Climate Science: A Super-Wicked Mess

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., 14 March 2012 — Climate science is a wicked mess. That’s not a political statement or a casual description of the difficulties of the man-made global warming knife fight. It’s a technical term some social scientists use to shed light on complex, convoluted, interconnected problems. It also provides a useful way to look at the controversy swirling around the issues of global warming and what, if anything, to do about them.

I owe my awareness of this emerging way of looking at complex social and political issues to Georgia Tech climate scientist Judith Curry, who blogged about wicked messes and climate recently. Her blog is consistently among the most interesting and provocative of many I follow on the subject of global warming.

The guru of messy science is political scientist Robert Horn, a visiting scholar at Stanford University. He coined the term “social messes” to describe “those problems about which different people have very different perceptions and values concerning their nature, their causes, their boundaries, and their solutions. They are the problems that bring out two or more points of view from the first mention of them.” Sound familiar?

According to Horn, attributes of social messes include, among others: no unique “correct” view of the problem; contradictory solutions; missing or uncertain data; ideological, economic and political constraints; consequences difficult to imagine; great resistance to change; and problem solvers who are not in contact with the problems or potential solutions.” Social messes are characterized by such complexity that they are difficult to analyze and even more difficult to resolve.

Horn's Climate Social Mess

For a graphic depiction of social messes, take a look at Horn’s map of what he calls the climate “labyrinth.” The visual can be downloaded as a PDF and makes an interesting, and somewhat terrifying, piece of office wall art.

Next come “wicked problems.” In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, professors of design and urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, came up with this moniker in an article in Policy Sciences. Among the characteristics of wicked problems: no definitive formulation (defining a wicked problem is itself a wicked problem); the are unique; every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem; there is no intermediate or ultimate test of a solution.

Finally, let’s look at “super-wicked problems,” introduced by a group of social scientists in 2007 at a technical meeting, and later in 2009 to a climate gathering in Denmark. Added to mere wickedness, the super-wicked problems are characterized by running against time constraints, with no central authority capable of solving them; those charged with solving the problem are also causing it; and the problem is surrounded by “hyperbolic discounting,” a term from economics meaning that decision makers make choices that are inconsistent over time.

What do we learn from these amusing terms about mind-boggling conundrums? First, they provide an understanding that simplistic solutions (regulation or faux market mechanisms) might not work to tease out these policy Gordian knots. Nor will Alexander’s terrible, swift sword. But there are promising problem-solving approaches. Horn has been applying concepts of visual analytics (see the link I provided above to his climate mess map) and Robert Weber has been analyzing a tool based on scenario planning. Both approaches also use a form a cloud sourcing and both are very visual.

Together, Horn and Weber published an influential paper in 2007 titled New Tools for Resolving Wicked Problems. They write: “These tools can be successful where others have failed (or have feared to tread) because both incorporate or address uncertainty and risk; complexity; systems interacting with other systems; competing points of view and values; different people knowing different parts of the problem (and possible solutions); and intra- and interorganizational politics.”

Judith Curry comments, “I find this pretty interesting. Climate change to me seems to be the mother of all messy super-wicked problems. I like the mess mapping approach, with scenarios, etc. This makes much more sense to me than developing a scientific consensus that all but demands a specific policy.”