Monday, June 25, 2012

Covering wicked problems

This is a keynote address by Jay Rosen (journalism professor at New York University) to the 2nd UK Conference of Science Journalists, June 25, 2012 at The Royal Society, London.

Jay Rosen

I think every writer, every journalist, every scholar, should tell you where he’s coming from before he tells you what he knows. I am not a science journalist, or a science blogger, or a scientist who writes. But I am interested in your world, and I try to follow developments in it. My field of study is what I call “pressthink,” which is sort of like groupthink– but for people in journalism. Lately I have been fixated on the problems of the press as it tries to adapt to the digital world. So that’s what I do. But it’s not where I’m coming from.
Culturally, I’m a secular Jew. (From New York.) Demographically, a baby boomer. Socially, I’m an introvert who has learned to fake conviviality. Politically, a liberal democrat. Musically: lost. Intellectually, I am a pragmatist. Among professional philosophers, practitioners of what used to be called “moral science,” pragmatism is sometimes called the only homegrown American philosophy. William James and John Dewey are the heroes of the discipline, and two big ideas animate us. First: the test of a good idea is what you can do with it. A thinker should be try to be useful. Second: pragmatists believe that our knowledge advances not when we have the best theory, or the best data, or the best lab, but when we have really good problems.
And that’s what I have for you today: a really juicy puzzle. It begins with a distinction that I have found useful. The distinction is between tame and wicked problems. Now given what’s happened to science writer Jonah Lehrer lately I should tell you that I’ve written about this issue before and since I said it about as well as I could say it then, I am going to say it in a similar way again… okay?
Here is a problem that anyone who has lived in New York City must wonder about: it’s impossible to get a cab at 5 pm. The cause is not a mystery: taxi drivers tend to change shifts around 4 to 5 pm. Too many cabs are headed to garages in Queens because when a taxi is operated by two drivers 24 hours a day, a fair division of shifts is to switch over at 5 o’clock. Now this is a problem for the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, it may even be a hard one to solve, but it is not a wicked problem. For one thing, it’s easy to describe, as I just showed you. That right there boots it from the category.
Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. 
There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.

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