’ or action proposals, as rudimentary enthymemes, with the ‘though’ wording also indicating that one of those reasons, however admittedly plausible, should be assigned less ‘weight’ than the other. I do not see any rationale for the desperate suggestion in one of the branches of the treatment decision tree, to consider the ‘counter-consideration’ as an implied part of the ‘conclusion’. Some necessary assumptions would also be necessary, for example that the only time period available for the two actions is the same (so that e.g. mowing the lawn might be done before going to the movie, or, why not …tomorrow? 

The implication is that for a systematic evaluation, the two arguments for the two different proposals must be stated separately, with all the missing premises made explicit, and that participants then add their individual evaluation judgments to all the premises. 

Similarly, the popular ‘informal logic’ recourse to the Toulmin argument pattern with its backing  and warrant components did not seem appropriate for planning arguments: the pattern seemed to somewhat arbitrarily select its components from premises of ‘successor issues’ arising from efforts to support or question the basic premises of the ‘planning argument’ as I perceived them. 

Some Hot Investing Tips

Preparing to get some payments for my share in the  second home I sold in Europe, I started to look at investment possibilities here in the US. The first attempts at doing so were rewarded with an avalanche of promotion emails and FB posts selling investment services, So I looked at some of those to find out more. 

What I saw was an astounding similarity in their promotion material. They all  asked me to watch videos  — of unspecified length, so I never knew how much time I would have to devote to listen to them. Not all of them offered transcripts of those videos for hearing-challenged folks like me. But they all lure prospective viewers with the promise to reveal some incredible secret, and then devote much time and space to ”first introducing themselves” and showing a lot of ‘predictions’ of crises or events they claimed to have made, and resulting investment earnings diagrams that — surprise  — all show the same angle from almost nothing to current levels of stock or crypto prices or capitalizations. Which of course, if one knows just a little about making such diagrams,  can be manipulated by choosing different scales for the x and  y-axis of those diagrams, makes one wonder how stupid and gullible they think we are… Let me tell you a secret:  if you start a diagram with the initial stock price of zero or almost zero (which is where most of them start) any price after any time span will produce a close to potentially infinitely high ‘profit rate’!   (Potential, that is, if you can sell it… That’ll be $2.50, thank you) .

The killer, however,  is the common pattern of selling the services: first claiming the amazing ‘value’ of their service programs and then making the incredible generous offers of reducing the initial three-or-four-digit price down to something like $49 or $39 for the ‘basic’ version. (‘Ending tonight!) And before even getting to the final checkout for that purchase, taking up ore time with offers of ‘lifetime extensions’ and other service blends. Which makes one wonder, again: don’t they realize that one wants to try out the quality of such a service before buying more of them? Huh? So those offers should be launched at customers after some time of proving their ‘value’.  

Now I’ll admit that those videos and ‘reports all are done up very smartly and convincing, obviously not cheap. But doesn’t this raises more questions?:  why are those folks so desperately eager to sell such two-digit services if they could make so much more money by investing the cost of those videos and websites and promotions in the investments they are promoting (or promise to reveal)? Because the first result of some purchases of basic services are just more videos, (including endless repeats of the very videos that conned the customer to buy the service in the first place),  fear-raising webinars for additional fees, more service programs and ‘reports;’ and very little actual useful information for novice prospective investors. Inbox overflow. The promised ‘professional customer service teams’ don’t even bother to respond to  questions… 

It could drive a poor advice-seeking fellow to drink, For a modest fee, I’ll reveal the brand to respondents so y’all can invest in the company, whose shares are going to rise — in up or even in down market conditions, guaranteed!

Psst:  Any reader out there producing adequate Sonoma Zinfandel libations:  here’s a hot innovative tip: Insert a currently cheap but promised to-rise altcoin token recommendation under the bottle cap to lure more investment-advice-seeking consumers. It must be discovered fast before the price goes up: get it? (You don’t want any of those guys who buy wine to keep for decades.)  With the profound insights I have gathered, I can promise that advice for just a guaranteed monthly delivery of a case… 

CAN APPROACH X BE USED TO TACKLE WICKED PROBLEMS?   PART  2

RE-EXAMINING WICKED PROBLEMS: UNDERSTANDING AND IMPLICATIONS

Thorbjørn Mann 2021

This is the second post on the question of claims by proposed problem-solving ‘approaches’ to successfully ‘solve’ Wicked Problems.

Looking for reassuring answers to the question whether some approach, method or ‘perspective’ can be expected to live up to claims that using the respective approach will reliably result in ‘solving’ Wicked Problems, it may be useful to turn the question around and look at the concept of ‘wicked problems’ itself, and its understanding. Are its ‘properties’ and implications really justifying the frequent automatic rejection of such claims, or claims of a technique guaranteeing solutions? The following first attempt, for discussion, takes a stab at this question, examining each of the WP properties:

* “No definitive problem formulation”:

This feature reflects the fact that different people involved in a project will have very different opinions about the problem, and that the acceptance of one view of ‘what the problem really is about’ is a choice or decision. It is a stern challenge to the habitual recommendation to begin a problem-solving process with a ‘clear statement of the problem’. The implication: to avoid controversies and disruption from occurring later in the process it is necessary to not only begin such a process with a widely open invitation to affected and interested parties to contribute many different perspectives of the problem, but to keep the process open to emerging insights on this issue. 

* “Every WP can be explained in many different ways”: 

The same recommendation holds for this WP property: 

* “Every WP can be seen as a symptom of another problem or set of problems.”:

One obvious implication of this feature is that any proposed ‘solution’ idea, however promising, can be dismissed as ‘only treating the symptom’. The question should therefore be raised early in the process to be discussed, and any necessary decisions resulting from it agreed upon – such as having to shift the entire effort to a different institutional level or entity – before devoting much time and energy to develop a ‘symptom-treating’ solution. 

* “Every wicked problem is essentially unique”:

The implication of this feature is that ‘tried-and true’ methods and lessons from previous cases may not be applicable to a new WP.  However, could it be that the stark formulation of the property unnecessarily hides the fact that the significance of similarities and differences between the new problem and similar cases are a matter of degrees? There may be part of the problem that are sufficiently ‘similar’ to warrant the application of known tools. The process should address this question by looking at details and make decisions about using known methods where applicable and devote efforts to develop new tools as needed. 

* “WP ‘solutions’: not ‘True or False’ but ‘Good  or Bad’:

This reminder was especially necessary at the time the WP issue was raised and published: there was a veritable movement of stressing ‘fact-based’ decision-making, that is, using ‘objective facts’ about a proposed solution’s measurable performance as the decision criterion. This trend seems to re-emerge periodically, (under slightly different banners such as ‘science’ or ‘expert advice’), perhaps because of inappropriate populist switching to decision-making based on ill-informed intuitive ‘goodness’ judgment or insistence on ideological principles decrying the facts presented by discipline experts as ‘elitist oppression’. So the reminder should perhaps be revised to reflect that the real issues are 

    –  the selection of the performance measures for which the ‘facts’ are then established – of course factual information must be provided and assessed for any problem, wicked or tame;

    – these ‘facts’ will always be qualified by probability; especially the  predicted ‘facts’  offuture solution performance (which of course aren’t even facts yet!); and

    – the necessity of communicating about how fact-measurements and predictions relate to the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ judgments (the process Rittel called by the somewhat problematic name of ‘objectification’); and

    – the most important question of  whose judgments  should determine the common decisions about accepting or rejecting proposed ‘solutions’. 

* “No immediate nor ultimate tests”:

This property refers to the difference between scientific hypothesis-testing and the discussion of proposed plans to remedy social problems, as well as to the feature that plans and policies will have chains of consequences that make ‘immediate tests’ meaningless even if we had such tests and ‘ultimate tests’ un-specifiable because the time span of those consequences is indefinite. However, any reaction of doing without any ‘testing-like’ efforts is seriously mistaken. Two considerations:

    – Simulation models used properly (that is, to explore the possible consequences of different actions and strategies taken today) can be considered a kind of test or better ‘evaluation’ – the best tools we have for predictions, none of which are establishing true facts since they all deal with future developments: probabilities.  And

    – Argumentative discourse: The sharing and assessment of the proverbial ‘pro’ and ‘con’ arguments about proposed plans.In which simulation model results may play a significant role, but the essential difference is that planning arguments contain the ‘ought’ premises that are not properly assessed as ‘true’ or ‘false’ and thus the same ought claim may be ‘plausibly’ seen as ‘ought’ or ‘desirable’ by some affected parties but as ‘not desirable by others. The degree to which a plan is perceived as achieving the ‘ought’ state (of a problem perception) is the basis for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ judgments of the plan. 

I have suggested that to Popper’s advice about scientific hypothesis-testing: 

“We are entitled to accept a hypothesis as corroborated (only) to the extent we have done our very best to show that it is false, plausible and it has survived all those tests” 

the closest analogous ‘test’ we have in design and planning is the following:

We are entitled to accept a plan as plausible and ‘supported’ (only) to the extent we have done our very best to expose it to all the most plausible counter-arguments  (‘cons’) and those have all been shown to be flawed or outweighed by supporting arguments (‘pros’). 

Evaluation procedures and approaches to develop measures of plausibility of individual judgments of planning arguments have been described, as the closest we have to ‘testing’ plan proposals.  

* “No well-described, finite sets of admissible operations”

This feature is set against disciplines like mathematics where the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division etc. are the admissible operations that define ‘tame’ problems. It warns that approaches attempting to specific a finite set of such operations for WP’s are liable to encounter new ways to tackle them – ‘anything goes’ if it works. 

* “No enumerable set of potential solutions to a WP”:

The insight that the ‘solution space’ for WP’s may be infinite and impossible to define implies that claims of finding ‘optimal’ solutions are meaningless: there may be even better solutions somewhere in regions of the solution space that were not explored. This constrains the discussion to the more modest quest for solutions that are ‘good enough’ within the regions an approach is able to examine: a feature that was earlier proclaimed as ‘satisficing’?

* “No inherent ‘stopping rule’ for efforts to deal with WP’s”:

The implication of this feature is simply that stopping rules  for efforts to tackle WP’s are not provided by the problem itself but by constraints outside the problem but acting on the task force working on it – and as such ‘arbitrary’ and debatable: financial and time constraints being the most common such limitations. For the problem itself, ‘we can always try to do even better”. 

* “Every effort to deal with a WP is aone-shot operation’”: and

* “No trial and error’”:

These two properties are intimately related. We cannot rely on the trial and error strategy to learn how to ‘solve’ a WP: Any actions on the problem itself will expend resources, generate new consequences: the ‘next trial’ will now be a very different problem.  

* “The WP-planner has no ‘right to be wrong’:

Like the hypothesis-testing issue above, this aspect refers to a fundamental difference between science and WP-planning. The scientist having performed a test that refutes a hypothesis may be disappointed — but that is making a legitimate and rightful contribution to scientific knowledge. The would-be WP- solver failing to remedy the problem is actually ‘making things worse’. The plausible implication then is the call for holding the planner – or the decision-maker for the implementation of the plan liable’ — ‘accountable’ — for the failure. More often than not, such calls are rather meaningless, if there is no ‘account’ involved (other than perhaps a decision-maker’s position or ‘reputation’: how does it balance suffering of people affected by the problem of the wrong solution?). Should efforts be devoted to finding better ‘accounts’ for this issue? Rittel suggested one implication: the ‘complicity model’ of planning. Taking this aspect seriously, no decision-maker would be able to accept responsibility for major decisions if it required ‘investments’ equal to the risks of failure of plans. It would be necessary to find ‘accomplices’ willing to share that risk. Again, what kind of ‘account’, what ‘currency’ might be used for this?  (I have sketched one possible idea: the use of the ‘reputation’ account of ‘merit points’ earned for the value of contributions to the public discourse to have decision-makers ‘pay’ for important decisions.) 

* “Distributed information”:

This issue refers to several aspects of large public WP’s: 

    – The need to assemble ‘factual’ information about how the problem – and any proposed solutions — affect many different parties ‘out there’ – that are not yet documented and certified in knowledge bases and experts’ knowledge. This may require research and information-gathering for which the need will only become apparent as the discourse proceeds, so that initial estimates of needed resources will be unreliable; and initial surveys to gather such information will be insufficient: the questions to be answered will only emerge later on: the information-gathering effort must accompany the process throughout;

    – The question of ‘getting ‘ the information may require offering some incentives for people to contribute it – early enough to be useful (rather than complains after the fact) – and mechanisms for assessing its truthfulness or validity;

    – If the property of ‘not true or false but good or bad’ is valid, and thus should determine the decision, these judgments will have to be the judgments of the affected parties. This will require a clear distinction between ‘factual’ information (that must be ‘verified’) and goodness/badness judgments that must be accepted as individual’s assessments and aggregated into overall statistics of sentiments of approval or disapproval. This task is not adequately addressed by many ‘approaches’; the effort to achieve consent or even consensus in small task groups seems to sidestep rather than systematically and transparently confront it. (See also the issue of ‘making decisions ‘on behalf of others’, below.)

* “Nonlinear and counter-intuitive system behavior”:

It is the merit of ‘systems modeling’ to bring this issue to the attention of planners and decision-makers. The simulation models aim at overcoming the resulting prediction difficulties of this ‘complexity’ of the systems involved in WP’s. The connection between the prediction results and the ‘goodness’ judgments (of the many affected parties) has not been sufficiently well explored much less convincingly resolved.

* “The ‘doorknob’ syndrome:” 

The warnings against getting lost in the upward or downward ‘cause’ or ‘symptom’ issues of WP’s are understandable but carry the risk of under-estimating the reality and significance of such relationships.  The rules that can guide decision about how much attention to devote to them, like the ‘stopping rules’ discussed above, are often extraneous to the problem – which can lead to flawed decisions. 

* “Making decisions ‘’on behalf of others”: 

Governance and planning decisions on public issues have traditionally been taken by leaders, officials, or representatives of the community, with the justification that these decision-makers are sufficiently familiar with their constituencies to make decisions ‘on their behalf’.  This can mean one of two things: Either they know (or claim to know) ‘what’s best’ for the community — even if there are people in the community who disagree — or they know the basis of judgment (the way the community members relate their goodness judgments to the facts of the matter) well enough to make judgments ‘as the people themselves would’. Both assumptions have been questioned, and current efforts to validate either assumption are cumbersome and unconvincing, adding to the wickedness of the problem at hand. 

* “The ‘making a difference’ syndrome”:

Many people are perfectly content with the provisions of planning decisions being made by leaders, officials or hired consultants: delegation of work allows us to focus on ‘our’ work and priorities.  But to the extent people are – in the name of ‘citizen participation’ – becoming more extensively involved in public problem- solving issues, this makes that involvement a part of their lives, in which they may want to ‘make a difference’ – a somehow outstanding contribution. Consciously or subconsciously, this may mean ‘doing things differently’ from the way things have been done, or from what some recommended ‘approach’ or method is proposing. The planning process itself becomes a part of the plan, and they want to make it ‘theirs’. Regardless of how appropriate or allowable this may be in the view of other participants or approach promoters, this will introduce unforeseen complications into the process. If it is seen as part of these individuals’ ‘right to pursuit of happiness’ – that governments are supposed to ensure: should all public planning efforts include provisions for such efforts – and what would they look like? 

There may be some commonalities of implications in these properties that are not apparent in the individual items, and that deserve closer examination.  One such common assumption is the reference to the ‘WP solver’. Is this an unspoken and unquestioned assumption of a single designated person or team to do the problem-solving ‘on behalf’ of the community affected? The reality of public projects is that there are always multiple institutions with various decision-making responsibilities – the task then also involves the organization of constructive coordination between all these entities. 

A larger common aspect is that meaningful response to WP properties requires some common communication and coordination platform. For all the progress of information technology over the last decades, an appropriate and effective platform for this purpose remains to be developed.

The platform, finally, will also be the venue for reaching decisions. None of the WP properties mention this explicitly, but their implication is that the traditional decision-making modes (such as voting) do not meet the expectations of suitable responses to the issues – e.g. being based on transparently explained individual ‘goodness’ judgments. Especially for problems transcending existing governance boundaries with different decision-making entities and rules, this will become an urgent consideration. 

Are these sketchy observations indicating an urgent need for wider discussion? 

— o —

Can ‘Approach X’ be used to tackle Wicked Problems?

An invitation  to examine claims of design and planning approaches 

to effectively ‘solve’ wicked problems.

Thorbjørn Mann 2021

(This post is the first part of several attempts to explore the question, in comments or further posts)

The question whether certain design and planning approaches can be used to ‘solve’ or ‘tackle’ wicked problems [1] is an issue raised anew with each new ‘approach’ being brought out on the market. Such claims have been made for widely popular ‘thinking’ ways — ‘systems thinking, ‘design thinking’, ‘holistic thinking’, ‘sociocracy’ and Pattern Language [2], for example: 

The question may have to be restated somewhat. Of course every such approach ‘can’ be used to try to address wicked problems. If we only have one tool, that will be the one we will, indeed must use. But the real question is about the validity or plausibility of claims that an approach will reliably be effective and successful (indeed: the only or better one than others on the market). It is the one we must ask: the more so, the more serious and global and ‘wicked’ the emerging problems facing humanity are seen to be. 

Wicked problems (‘WP’ in the following) are expressed as statements of discrepancy between perceived real conditions and perceived opinions / desires about what those conditions ought to be. The wickedness resides in what Rittel and Webber called their properties — which cannot be stated often enough, (because many comments tend to omit or re-state them in ways that change their meaning): 

  • There is no definitive problem formulation that systems thinking or other approaches, Pattern Language etc. could ‘resolve’ by appropriately react to. Traditional problem-solving methods insist on starting by ‘clearly stating’ the problem; this is the first serious issue the WP view is raising: there are many ways a WP can be stated and explained.
  • Every wicked problem is essential unique: though there are always similarities with other, known problems, there are always new features that can make traditional ‘tried and true’ solutions inapplicable.
  • Any ‘solutions’ – proposed reactions – to WP’s are not ‘correct’ (true) or ‘wrong’ (false) but, in the opinions of affected parties, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, – and different parties tend to have different and opposing opinions as to which is good and which is bad. 
  • There are no immediate nor ultimate tests for the goodness or appropriateness of proposed ‘solutions’;
  • There are no well-described and finite sets of admissible operations (‘recipes, ‘approaches’, procedures, techniques, tools, and we may add: ‘thinking’ kinds, that can be brought to bear on WP’s.
  • There is no enumerable set of potential ‘solutions’ to a WP: in other words, the ‘solution’ space is infinite and multi-dimensional.
  • WP’s have no inherent ‘stopping rule‘ for efforts to deal with them — that is, a stopping rule inherent in the problem statement, that can tell the problem-solver to end the effort: we can always try to do a little better.
  • Every WP can be explained in many different ways, but can also be seen as a part or symptom of another problem or set of problems (the sets Ackoff [3] called ‘messes’).
  • Every WP is essentially unique. This implies that there are no ‘experts’ that can claim expertise from previous work on WP’s.
  • Every effort to deal with a WP is a ‘one-shot operation’ – each attempt to solve it counts significantly; ‘trial and error’ approaches are inappropriate, and any ‘another try’ is now a different problem – and will have consequences that can be seen by different affected parties as new problems.
  • The WP-planner has no ‘right to be wrong’ (as in ‘trial and error’) but is liable for the outcomes of any actions taken. 

Some additional aspects or implications of one or more of the above features can be added to this list:

     * The ‘unique’ aspects, especially regarding the ways a problem or the attempts at solving a WP affect different individuals or groups in the overall affected community, is that the information about these effects is distributed, not yet reliably collected in documentation or existing data bases, or in the memory and skill set of ‘experts’. The effort to confront a WP may involve the development and application of entirely new tools of information collection, analysis, and testing.

   * The connections and relationships between the components of ‘systems models’ of wicked problems and their context, can be multiple and contain various ‘loops‘ that add nonlinearity and sometimes counter-intuitive patterns to the behavior of the system over time: effects that many descriptions summarize as ‘complexity’ and excuse that wicked problems ‘can’t be solved’ (which doesn’t prevent some promoters of new approaches to claim that their approach can be used to solve WP’s…) 

   * The reality of problems of the wicked kind is that they are prime examples of the syndrome that even earlier systems efforts to describe systemic planning method recognized as the ‘doorknob syndrome‘ [4]: the problem of designing a better doorknob is inextricably embedded in 

a) ‘upward’ design issues: of the design of the door to which the doorknob will be attached, which may be accepted as ‘given’ — but perhaps included in the design considerations: (should it be a single-leaf or double-leaf or a sliding door, which depends on the wall into which the door will be set?) as well as the design of the spaces on either side, and so on until it ends up mulling the design of the society creating and inhabiting the building and the economic conditions of its production; and 

b) ‘downwards’ design issues and their context: the choice of material for the doorknob and its surfaces, which involves the production modes for each material choice, the available materials and their composition, supply chain etc. down to the atomic level of its components. 

The problem as it first is brought to attention can escalate in both directions, and the ‘context’ to be accepted as given at each level is not a matter of the logic of the problem itself. It is a choice on the part of the ‘planner(s) and as such involves another layer of uniqueness. 

Some ‘social’ aspects of public planning that, I feel, have not been sufficiently well acknowledged so far are the following: 

   * The discussions about WP talk about ‘the planner’ or entity (consulting firm) attempting to develop a plan for addressing the problem on behalf of the client community, or for a ‘governance’ decision-maker client who has the legitimacy and/or power to actually set in motion the plan the planner just recommends. The WP features seem to imply that the community as a whole should be both: planner and decision-maker, which may become part of the doorknob syndrome; but in any case raises the question of the appropriate (design of the) process and decision-making modes and criteria. This inevitably makes any WP a political problem, in addition to its own complexity;

  * To the extent the people respond to the demand for participation by devoting time and effort to public planning, this makes the planning process itself an inextricable part of the whole problem, — and of their own lives. People may have visions and desires of ‘making a difference’ in their participation in public affairs, making the entire project, planning process and outcome distinctly ‘theirs’. Consciously or unconsciously, they may work to not just accept any part of the work — attributes of the resulting plan as well as the process, but to do things distinctly ‘differently’ from traditional ways. Doing it ‘their way’, — objections of invested experts in the domain notwithstanding, who insist on having things done ‘professionally’ and ‘properly’, ‘according to standards and (collectively assumed norms and expectations. This desire to ‘make a difference may be intolerable to some who, like Aristotle, demanded to exclude any ‘subjective opinions’ from the resolution of public issues. But others, a key part of the very purpose of society is to empower and facilitate access of all its members to their own ‘pursuit of happiness‘. The need to ‘balance’ these two opposing forces makes the entire process of any significant planning process a wickedly unpredictable one — almost by definition.

Against this onslaught of wickedness stand the calls from victims of problems that ‘something ought to be done’. And what possible judgment can there be against any effort and approach to bring whatever tools and procedures and principles to bear on the problems we face? In principle, any theory, approach, method, perspective for working on problems, wicked or not, must be welcomed for discussion.

But given the variety of so many different ‘approaches’ and the impossibility of having them all work on the challenges we face, the question of ‘what makes an approach or method more or less likely to succeed in the battle against wicked problems?’ is equally legitimate and urgent. 

What are the strategies we might pursue in looking for answers to this question? The question can be stated more specifically: How can we assess the likelihood that a proposed approach will prevail against the different Wicked Problem Properties? 

Apart from the strange and isolated suggestion [5] that because they can’t really be solved, WP’s aren’t really problems — so we shouldn’t waste our efforts trying to solve them, — except maybe some tame aspects that admittedly are part of all WP’s? A few distinct strategies can be seen in the efforts of some proposed approaches to convince us that they indeed can ‘tackle wicked problems’. 

One possible strategy consists in reducing the impression of wickedness of the WP properties. The examination of this strategy would call for looking at each such proposal’s answer to each of the problem properties. 

Another strategy consists in pointing out how projects addressing WP’s have produced outcomes (‘solutions’) that have received enthusiastic approval by not only the ‘clients’ of projects but more importantly by the teams and participants working on them, as the main success criterion.

A third tack consists in ‘adapting’ the approach claiming to be useful tools for dealing with WP’s. For example, redirecting the focus of approach away from claiming that constructing solutions from ‘valid’ components will lend validity to any of potentially multiple solution generated so that only one such solution needs to be generated and does not need additional validation or evaluation) towards sets of general procedural recommendations that should be given ‘due consideration’. 

Two variants of this strategy, at opposite ends of a scale of quality ambition, are the ‘axiomatic’ approach (following e.g. the example of geometry) starting from ‘self-evident’ true first statements that don’t need further explanation or evidence to generate true theorems by combining the first axioms with equally valid logic arguments; and the example of government regulations e.g for buildings. The former must be followed to generate ‘valid’, beautiful buildings according to mostly qualitative aspects. Then, the validity of outcomes is ensured by following the process. The latter must be met to ensure minimal acceptable standards of e,g. safety and other objectively measurable criteria to get a permit. It involves minimal ‘evaluation’ efforts — checking whether the rules have actually been met. Qualitative concerns assessed by subjective judgments are more difficult to address with this approach.

These difficulties lead to efforts to construct ‘axiomatic’ theories for qualitative concerns — e.g. is Alexander’s effort to declare qualities such as ‘value’, ‘beauty’ and ‘life’ of built environments to be ‘matters of objective fact’ is an example of this strategy? Because the ‘axioms’ are not as universally accepted as ‘self-evident’ such efforts are considered controversial. 

Are there other possible avenues for building support for the position that a planning approach will be able to convincingly ‘tackle’ wicked problems? This post is an invitation to explore that question for discussion. Pending development of such strategies, it may be useful to examine the specific considerations needed for acceptance for some the above strategies in some detail. This will be the subject of follow-up posts: the first one of which will be the issue of how a given approach might respond to each of the WP properties to establish its validity.

— o —

[1] Rittel, H. and M.Webber: “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” [Panel on Policy Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 4, (1969) 155-169].

[2] e.g. Douglas Schuler, Aldo de Moor and Greg Bryant: “New Community Research and Action Networks : Addressing Wicked Problems Using Patterns and Pattern Languages.” 

[3] Ackoff, Russel: Resurrecting the Future of Operational Research | SpringerLink link.springer.com › article › jors.1979.41

[4] ‘Doorknobbing’ — a term and story I remember from my student days, warning against ‘over-thinking’ any given design problem, I do not remember its original author 

[5] Nelson, Harold: From a FB or WP SciO SystemsThinking discussions, I partially noted: “Wicked problems are indeterminate and thus are not real problems in any normative sense. Rittel chose politics as the strategy for dealing with them. They also reveal the difference between describing and explaining real-world systems (actually framing and naming them) and creating systems that are considered to be desirable by someone.”  

— o — 

What ‘supporting evidence’ does it take?

In the Fog Island Tavern

“Last call”
– What, Vodçek ? When we just are getting ready to solve some serious problems?
– Time waits for no procrastinating problem-solvers, Bog-Hubert.
– Okay then, a last  double Zin for me,  and the same double-seeing treatment for  this august problem-solving team…
–  Sigh. All right. Now, what was the humongous problem you were getting ready to solve?
– Good question. What was it again, Sophie? 
– Somebody here was wondering why Abbeboulah isn’t making any progress on his Occasion/Image theory for Architecture. 
– Right, that was it. Well, how do you know he isn’t making progress? 
– He ain’t on TV, and he ain’t getting rich from it so he can buy hissef a new boat.  That’s how we know. 
–  Good point, Renfroe. He doesn’t even show up in the Tavern much anymore. 
–  But he may be home making progress, eh?
–  Well, we’ll see,  But the question was why we don’t see any of that progress.
–  So was anybody having a good explanation? 
–  We were just getting to that.
– Yeah, somebody actually threw out several explanations we were going to discuss. 
– What explanations? 
–  Lets’ see if I remember all the  know-it-all wild ideas you guys were throwing around here in just a few minutes. There was the idea that he isn’t making progress, and the opposite idea that he is making progress but isn’t quite done yet.
–  Didn’t somebody suggest that he just isn’t doing any effective marketing, promoting the idea? 
–  Because he’s not interested in marketing, or not good at it?
–  Or because he doesn’t get any funding for it? 
–  Is it  important enough to get funding?  
–  Well, some friend of Abbeboulah’s was telling him that he should get off that fool’s errand of the global planning discourse system and finish the work on that occasion and image theory.
– Right, that was it. And somebody here said that it was because it wasn’t a real theory. Didn’t you,  professor? 
–  Well yes, I brought up the issue. But Abbeboulah himself  has never called those ideas a ‘theory’. He was just calling it a ‘Way of Talking”. 
– Well, then what was all the stuff he talked about here, then?  Sounded like some theoretical concoction to me?  What’s a theory, anyway? And why didn’t he call it one?
–  I guess he was trying to reserve the term for a more ‘scientific’ story — ‘scientific’ meaning  trying to find out what the world is like, and especially how or works.  What are the laws that govern what happens in ‘reality. The laws of nature?  And for that there are some features that he felt he wasn’t ready to claim. 
– What are those?
–  Well, a ‘theory’ in the ‘scientific’ sense is  a ‘way of talking’ — and more specifically: describing and explaining — some aspect of reality. So a theory, at the basic level, is a set of statements about that part of what we call ‘reality’ that identifies, distinguishes what we perceive, and provides descriptions of those distinguished things that help us understand what the theory is talking about, and recognize them in the world we perceive.  The set of statements should mutually support each other, that is, make sense as a coherent story. 
– Makes sense so far. 
– Yes, Sophie. but you see, there are a lot of ‘theories’ out there that made sense at some level, to many people, but that turned out to be wrong. The flat earth ‘theory’ for example. 
–  So how do we know whether a theory is right or wrong? 
–  Well, now: that’s the sticking point. ‘Science’ — meaning those called  the ‘natural sciences’ that look at reality and how it works, — has developed some good criteria for what makes a valid scientific theory. They rest on observation: We observe some aspects of ‘reality’, and try to state a ‘law’ that explains why things happen they way they happen. Then we  state a ‘hypothesis’ that goes like this:  If the law is true, we should observe an effect  (evidence, consequence, result, implication) of the law. So we look around, or make an experiment of a situation where only the law is supposed to be at work, to see if the evidence shows up. If is does — we can say that the experiment results ‘support’ the hypothesis. Not ‘proves’: supports.
–  And if it doesn’t?
–  Excellent question, Renfroe. If it doesn’t, we will have to say that the hypothesis was wrong. Refuted. ‘Falsified’. Or that our experiment was  flawed. Which means that we have learned something, that helps us develop better hypotheses, theories, observation and experiment tools. But it also means that a  theory, to be scientific, must be able to be ‘tested’, and potentially be refuted, with observations and experiments. There must be some possible observation that would tell us the theory is wrong.
–  So if it can’t be tested in some way, it isn’t scientific? 
–  Right. 
–  But can it be a theory without being scientific? 
–  If you are willing to stick with a plausible but limited understanding of the term ‘theory’ as just a set of statements about the world that are mutually connected and supported, sure. But the problem is that for the things we are doing, we want, need knowledge (especially in planning for the future)  that we can trust. The can help us construct buildings that will hold up to the forces of winds and snow and rain and earthquakes. 
–  But didn’t you just say, in so many words,  that there’s no theory we can trust with 100% certainty — if there’s a possibility that it’s wrong?  
–  Yes, the upshot is that we are always taking chances, making a bet. Anybody telling you the theory he’s betting on is 100% foolproof doesn’t know what they are talking about. But then, would you invest a lot of money and effort  on a plan when the theory supporting it can’t be tested, verified or refuted — at all? 
–  So are you saying that Abbe Boulah isn’t calling these ideas a ‘theory’ because he hasn’t been able to test it yet?
– Wait:  his ideas or ‘Way of Talking’, as he calls it: isn’t it about planning the built environment? 
– Right. Oh, I see what you are getting at:  if it consists of statements about the future, how can they be tested? You can’t observe the outcomes of doing something if it hasn’t been done yet?
–  But that goes for all the knowledge and theories we have to do our planning with? 
–  Yes. And that is why some of the bright idea buildings that have been built  turned out out to be big mistakes. And have to be blown up, if they didn’t fall down by themselves. 
–  That’s scary. You are saying that we live in built environments that are planned and built on nothing but unsupported bets?
–  Yes, Sophie. But it isn’t all just pipe dream bets. All buildings, no matter how experimental, use a lot of knowledge that has been fairly well supported — by experience, and by predictions using logic and calculation. Even testing, for example whether the concrete has been mixed right. So most buildings are fairly safe. The environments based on new ‘ways of talking’ will still be built to reasonable standards of safety and performance.  But the claims about how some new shapes and forms will or won’t make users happy, or make money for the owners and developers, those are much less supported by solid evidence, — and can’t claim the status of scientific theories. So does it make sense for him to avoid the pretentious label of ‘theory’ — that some people use to make their ideas sound more scientific and reliable? 
–  Are you saying they are selling snake oil? 
–  I’m not accusing anybody — just saying its a plausible temptation;  just investigate and make up your own mind.
– But …
– Yes, Sophie? 
– Well, if it sounds like a good idea, what does it take to produce enough of  what you call ‘supporting evidence’? Even for part of a story?  That would make more people willing to take bets on a theory even if it’s only half- or three-quarter-baked? 
–  Good question. Maybe that’s what Abbe Boulah is working on:  What would it take to develop reasonable supporting evidence for this occasion and image story?
Any ideas?  What, Vodçek? 
– Hey, that’s enough. Don’t start another round of  swapping unsupported ideas. By ol’ procrastinator king Valdemar Atterdag’s famous prediction:  Tomorrow is another day! Last call!  What supporting evidence does it take, mon cul!
–  We’re counting on it… 
–  I said: tomorrow!

Ideologies as Contagious Illnesses?

For discussion: An issue involving two current problems.

A paper on the “sociopathy of ideologies” by Dr. Hans Grunicke [1] raises a question whether ideologies can be seen as contagious ‘illnesses’, especially with regard to the way they spread and react to prevention and ‘treatment’. If so, the comparison might reveal helpful suggestions about more effective ways of responding to either one. 

There are important issues about such comparisons that need clarification. For example, there is more common consensus about the state of affairs we call ‘health’ and ‘life’ that is being threatened by a virus, and that it should be resisted and ‘defeated’, than about competing ideologies that each see themselves as the ‘healthy’ state and the other as the ‘unhealthy’ and potentially ‘toxic’ threat. So the definitions of health or ‘soundness’ and unhealthy, toxic features of ideologies will be obvious controversies.

Two first tentative ‘maps’ of the forces and effects involved may help to start the examination of this idea. The ‘epidemic’ map tries to show interventions of societies to maintain or restore ‘health’ and the productive or counterproductive ‘loops in that system, with ‘society’s main intervention agents as ‘government’ and ‘media’. In the ‘ideology’ map the part of ‘health-defending’ party is simply shown as the ‘dominant’ ideology responding to the effort of one ‘alternative’ ideology to become dominant. 

Some first observations concern the role of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ loops or circular forces. The ‘ideology’ map shows a clear patterns of escalating actions and countermeasures that can be seen as a toxic vicious cycle or spiral towards violent confrontation (‘war’) where one ‘ideology’ will remain or win dominance over the other. Each action can be seen as leading to escalation, even when intended as a means of forcing the sequence back onto a ‘lower’ level of confrontation in the system.

The ‘pandemic’ map does not show one clear overall ‘escalation’ loop. Of course there also is escalation, determined by success or failure of prevention and treatment interventions over time. But an equally important role is played by several potentially positive or negative feedback loops, that affect society’s compliance with the needed or recommended efforts: Government measures that prove ineffective to combat the pandemic, plausibly reduce public confidence in those measures, and thus reduce the public’s compliance with those measures, just as their visible effectiveness would increase confidence. But that same confidence that “the pandemic is under control” also can reduce the compliance, inducing a false sense of reduced risk. The effects of government and media communication to the public will further complicate these effects. (The media role in the ‘ideology’ system should be added to the map and investigation.)

The maps show that there are many possible ‘intervention’ points in each network (numbered for further detailed discussion) of each item. Is this contrary to the impression in the general discussion that covers only a few contested issues? Should public discussion in both domains be more concerned with comprehensive strategies consisting of several ‘treatment’ possibilities at the many intervention points?

[1] Dr. Hans Hermann Grunicke: “Zur Soziopathie von Ideologien”: (unpubl. draft 2020), private communication.

Added diagram to March 13 comment.