Wednesday, April 15, 2015

If only economists understood that it is wicked problems all around :(

The commie leanings during my early years were primarily why I ditched electrical engineering.  Of course, I ditched most of the commie thoughts even before I applied for a student visa to come to the US, and over the years have come to even delight at the nonsense spouted by "socialists."

Engineering, however, gave a false sense of confidence about solving the pressing problems.  I simply believed that qualified minds had to approach the problems like how engineers tackled problems and, bingo, the world will become a better place.  Come to think of it, that is what the commie thinking also told me ;)

And then came the reading list in the first year of graduate school.  Through that I came to realize that an engineering approach to solving problems will not work for the social issues that I wanted to not only study but solve.  Because, of the "wicked problems."

If you have never come across the phrase 'wicked problems" before, hey, it isn't your fault--you had better things to do than go to graduate school and doodle around like I did ;)  Ok, seriously, there is a fair chance you have not come across that phrase before, but the moment you read up about it, you will fall in love with that idea.  Soon, the world will look like it has nothing but wicked problems.

So, what the hell is a wicked problem, you ask?  Instead of directing you to the papers by Churchman, Webber, and Rittel, I will give you the Wikipedia overview:
[A] problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of term "wicked" here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.
You see right away plenty of examples, right?

Now, if only economists understood that most of what they study is also nothing but wicked problems.  Instead, they believe that economics is a science--like physics--and, therefore, they can solve the problems like how we can approach scientific problems.  Thus, it is no surprise to me when I read this:
Ten years ago, a survey published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that 77 percent of the doctoral candidates in the leading American economics programs agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "economics is the most scientific of the social sciences."
In the intervening decade, a massive economic crisis rocked the global economy, and most economists never saw it coming. Nevertheless, little has changed: A new paper from the same publication reveals how economists continue to believe that their science is superior to all other social sciences
Yep, as the joke goes, economists have correctly predicted eight of the last six recessions! ;)

The author--Moisés Naím--notes:
The world is still living with the effects of the most recent economic crisis, and the inability of economists to offer solutions with a significant degree of agreement shows how urgently their discipline needs to be disrupted by an injection of new ideas, methods, and assumptions about human behavior.
Yep, remember that old joke about President Truman calling for a one-handed economist?

Naím concludes his piece with this:
Ten years ago, I suggested that economists would “be well advised to trade in their intellectual haughtiness for a more humble disposition.” That's advice that has yet to be heeded.
Makes it quite a wicked problem for economists!


Ramesh said...

Ha Ha. Some economist has rubbed you the wrong way today morning.

Of course economics is not a "science" in the same league as say physics. It is dealing with the human mind after all, and can anybody predict human behaviour with scientific precision ? Economists can only point to the balance of probabilities, that's all. Yes, a dose of humility would be very good, but I haven't seen that elusive quality in academic bigwigs of any branch (this blog's author excepted)

There's actually a term called "wicked problems" ?? That's twice in a row from your posts that I have learnt a new word.

By the way, how come US politics is not getting the attention it deserves from you. Everybody down the street is jumping on to the presidential race, the Senate wants to have a final say in international negotiations with Iran (the Ayatollahs have to negotiate with 100 windbags ??), Congress invites Bibi to speak when he is on an election campaign, Jon Stewart is leaving, and you are quiet about all this ? Say something !!

Sriram Khé said...

Economists rub me the wrong way every day. But then so do political scientists, sociologists, management experts, politicians, religious leaders, ... the list is endless ;)

Blogging about the kinds of issues you have listed is easy. Going after the easy stuff has never been in the story of my life ... hehehe ... I do tweet about those--that is the extent to which I want to waste my time on that. But then you don't use Twitter!

BTW, check this out:
well, the link there--another simpatico ;)

Ramesh said...

Since I am in the mood to quibble, your comment should have ended as another simpatici :):) Ha Ha.

By the way, that article is one that everybody in the world other than Professors would agree with totally. You really should (OK, shd) tell your colleagues.

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