Michael Gove just said the Brexit campaign didn’t need experts anymore — who needs facts? Trump dispenses with them too. Politicians are regularly accused of using partial, misleading, or outright false statistics to make their case — thus further fuelling the general distrust for facts: if data can prove both sides of an argument, what good is data for? Hence the rise of “truthiness“, as Stephen Colbert put it in 2005: the reliance on gut feelings to judge whether something is true or not, with no regard to facts or even basic logic.
How did we come to that? A common argument is that the world has become so complex that simple solutions don’t work anymore. Yet if one adopts this view, then policymaking is dead: the problems we face are intractable, and there is no point even trying to solve them. We just have to resign ourselves to the fact that global warming, mass unemployment or income inequality are here to stay forever.
And yet, in all “truthiness”, we know we cannot accept that. So what can we do? An insight was provided in 1973 by urban planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, when they identified the difference between “simple” and “wicked” problems. Simple problems are easily defined and identified. They may not be easy to solve, but at least you know which team of experts to call to work on them, and everyone can agree on how to measure their progress.
Wicked problems, in comparison, are difficult to circumscribe. They are multidimensional, draw from different disciplines and have consequences in various spheres of the world. Company profits are an example: per se, (almost) no one cares whether they are high or low. But look at them through the perspective of income inequality, unemployment, or competitiveness, and suddenly everyone cares but no one can agree.
The problem with wicked problems is that a number of them are artificially created. Global warming is not an opinion; it is fact. Reducing carbon emissions will have an impact on company profits and purchasing power; but the alternative (massive flooding and desertification, with large population displacements) is worse. So what has been the answer of some parts of the US corporate sector? Making the whole problem look less well-defined, less certain (“scientists can’t predict the weather, how can they predict the climate?”), and add all sorts of dimensions to it (US competitiveness, access of the poorest to energy, energy security…) so as to make action nearly impossible.
Yet there is hope. This week, the OECD released a report highlighting that it’s all good and well to focus on income inequality, but it’s all superfluous for the millions of people who do not receive any income — ie, are unemployed. It is possible to establish priorities: first, let’s fix Europe’s 40-year-old mass unemployment, then we’ll have time to think about whether company margins are too high.
Populists delight in offering apparently simple solutions to intractable problems. But what we really need is for the political debate to clarify and prioritise the issues; and then, we’ll probably realise that what we need to fix them are experts, not demagogue lunatics with puffy blonde hair…