Monday, January 01, 2007

Kinds of Hard (ctd.)

Some follow-ups on the earlier post:

Nancy Robertsapproach is essentially social, and based on a problem/solution dichotomy:

  • simple problems: consensus on problem definition and solution
  • complex problems: agreement on problem definition, but not solution
  • wicked problems: no agreement on either definition or solution
In this approach, the amount of conflict increases as one moves from one type to another.

Jerry Talley defines eight problem types which he groups into three clusters (for more details, see intro, overview with issues, definitions with examples)
  • basic problems: characterized by confidence in existence of solution, but lack time or key pieces of information to solve
  • mysterious problems: characterized by confusion, complexity, and hidden dynamics
  • dangerous problems: characterized by disagreement and conflict
Roberts and Talley both focus on organizational dynamics, and thus understate the difficulty of some scientific problems, which they would characterize as “simple” or “basic,” respectively.

Since we’re in a Rule of Three Mode, here’s my working model:

1. Analytical problems

These are problems which can be stated clearly, e.g. problems in science and mathematics. Answering them may relatively easy, as in puzzles, or hard in various degrees, such as solving equations in multi-dimensional quantum field theories. Roberts’ “simple problems” and Talley’s “Puzzles” (in the “basic problem” cluster) fall into this category.

2. Social problems

Interaction between people is the complicating factor here. Arguably, all the problems considered by Roberts and Talley are social problems. “Wicked problems” fall in this class.

3. Cognitive problems

These problems are also hard because of human nature, but in this case it’s a problem in the individual. They include the phenomena studied under the heading of cognitive biases, behavioral finance, neuroeconomics, etc.

These three are attribute classes, rather than categories; a problem won’t fit neatly into a class. Very hard problems will have aspects of all three. For example, conflicts in social problems are often exacerbated because each participant has their own confirmation bias. Scientific controversies often combine analytical questions with conflicts over what counts as a valid solution, a characteristic of social problems.

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