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Wicked (2)

What do we do about wicked problems? --That is, problems that we can't all even agree exist, much less define well; problems that have no metric for determining their extent, or even whether our interventions mitigate them? I don't have answers, but will venture to suggest a direction for us to look.

The internet has exposed a flaw in our grand plan to unite humanity: it turns out that increasing people's ability to exchange messages does not, by itself, increase their ability to communicate. The Net has developed a centripetal power: for every community it brings together, it seems to drive others apart. Eli Pariser's idea of the Filter Bubble is an expression of this phenomenon. This problem arises because it is easier to communicate with people who share the same understanding of the meaning of a given set of terms and phrases than with people who have a different understanding of these meanings. Automatic translation is not an answer to our diverging worldviews, because each person and social group has their own private grammar. It takes work to learn it and that work can't be offloaded to an automated system. At least, not entirely.

That's why processes that tackle complex group cognition usually exhibit an obsession with words. For instance, in Structured Dialogic Design (an example I use just because it's one I know well) most of the session's time is spent learning what people mean by the terms they're throwing around. This may seem boring and tedious, but it's absolutely essential--the unsexy plumbing work of the 21st century.

For instance, if we were to try to scale up SDD or a similar process, we might create a web-based system in which participants are allowed to define a problem or issue. The person who defines the issue owns it. Other participants can then participate in discussion and brainstorming around the issue, but in order to become part of the brainstorming group, they first have to submit a rephrasing of the issue. The owner of the issue decides whether their restatement indicates that they understood what he/she meant. If they have exhibited an understanding of how that issue is being framed for the purposes of this discussion, they can then proceed to help work on it.

Also critical is the question of who gets to work on a problem. To put it bluntly, the people who are affected by proposed changes need to have a say in them. The person who defined the issue doesn't get to say who the stakeholders are; a wider and more inclusive process does this--and political representation has a place here. If you don't have this inclusion of interested parties, you get the kind of botched social experiments that James C. Scott talks about in his book Seeing Like a State. (Think Soviet collectivization.) In systems terminology, you fail to properly employ Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety.

In my theoretical problem solving app, if the issue as defined can't attract representatives from enough of the identified stakeholder groups, then there's something wrong with the definition of the problem, and discussion on it cannot proceed.

We have other biases and limitations to work around. One is the Erroneous Priorities Effect, which arises when groups are allowed to vote on the relative importance of a set of issues. Straight democratic voting breaks down in this circumstance; you need to do a binary pairing exercise, where you ask, "would solving issue A help solve issue B?" and then "would solving issue B help solve issue A?" iteratively through the issues until you build an influence map that shows the true root(s) of the problematic mess. This is one process where computers can be of immense help; this is how the CogniScope software for SDD works.

So much for fantasizing about what I would do if I were king; these are just suggestions. I do think, though, that this stuff should be built into our social media at a very basic level. Why is it even possible to have misunderstandings online when we have all these tools at hand to help prevent them? It's because social media systems like Facebook are just the tricycle version of what social media will become. Facebook barely hints at what's coming; it's social media with training wheels on. What's coming is political media, media that extract commitments from their users and employ those commitments to help solve complex, otherwise intractable real-world problems. (Existing collective intelligence apps such as Wikipedia rely on community involvement, but as Aleco Christakis puts it, involvement is to commitment as ham is to eggs: the chicken is involved, the pig is committed.)

So what the skill-sets needed for this next great leap forward? I can tell you, it's not computer programmers that we'll need; it's not technologists. We need social scientists. A lot of them.

I wrote my great nanotech book back in the 90's. I've played the augmented reality and artificial intelligence cards in my novels. Biotech is yesterday's future. --No--what I'll be writing about from now on--what the 21st century will belong to--is cognitive and social science, because our technological society's one big blind spot is that we can imagine everything about ourselves and our world changing except how we make decisions. That is precisely the sea-change that is rushing toward us--or more properly, that we have the historic opportunity to seize and design. Our age belongs not to some attempted re-engineering of human nature, the sort of thing that so many millions died for in the last century. It belongs to a maturing of our ability to govern ourselves as we are.

Because it doesn't matter what we're capable of doing, if we continue making the wrong decisions about what to do.



Karl - you hit on a lot of points. One that struck a chord with me is the vocabulary problem. As a consultant (big ERP, focused on the HR domain) I see the same challenges on every engagement - but resolution is a truly wicked problem....

  • The customer (client) knows exactly what they want - but don't know how to say it except in their own terms
  • The prime consultant has a 'lingua franca' that it tries to employ across all clients, and needs to translate client speak on the fly (otherwise they would never get the gig.... and we need to DELIVER, PEOPLE!), It has, at best, an inkling of what the client wants, and tries to approach the truth asymptotically over time.
  • The Prime communicates requirements to sub-contractors, specialists in a particular area, or simply additional bodies in a general sense. These folks might understand some of the language used by the prime, but mostly wont. Resulting in a lot of "thrashing" in requirements and a lot of failed tests! (but that's good, right?)
  • To address this properly requires either clients to learn the common consultant tongue (not going to happen, ever); OR consultants need to engage with clients long enough so that they can speak exclusively in client terms before the project is fully defined (they try for the long term, usually for revenue reasons... but seldom get to the client tongue phase); OR everyone needs to recognize that a common project vocabulary is needed.

    We always try to get commonality, but most of the problems I see on engagements are of the form: "I didn't know that was what you meant..."

    Much of Program Management (IMHO, and beyond the day to day stuff) is about managing the definitional challenges around misunderstandings in scope declarations.


    (B): Involvement vs commitment.

    similar challenge - lots of people want to be involved in defining requirements... but few are willing to make the commitment to get accurate and understandable requirements.

    Anecdotally - lots of stake-holders, but no-one willing to pound those stakes into the ground.


    The internet has exposed a flaw in our grand plan to unite humanity: it turns out that increasing people's ability to exchange messages does not, by itself, increase their ability to communicate.

    Tower of Babel? or should that read tower of babble?

    We need social scientists. A lot of them.

    This had me rolling on the floor with laughter. In case you haven't noticed, there are plenty of people out there already with no appreciable skill sets.


    Capturing the language of discourse - you have just defined political correctness.


    "What's coming is political media, media that extract commitments from their users and employ those commitments to help solve complex, otherwise intractable real-world problems."

    You have just defined Zero State!


    I am not sure how many cognitive and social scientists you know, but my experience is that of two fully incompatible worlds.

    I'm seeing here more and more teams forming around "social neuroscience" and of course there's "social psychology". The first mainly depends on modeling based on observable, testable physical processes and the second tends more towards statistical methods. That's two essentially empirically based methods of inquiry.

    Social sciences as in "Department of sociology" are - at least around here - no natural sciences in the way Thomas Kuhn understands them. There is no method other than a beauty contest of verbal arguments without any real hope of ever getting resolved. Ever tried to read Bourdieu? That stuff should be declared an illegal addictive substance, not suitable for persons with a narcissistic personality disorder.

    Now, to build an empirical social science, that's the best idea since whatnot. And playing around with recursive processes definitely is a promising start. But to have something approaching science status, you need to systematically produce data and feed that data back into the process of generating more data.

    If you just have one method, that happens to work most of the time, that ain't bad either, but it's a different dynamic - I'd rather call it social technologist than scientist. Which - admittedly - might still be useful.

    Is there a place where people systematically work on this stuff?


    In my theoretical problem solving app, if the issue as defined can't attract representatives from enough of the identified stakeholder groups, then there's something wrong with the definition of the problem, and discussion on it cannot proceed.

    This is false, in my opinion.

    A widely known counter-example is the premise in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where Earthlings are not properly notified of the problem they face (the impending destruction of the Earth) and so cannot engage on it.

    This is a comic example, but as an environmentalist I deal with this all the time. It shows up in the following: --Which meeting(s) do I have time to go to? --Which documents do I have time to review? --How do I prioritize which problems get my limited resources of time and attention?

    As an underemployed expert, I get called on to give quite a lot of this input. Were I fully employed, I actually could not attend any of the meetings.

    There are a number of interesting ways in which bureaucracies, political groups, and companies attempt to work around this problem, to engage interested people.

    The issue with these work-arounds is that they are vulnerable to ignorance, idiocy, and laziness. In other words, it's easy for people not to know, it's easy for people not to have enough knowledge to feel empowered to engage, and it's easy for people to not want to deal with a tedious process when there's something more interesting to do.

    Ultimately, I'd say that the issue isn't necessarily the definition of the problem, it's the resources required to engage the right people to work on the problem. Currently, these resources are often solicited as gifts of time and energy, often from people who don't have much of either to spare. A good problem solving app provides the time and energy (and space) for the people to engage properly. Not that this is easy, but that's the issue.


    jboss, you raise a very good point. I don't want people to confuse what I'm talking about here with what's come to be called Critique--the whole maundering discourse of postmodern self-referentialism whose authors Northrop Frye referred to as writing prose "like horses slurping water." I mean the kind of social science that develops and tests insights such as the Erroneous Priorities Effect--giving a name to the intangibles of human interaction that frustrate us so often, and providing the grounds for solutions.

    Ethnographers who do interface and service design do the kind of wheels-to-the-ground professionals that I'm thinking of in this context.


    heteromeles: also an excellent point!


    dirk bruere: No, I believe I'm describing the exact opposite of Zero State. The slaughterbench of genocidal warfare that was the 20th century was largely driven by competing theories of human perfectibility. I'm not interested in "improving" mankind and what I described above was not a programme to do that.


    You still need technologists to make sure your tools - which you need - will do what you think they're doing. But even more importantly, a sufficiently elegant technical analysis will generally involve a great deal of semantic clarification of your actual process. (There's not really a real difference between semantics and programming, in my eyes.)

    Without that semantic clarity, you're not even going to be working on the same project. In fact, I could make the argument that the process of arriving at this semantic clarity is precisely what you're talking about in the first place.


    Zero State is a whole slew of projects and ideas, some political and religion based, along with social networking coupled into alternative economic communities (think Facebook+Freemasonry). However, it's still being defined, so keep looking in occasionally.


    I absolutely agree with this. In "real" life and when on the net I always start off by asking people for their definitions. The amount of wasted time I've experienced in my life because after hours of arguing it gets to the point that you both realise that you either agree on things or that you were arguing different things in the first place. All because of definitions!

    This kind of thing should be taught at school!


    Before talking religion, define the words "soul", "spirit" and "God"


    @vivtek: There's not really a real difference between semantics and programming


    semantics is all about meaning (the meaning of meaning, even)

    programming is about 'concrete expression of an idea' (not necessarily in a more amenable form)

    What makes you think they are the same?


    What is this “grand plan to unite humanity” of which you speak? Is that the same as the “New World Order” I keep hearing about? Whatever it is, it sounds like a very bad idea.

    More social scientists can solve the world’s problems? Surely you jest! I can think of few more useless elements of society. If you want this socially networked, affluent civilization to continue, you need more hard scientists and engineers who can produce the energy sources and other technologies that keep it running. What you’re talking about is more rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic via Facebook, which is a pretty good description of our civilization at the moment!


    There's some relevant smaller-scale work being done in security economics and behavioural economics - research into cognitive biases and how we make our decisions. Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational" is a really good starting point; I've seen it on an economics conference's reading list.


    I can't help but think framing these issues as 'problems, but very difficult ones' is simply the wrong starting point. Some of them may have that kind of complex difficulty, but others don't. And that doesn't make those particularly more likely to get resolved.

    For the Queen's birthday, you have to arrange a bonfire on an island across a rope bridge. The fire needs 400 logs, and it will take one worker 2 minutes to cross the bridge carrying a log. 3 workers can be on the bridge at any time, and every 200th worker that crosses will get eaten by a crocodile. You have 3 days and 50 workers.

    Considered as a problem, that's not remotely 'difficult' - unless I got the numbers wrong, the straightforward approach works with plenty to spare.

    The difficult part is that it will require lots of men to spend hours hauling logs in the sun, and some will die.

    Rephrase the problem as 'persuade the Queen to have her birthday bonfire somewhere else', or 'launch a revolution', and it is still going to be a task, or a fight, more than it is a problem.


    Another problem may be that once people clearly define what they mean then the common fudge of misunderstanding disappears and the deep and previously hidden divisions becomes visible. I have experienced this on one notable occasion that had a huge effect on my life.


    @Sith Master Sean:

    Did you really not understand the rationale for such useless elements of society? That structured communication is a necessity for approaching an understanding and attempting resolution of wicked problems?

    Technology is fine, and has delivered many fine things, but it presumes that every problem is a technologic nail amenable to the hammer. (and I say this as a complete hard-core geek, head to toe).

    Communication is key to the resolution of wicked problems. And whatever else they are, Social Scientists do understand communication.

    I would agree, somewhat, with you and with others that a firmer, less wooly foundation (more hard science than soft) is necessary in socials sciences so that it truly becomes repeatable, falsifiable science.


    @Soru: Rephrase the problem is part of what makes these problems wicked. None of the stakeholders can agree on a common reformulation of the problem/issue.


    SDD is a con. The Delphi Method is a con. It is a way to take real concerns, dilute those concerns among noise, and come up with a so called "consensus" solution that "honors" the "stakeholders".

    Every single method that is used, has a facilitator or moderator that runs the sessions, controls the discussion, fabricates the "solution". In 24 years of participating, with 3 to 4 events like this each year, they were all about disabling the workers from effectively fighting management for change. Each group was hired specifically by management to shut down the workers organizing, to find the trouble makers, to give the appearance that management was doing all they could to "solve the problem".

    Any episode of the Simpson's, like building the monorail, etc..., is the perfect example of the con.

    Read Dilbert for more examples of SDD in action.


    @dick bruere the deep and previously hidden divisions becomes visible

    When visible they become amenable to analysis and management.

    It's not the tiger you see who kills you - it's the one hidden in the bushes.


    I suppose what I should have said is that the real work of programming is at the semantic level, because without understanding the problem to be solved, the solution itself has no meaning (haha, see what I did there?) The concrete level is just ... details.

    The fact that the vast majority of programming misses that point isn't my fault! Honest!

    Reading further into Karl's post, I'm struck by two things. First: yes. We will still have misunderstandings, simply because usually people want them. The Hoosier redneck doesn't want to understand the plight of the urban poor - that would just create more problems he's much more comfortable not thinking about or trying to solve.

    Second: I question the utility of building these tools into "all our social media". The vast preponderance of social communication has nothing whatsoever to do with solving problems or forging new understanding; 95% of it is "Hello, I'm still alive", another 4% is "I saw this neat thing," and maybe the remaining 1% (generously) is some attempt to communicate something new.

    But it's entirely possible I'm laboring under some preconceptions. This is a thought-provoking post.


    I don't see any evidence that social scientists can solve wicked problems. Can you think of any examples?

    Wicked problems are usually "solved" either by radical innovation that makes the problem obsolete, or by war and collapse of civilizations. So if we want to avoid the 2nd method, we should be investing our resources in more innovation and hope for the best. New methods of communication will arise naturally as a consequence of innovation. Social scientists had nothing to do with the development of telephones, email, social networking, or any other innovation that matters. They are basically irrelevant to the human story as far as I'm concerned.


    Hope is not a plan.


    "When visible they become amenable to analysis and management. "

    The analysis was that there was no common ground and the management of it was a permanent parting of the ways in the organization. The final result being me leaving after 30 years of participation. Had there been no "clarification" we could both have carried on as before to our mutual benefit and separate understandings of what seemed to be common words.

    Such divisions do not get "analyzed and managed" except in the most basic and terminal manner. The idea that there could have been some kind of consensus was ludicrous once the polar positions became apparent.


    @dick bruere: re consensus: Once you understand there are actual real differences -- and once you analyze them - the management part sometimes tells you just to walk away if the divide is too great, too costly, too whatever. consensus is not the absolute goal (AFAIK)

    @vivtek: Yes to the real job of programming. (BTW - I agree... it's also why I'm no longer a 'programmer' since too few others who 'direct programmers' understand that worth shit). Also 'yes' to building these tools into all our social media (see my comment upthread re involvement and commitment). SM implies everyone and their auntie will be involved... but commitment? meh!


    I was aware of Lo, Shiller, Kahnemann and Tversky. So, probably not fully up to date in the field.

    But the stuff I know was only illustrative in the negative sense: why commonly hold beliefs how we function can't be true.

    That's valuable. If you don't know, you don't know, you're not likely to even look further.

    But I'm really more interested in a positive form of inquiry: how other forms of interaction pan out with the neural equipment given.


    None of the stakeholders can agree on a common reformulation of the problem/issue.

    Which is only a problem, an intellectual exercise that can produce a solution, if you assume that consent amongst all stakeholders is required.

    In the real world, such 'problems' have been 'solved'. There was a war, one side one won, the other had their head cut off.

    Which wouldn't have been possible if those issues really were wicked problems as defined above.


    Karl, in part 1 you said "surely we can build a simple app that everybody can use that does even one useful thing, like, say, mitigate the Erroneous Priorities Effect when you're attending a meeting" and now you're saying "so much for fantasizing about what I would do if I were king"... are you backing away from your vision?

    Writing such an app isn't particular hard, it's knowing what the app should actually do that's the trick.

    "it's not computer programmers that we'll need; it's not technologists. We need social scientists"

    Surely we need both, in partnership. 30 years of social science research by itself doesn't do us much good if we don't have a way to make use of it.


    Plans are not solutions. You can plan all day long with your army of social scientists, but what's the point? The Soviet Union was a series of such plans, and it was a disaster. Plans only work in stagnant societies; innovation makes plans obsolete before they can be implemented. Stop planning and do something!


    Plans only work in stagnant societies; innovation makes plans obsolete before they can be implemented. Stop planning and do something!

    Thus speaks someone who has obviously never had to manage anything larger or more complex than they could encompass in their head at once.

    Planning is not the antonym of innovation.


    No plan survives contact with reality, but planning is still a useful exercise in defining the problem space and solution space

    As Eishenhower said "Plans are nothing; planning is everything"

    I think the goal is not to create a legion of social scientists, humans are pretty bad at quantitatively understanding other humans. We are getting pretty good at using data and computers to model the behavior of humans and groups of humans though, lots of work being done on that in the internet space, really strong results.

    What we really need is data driven government


    Even if there was a way to come to a consensus that takes into account the concerns of everyone involved, why would the people with all the power under the existing system allow it to happen?

    The problem isn't that everybody is trying to come up with a good consensus but failing due to faulty system design - it's that the elite who benefit from the status quo can control the system to promote their interests at the expense of everybody else.

    Confusion about terminology isn't accidental - it's engineered to frame discussions and keep things vague if that benefits the powerful.

    If you have a plan to replace political lobbying and Fox News and the Tea Party with SDD, I am all ears. But the difficulty isn't designing a replacement system, it's how you can possibly overthrow the current system.


    Things like SSD and the Delhi Method are cons designed to get the result that the moderator was paid to find.

    The way SSD works is, people who see a real problem go to management saying some "specific" thing needs to be done to make things better. Management doesn't want to act, so they hire an expensive firm to run moderated sessions to resolve the "problem".

    A handful of people who are complaining about real problems, the "troublemakers", are assigned to the moderated sessions, along with dozens of people who have no clue what the issues are, and are generally bored out of their minds being there. The moderators split up the "troublemakers" among the clueless, thus diluting any real discussion. The moderator then controls what is brought up by each workgroup, and controls the final consensus report to the whole. If at anytime one of the "troublemakers" complain about the process, they are publicly labeled as "troublemakers" and ostracized within their own workgroup, thus silencing their "expert" voice.

    The final report to management has the facade of being a consensus opinion, that does not solve the actual problem. If any of the "troublemakers" complain later that nothing in the report actually means anything, management can say, "You were there. Why didn't you raise any of these points." End of discussion. Problems grow worse.

    Two blatant Wicked examples based on my time with the Highway Department:

    First Case:

    State workers as a rule were underpaid. The Highway Department paid the highest wages because education and experience were the basic job requirement. (i.e. If we didn't know how to do our job, people died.)

    Work groups were set up by State Personnel to "address" the problem. They took people from the Department of Motor Vehicle Division, Prisons, etc..., and had them look at the salary ranges for everyone. The majority of "stakeholders" thought it was unfair that the Department required experience and education to get in to the "high paying jobs".

    The result: Experience and education were deemed "unfair", so ultimately if you breathed and had a drivers license you could be an engineering technician.

    The result: Those "high paying jobs" became barely above minimum wage. You could make more money waiting tables than at the Department. Most people ended up having to work two jobs to pay the bills.

    When I started with the Department in 1984 they set engineering salaries statewide. Engineering Consultants in the private sector had to pay their people ten percent more than we did to keep their people. Getting a job with the Department was highly competitive. We had people from all over the country fighting for any open jobs.

    Once the "consensus" on pay was reached we were making half what the Consultants paid, and no state employee has had a cost-of-living increase for over 20 years.

    Second Case:

    In the late 80's, when women were fighting to get more women in positions of power, the work groups decided that credentials/education and experience were sexist and should not be used in writing the job qualifications.

    The result: If there was a job opening and a woman applied, no man need apply. If the woman didn't get the job management feared lawsuits, so they alway picked a woman over a more qualified man.

    The result: Women with no education or work experience ended up in the top positions, whether they knew anything about Engineering, Planning, etc... and vast skill sets were lost by the Department as qualified men left. And those skill sets were never built in-house because management had no clue what was required to run a Highway Department.

    When I started at the Department, we literally used to pay our Engineers extra to teach classes for the Technicians, and paid the Techs to attend. They taught Math, Surveying, etc... Once the Department started being hollowed out all that was pushed onto the responsibility of the Techs to do on their own time, at their own expense, while they tried to hold two jobs.


    This kind of management by SDD/Delphi Method became systemic at all levels, hollowing out the Department. Inexperienced management used expensive consultants, running moderated sessions, to avoid the risk of actually making a decision.

    Result: We built the Interstate System, now we can barely pave parking lots. HA!

    If the SSD/Delphi Method was actually used as Karl Schroeder is proposing, it would lead to the kind of government as shown in Hitchhikers Guide when the B ARK crew crashed on Earth.

    The system is great for fiction, a nightmare for the real world.


    To me the SSD system seems flawed at the root

    Consensus is not the desirable state, a working solution is the desirable state

    Lack of consensus is only an obstacle to a working solution if consensus is required to move forward

    As an example, you occasionally run into Wicked problems in a corporation, but in a well run corporation the problem gets escalated to the point where one person makes the call. To some degree, it doesn't even matter what the decision IS, just that it gets made. Of course there will never be a consensus, there are too many competing agendas, someone is going to have to lose.

    The reason why wicked problems are intractable is not that there is a lack of consensus but there is a lack of an individual empowered to make a fiat decision

    A way that societies typically get past these issues is that eventually a person arises who is powerful enough to steam roll over everyone and make the decision. Classic way dictators come into power. Or ultra powerful elected officials (FDR, Churchill, Lincoln).


    One of the reasons the Chinese can build 600 miles of high speed rail in 4 years while in the UK we are still talking planning permissions for a decade. But then, the CCP Politburo is full of engineers and scientists instead of lawyers and accountants.


    Example of the uselessness of "social scientists" (Horse-Laugh) and engineers ....

    When he was rich and successful, George Stephenson was approached by christian bullshitters, asking for money, to "enlighten the heathen". He told them, in no uncertain terms, to get lost, but one phrase has been remembered: "I shall send the Loco-motive to be a missionary amongst them" Technical and scientific advance, and bugger the sociologists/priests/"management" etc ...


    Building massive infrastructure projects is much easier when you don't have to allow people their democratic right to protest against said massive pieces of infrastructure.

    See also:


    Isn't that one of the classic ways of solving a "wicked problem"?


    Back in the eighties when I was studying at Uni, one of my professors made a comment in class "the most difficult problem you will face in you professional careers is communicating with clients" at the time I filed it away under the "what an idiot" file. Looking back the guy was a genius. Large engineering projects are not difficult from an engineering sense, but damn are they difficult when the many many parties involved can't communicate.


    Esp the difference between what a client wants and what a client needs.


    @Karl Schroeder:

    I think you're underestimating the extent to which social problems are based on fundamentally incommensurable moral values. I'd cite abortion and global warming as examples of issues that basically boil down to two different moral Weltanschauungs.

    @everyone else:

    To answer the question of "what has social science ever done for us?" I would tentatively point to:

    1) the 1945-1973 post-WWII economic expansion (assisted by Keynesian economic policies


    2) Taylorism (aka scientific management). This fades into industrial and systems engineering, but also includes a lot of social scientific stuff as well.


    Quite right c.f. Hobbes etc.


    Absolutely right, the problem is magnified enormously when dealing with public entities who spend other peoples money. As I post under my real and sadly unique name, I will not share any personal horror stories, but one only has to do a little googling to see how bad these things can get. Ironically no-one ever seems to learn from the mistakes others makes, I cringe at seeing well documented problems being replicated at the other side of the Atlantic time and again


    allynh: it's clear you've had bad experiences. However, what you're describing is not Structured Dialogic Design, it's what you get when you don't use something like SDD. Also, the Delphi method (not the Delhi method) is a polling technique, developed by the RAND Corporation in the 1950s, it has nothing to do with what we're talking about here.

    Of course false consensus can be engineered for nefarious purposes; that's as much a danger as having erroneous priorities develop through methodological incompetence. I'm sure SDD could be distorted to produce management-friendly results too. My whole point is that certain methods, when used as intended, will tend to avoid such outcomes; whether they were used or not in the case of your experience is another issue.

    Also, where are you guys getting this notion that it's all about consensus? Blind universal consensus is not the aim of SDD (not SSD, unholyguy) any more than it is for any of these methods. I never even used the word 'consensus' in the above post. SDD is a tool for clarifying complex issues, and I've used it and seen it work. It's not magic, and it's not rocket science. And, most importantly, it's not a conspiracy.


    BTW, I had considered mentioning in the post that one of the ways of dealing with wicked problems is war: you radically simplify the whole landscape by forcibly eliminating whole areas of complex independent interaction. In the sequel to "Crisis in Zefra" that I wrote for the Canadian Army last winter, I have one of the field commanders propose this as a solution to the complicated, multi-polar, multi-stakeholder, political mess the characters find themselves in. "Roll over them with tanks; once everything is simplified, we'll pick up the pieces."

    What was interesting was that my client (the army) looked at this sort of solution with contempt. A competent army, they felt, was one that would actually serve as glue to hold together complex multi-polar political environments long enough for solutions to be reached that satisfied enough of the players to stabilize things. Only an incompetent army would need to simplify the playing field.


    I'd like to reframe what some of the detractors are saying in a different way. That there is a cost associated with the communication process.

    Ronald Coase's theory of the nature of the firm was that firms remained as entities because the cost of internal communication were lower than those of external communication, i.e. transaction were lower. If the internal transaction costs rise, it makes sense to break the firm up to lower these costs.

    The question therefore is whether the techniques Karl is talking about, e.g. SDD, lowers the costs of communication and therefore transactions to do something, or raise them.

    This is where some empirical data would be useful.


    Karl do you have an example where SDD was actually used to solve a wicked problem of global scope?

    The only example I can find where it was attempted is Cyprus, which seems to be the poster child for the technique and where it seems to have utterly failed.

    You may not be aware of this, but those of us that have been in the work world for a while have seen a lot of these management fads come and go. You are starting to sound very much like you work for Accenture (-:

    I think the idea that communication problems are at the root of most wicked problems is false, and I'm not sure where you got that? Communication issues are not even mentioned in the definition of Wicked problems

    Take the Cyprus example. These people are not having communication issues, they fundamentally want different outcomes.

    Also could you clarify what you mean by political media? I worry that you are waving a magic wand and saying "social networking shall solve it"


    Karl Schroeder @47: - allynh: it's clear you've had bad experiences. However, what you're describing is not Structured Dialogic Design, it's what you get when you don't use something like SDD. Also, the Delphi method (not the Delhi method) is a polling technique, developed by the RAND Corporation in the 1950s, it has nothing to do with what we're talking about here.

    Beautiful! Classic response. 24 years of surviving the Game and your response no longer fills me with despair. HA!

    A rose is still a rose no matter how you name it. In 24 years each expensive consultant used a different name, but the rules were still the same. On the SDD wiki they mention the Delphi Method as one of their:

    6 Methods to Build Consensus

    Nominal Group Technique Interpretive Structural Modelling DELPHI Options Field Options Profile Trade-off Analysis

    Last year someone took me aside and explained the Delphi Method and how the game was played. 90% of my PTSD vanished, and most of the bad dreams as well. Once I knew the rules of the game all those work groups snapped into focus. Knowing how I was played freed me, because now everything made sense.

    In Public Forums, where civic issues are being discussed, you can fight back; it is basically Spy vs. Spy. If it is at work you have to either live with it of bring action against the manager who is refusing to do his job and make decisions. That is hard, so you either leave, or like Bob Howard in the Laundry where you can't leave, you survive. HA! Been there, done that.

    The moderators role is to spot "troublemakers" who are working together and to split them up, ostracize them when needed. If the sessions are in a Public Forum the consultant running the sessions will make sure they have staff undercover to spy on the stakeholders. There will be at least one planted in each work group; not to run the group but to report back to the moderator. At most a plant will help convince someone to vote a certain way on an issue, while they vote a different way so that the idea clearly comes from a stakeholder.

    So to fight back you have to go in as a group that is not obviously a group. Your team goes in as "strangers", and they do not meet during breaks or after the sessions where the moderator or his plants can see you.

    It is standard for a moderator to call a break when things are going "wrong" so that they can spot people working together, and for a plant to want to meet with a possible "troublemaker" for lunch or coffee to discuss the session.

    In a Public Forum, where the money or issues are large, there will be many undercover teams trying to push the agenda their way.

    The moderator will always have control of the agenda because they write the final report back to management. The summary and recommendations will say the message/result that they were hired to say, but the real information will be in the supporting documents. If your team stayed undercover and made enough real comments to survive, you can sue based on the dichotomy of the result versus the actual data.

    Just remember, it is a Game. Learn the rules so that you are not conned.


    This is pretty funny

    "After removing the copyright violations, there is nothing left but unverified and vague content (and the copyvio stuff wasn't much better...). No indication of notability, and the context is completely unexplained. Seems like an attempt at advertising. "



    Dan Siegal, Interpersonal Neurobiology. Some very interesting stuff happening there. Are you touching on any of that in your studies?


    unholyguy: very good points--and yes, the Cyprus failure is conspicuous and interesting. I think of SDD as being one of a basket of techniques--or a class of methods, I guess--that have the potential to make certain aspects of decision-making easier. As I said in the original post, I used it as an example because I know it, not because I'm presenting it as a panacea. The point is to build methods of interaction that compensate, insofar as possible, for the biases, bad habits, ingrained social responses etc. that make certain kinds of decision-making difficult to scale. That's my takeaway here--not that SDD or any other particular method is some holy grail methodology.

    What I strongly oppose is the view that we as humans have to reconcile ourselves to being victims of corrupt, ill-designed and ineffective command and control structures. That's defeatist, and actually just a way of maintaining those ugly power structures that everyone in this thread has agreed are bad. I will repeat what I said: "our society's one big blind spot is that we can imagine everything about ourselves and our world changing except how we make decisions." This forum for discussion seems to have a lot technologically optimistic people in it, but a lot of those same people seem to have a strong commitment to the idea that this one thing--how we govern ourselves--cannot be changed for the better.


    Karl the one and only thing I've ever seen have an impact on the way people make decisions is data and information. Data and information kills the lies and lays out the agendas for all the see and cuts through the bullshit.

    Decision Support and Data Sciences are pretty well established in industry these days, but not well implemented at all in government. It's no accident at all the CIO of the US government made his flagship and quit when the funding was cut.

    If data could be made readily available to both both policy makers and the electorate, if they were both operating off the same informational playbook, it might be possible to move the needle on decision making

    I think a great example of this is some of the stuff the New York Times has done, attacking the Wicked Problem of balancing the budget


    I've been working in the trade show/business meetings field for a couple of decades now, and I've seen a lot of variations on SDD. Most of them aren't called that any more (everyone wants their own Trademarked Business Training System so they can differentiate their products and sell more training materials).

    The one thing that comes to mind is that most of the companies that hire someone to come in and train their employees in this sort of process... are in trouble.

    The biggest problem? When you send a random selection of people to a seminar to learn this stuff, they come back with a bunch of nice procedures - and a mistaken belief that everyone in the room has the same level of expertise now, because they talked about processes and agreed that they're important.

    Sure, you can put in rules that say "you have to prove some level of expertise to take active part in the discussion," but those rules never work - unless you put the people who have proven track records in charge of filtering out the useless ones. And that does not happen - because the actual workers with expertise never get brought into the meeting because they're too busy doing the actual work. So you get a lot of middle management types and marketing droids agreeing on the adoption of a new industrial standard because it has a nice brochure. All by the numbers, because they discussed it within the "structure."


    Completely agree on definitions being a major issue. Deming himself backs it up when he said (I can't find a source reference for this sorry - relying on memory) that 90% of problems in business and industry are caused by poor operational definitions.


    I remember reading about the RAND Corporation Delphi method poll. It gave me hope.
    As I recall they found that ordinary people in a large enough group gave better answers than panels of experts. So real Democracy can work if allowed too. IF ALLOWED TOO. And nobody says anything about it now.



    if I may, can I ask you to expand a little bit on this:

    If you don't have this inclusion of interested parties, you get the kind of botched social experiments that James C. Scott talks about in his book Seeing Like a State. (Think Soviet collectivization.) In systems terminology, you fail to properly employ Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety.

    I'm having trouble seeing why you invoke this condition.

    Good post, anyway


    I've been enjoying your posts, Karl - very interesting stuff.

    Sadly, one of the depressingly predictable reactions to the mention of social science has appeared. The tactics above - call them useless, describe them as having no appreciable skillset - come up with tiresome regularity and to my mind don't advance the discussion very much.

    We're talking about a way of resolving issues between people in a society, which presumably is affected by how they think and make decisions. It strikes me that it might be a good idea to have people working on it who know something about those things. If we identified ailment X as something that we wanted to develop a treatment for, would we ridicule the idea of involving people who knew about biology and chemistry?


    Communication and understanding and definitions are very important (if not vital) agreed .... But, what do you do if one side sticks their fingers in their ears and goes "lalalalala - can't hear you!" ??

    The classic example of this is the dreaded GW "debate". Or, in the USA, the YEC mob &/or Tea Partyers

    And, no so-called "social scientist" is going to be any help at all, then. Of course, it doesn't help if the, shall we say "un-cooperative" side is financed by rich, powerful, lying, semi-fascist crooks, and corporations. [ Whose surnames might or might not begin with K and E ]

    62: 37 and #38 - You mean that the Chinese don't have "planning laws" that basically say "you shall not build anything that doesn't look like what's on the plot next door" and "you shall not break greensward on an infrastructure project without an act of parliament and/or a public inquiry for the NIMBYs"!

    The demise of Western civilization - strangled to death by a million plus laws and statutes, many of which are contradictory.


    Just let me make some point clear here, please.

    A business has a purpose, a clear and reliable feedback and a publicly known bottom line.

    From a systems perspective, that's goldilocks in perfection. If you can't evolve an informationally dense form of interaction in that environment, you should shoot yourself. (And a number of middle-managers probably should...)

    In politics, NGOs and large development projects there is no client, no bottom line, more aims than stakeholders and not even a consensus about the existence of a problem.

    If we assume that politics and/or NGOs are necessary to prevent regularly occuring systems collapses, then we will have to empower them to actually fill out this role.

    To play around with methods how to get them to work might even be useful, if they fail spectacularly on all accounts. It might even be extra useful.

    Obviously "reaching a consensus" and people holding hands and smiling will not do. Time and time again the true problem is exposure to reality and while in a company reality walks into the door more or less every day, in complex systems maintenance (as in financial system, ecosystem, etc.) reality has a habit of showing up very suddenly and brusquely after not been heard of for a while.

    So, personally, I see a problem and a need and I'm interested in preferably realistic suggestions.


    Wicked problems? Why does Alexander the Great and Gordian knot come to mind? IMHO all wicked problems are soluble.

    Regarding the clustering of social groups on the internet - simple analysis with 'mathematical' artificial intelligence techniques will give you similar results. What the internet is really turning out to be is a type of hive mind. At the moment it is loosely connected, but that may change in the future.


    A basic flaw, as some others have touched on, is the expectation that there might even be a common solution to a problem that a majority or even a large minority can agree on.

    In this blog energy has been discussed many times. But some people basically want the industrial world to lower their standards of living and give up some (much?) of their wealth. And others don't believe there is any problem with the current setup. And others are firmly convinced it is a problem of moral orientation of the have nots. Oil spills and nuclear waste issues be damned. And others reject solutions to nuclear issues because the current "good" governments cannot trust "bad" governments with their technology. Wind power is great. But try and site it. And if you get it sited, run the transmission lines to it.

    And let's see just how well the wahhabi adherents will come together with the Southern Baptists and the secular atheists at one of these sessions. Let's pick a topic like medical services for women to get things started. You can get the terms and definitions all lined up and these groups will likely never agree on solutions to problems or even what the problems are.

    As others have said. In many situations people want different outcomes to the same problem. And understanding the others point of view will not change their desired outcome.

    In smaller companies or companies where groups can somewhat operate as smaller companies you can at times run them with a consensus approach but when you have a union that demands all the current profits and more while management wants to increase profits due to shareholder demands and your products are losing ground due to high prices, consensus may be hard. Especially when folks have be living in their mindset for decades surrounded by people who all think alike. Especially when the real solution is to "remake" a company. Management and union/union like workforces rarely support remakes.

    And yes in many ways I think of the hard core political party members as union members in terms of how they interact with the general public and governments run by a different party.

    As one or more previous comments said, in a well run company (or other organization) you typically have a situation where people are empowered to make decisions and the people under them in general accept the decisions. Even if the decision is not what they want at all.

    I've seen this work in companies large and small and also in my time as a member of my local community pool board. Until this duty I never would have thought it could be so painful to deal with issues like what color of ribbon to use in the party decorations. Or why can't we take the team picture in the afternoon when everyone can be there? "Because we always take them in the morning."


    A business has a purpose, a clear and reliable feedback and a publicly known bottom line.

    Usually. But once a company gets to be larger (100, 1000, 10000 people depending) in many cases you have departments with ill defined, if at all, goals and feed back that doesn't relate to the goals of the department or company. HR is a big one here. But with companies such as Airlines you have a lot of support services that are absolutely required but where coming up for metrics that are objectively derived is hard even with good intentions.

    And getting back to the quote, it appears that the top management of GM didn't know much at all about the financial details of their company. Or how to build products that people wanted to buy. They seemed to be operating on inertia more than anything else for a decade or few.


    I'm curious to know how you can determine in advance the difference between "want different outcomes" and "have different names for the same thing"? Prejudging others' intentions is something that happens all the time in wicked problems. It may indeed turn out that there are irreconcilable differences, but their existence should never be the default assumption going in.

    I guess I was emphasizing the social aspect of wicked problems because that tends to be where most of the mess is. Having accurate information is indeed critical, too (although once you drift any distance from physical quantities, what counts as 'data' becomes part of the problem too). And no, I've never seen SDD or any similar technique by itself solve a wicked problem.

    But can wicked problems be solved at all? I dunno. I tend to think that in the 18th-19th centuries, the slave trade was a wicked problem. Women's rights was/is a wicked problem. This problems aren't seemingly 'solved' so much as they wither with the continued, exhausting application of pressure over generations. Not an encouraging perspective, certainly. But better than defeatism.

    Ultimately, everything I've said so far has been to introduce the real question: what will post-bureaucratic governance look like? I think it should be clear by now that it won't just be electronic voting for representatives. There's so much more that's possible, much of it fascinating and very cool--and yes, some of it ominously threatening.


    when you have a union that demands all the current profits and more

    Funnily, in Germany unions sit in on the company board with essentially one vote less than the owners (share-holders) and the result is that they will swallow absolutely everything when the times are tough.

    More work on less pay, but faster and during irregular hours? No problem...

    The workers on the board know all the numbers and the other workers trust their own.


    We have companies that run that way also. But traditional unions are not a part of that mix. Especially in older industrial industries. I'm speaking of the US.

    In 2008 (I think) when it was obvious the state was not going to meet it's already enacted budget the Democratic governor of NC, who was elected with very strong union support, said that EVERYONE who gets a paycheck from the state needed to take a 10 hour furlow at some point in the year so as to avoid layoffs. There was one group that staged protests across the state and at the state capital. The teacher's union. Didn't help their reputation any.

    When I was a teen a local small company that made audio speakers had a strike. The company said the union demands were not reasonable and the company could not stay in business if they met them. They union refused to back down. The company closed the doors, sold off the assets (machinery was hauled off), distributed the proceeds to the stock holders and the officers moved on to other jobs or retirement. The union picketed the closed factory for another two months before they finally gave up. Not sure what they thought was going to happen during those last two months.

    There are valid reasons for unions in many situations. But what we have now is not reasonable in many situations.


    I'm curious to know how you can determine in advance the difference between "want different outcomes" and "have different names for the same thing"? Prejudging others' intentions is something that happens all the time in wicked problems.

    You can't in every situation. But there are a lot of situations where wanting different outcomes is just obvious. Or the real stakeholders cannot or will not come to the table. I'm thinking of political situations in much of the world. If your have a 1000+ year history of tribal rule getting the general populace to the table will prove difficult. Or if they get their they might not make any decisions unless they first check with the local leader as to what "their" position is to be. And in many of these situations the rule of the local leader is the desired outcome of all situations where they have a say. A willingness to give up power is a hard thing for a society to learn. Much harder than I thought in my younger days.


    This problem arises because it is easier to communicate with people who share the same understanding of the meaning of a given set of terms and phrases than with people who have a different understanding of these meanings.

    Yes. Obviously.

    A few weeks ago I was told I was making racist statements on this blog. So I stepped back and thought about it for a week or so. I still don't think I was. But maybe some people in Scotland define the term differently than people I hang with in the US.

    And what didn't help was I was trying to be somewhat provocative in my statement to start a discussion. But racist. No.

    And one lesson learned is don't make a provocative statement if you will not be around to clarify it if needed. I was busy for a few days and didn't even see the result of my comment until nearly a week after I made it.


    One point re consensus.

    Discovering where we agree about degrees of influence is a major strength of SDD done properly.

    That is completely different to gaming the system (as allynh seems to believe) and is not seeking a false consensus (as dick bruere seems to think).

    Understanding commonalities is how we move forwards as one, rather than in multiple directions, achieving nothing that satisfies anyone. (I'll 'manufactured debt crisis' for 1000, Alex)


    c.f. Surowieki's "The Wisdom of the Crowds" as a current popularization.


    The ideas in this post appear to dovetail nicely with my extension of the famous 'assasination politics' essay's proposals... The idea there being that interested parties would invest in such a way that they encourage a given outcome to occur. While in the original essay the idea was limited to cheating in dead pools (hence the title), it occurred to me that it could be extended to arbitrary tasks (including all those unglamourous things like plumbing that direct democracies are notoriously terrible at, forming the impetus towards representative republics over democracies).


    The internet has exposed a flaw in our grand plan to unite humanity

    "Our" grand plan? I certainly was not in on it!


    David L, have you explored dotmocracy? ( It was experimented with in South America as a way to get people who generally don't get a voice at town meetings to successfully submit proposals for local projects. Within its bounds, it's a highly successful, and low-tech method. I've used it.

    Once again, it's not a solution. But it's part of a solution, and a good one.


    Yes, an excellent example of this would be Kenya.

    One tribal group has roughly 55% of the population, the other major group has around 40%. Every seven years, the country goes to elections, and one political party gets 55% of the vote, and the other main party gets 40%. The minority population then has a few small riots, a bit of horse trading goes on behind the scenes, and the country settles down for the next six years. Democracy in action.

    A really good description of what happens when ideology meets the real world would be Syria. Adam Curtis did a very nice writeup on it a month or so back. I especially liked the bit about how the Americans were too noble to step in and bribe the candidates, so all their candidates abandoned them in favour of the Russians, French and British who were perfectly happy to bribe everyone.


    In a quick look at dotmacracy it looked useful in some situations. But not ones where tribal or extended family loyalty is more important than individual goals. And the individuals believe this. After all that's what most religions have to some degree. The values of the whole is much more important than your private transient opinions.

    And dotmacracy also assumes that the stake holders want to be engaged and are somewhat rational. In my community pool example, we would have board meetings where some on the board would want to spend 50% or more of our meetings discussing flowers to plant, colors for paint, etc... And get indignant when some of us wanted to assign such things to a committee of those who cared and have the board work on things such as "can we pay the water bill before we open in 2 weeks?" And to be honest it was like this or worse much of the time. The people worried about flowers would blow off the money issues with comments like "Oh, it will all work out OK."

    And when you only have one 2 to 4 hour meeting a month plus a few more in later spring it could get very frustrating. And lead to people making money decisions on their own and then others getting upset.

    It was a great lesson in how political systems work and NOT on a small scale.


    It was a great lesson in how political systems work and NOT on a small scale.

    Try this one again.

    It was a great lesson in how political systems work on a small scale. They don't work very well.


    A disagreement is fundamental when neither side can imagine an acceptable future scenario where both sides non negotiable demands can be met.

    You can sometimes negotiate through these things, but only by continuing until one side gets tired and gives up on some of their non negotiable demands

    If people care enough about their demands, or if the status quo is superior to the imagined consensus end state, you will never reach consensus

    Getting everyone to agree on a current state is the first step, that is where definitions and vocabulary and data can often help. The next is to get everyone to agree on an imagined future state. This is where irreconcilable differences often arise


    The idea that conflicts are resolved by communication seems like one of the bigger delusions of our age; conflicts are generally resolved by one side defeating the other. It’s all about power, and always has been. In any case, where the world seems headed, most of these grandiose progressive ideas are going to be irrelevant. This looks like a repeat of the 5th century Migration Period on a global scale -- a chaotic world of “global guerrillas” and collapsing empires. Technocracy and socialist central planning are useless in a world where people reject non-local governance and return to local communities and tribes en masse. Behind all the dot-communist globalist triumphalism, this is what I see happening. A lot of these utopian ideas are going to look very silly in the decades to come, when it will be clear that a new global dark age has begun. You can criticize the Tea Partiers, al Qaeda, Breivik, etc. all day long, but I suspect they’re just ahead of the curve. I foresee a terrible age of strife and chaos ahead, and I suggest that everyone start preparing for it in a realistic manner.


    The problem I'm seeing is that the post assumes that clarifying vocabulary and reaching a decision are separate problems, where in the real world the vocabulary is (more or less consciously) used as a weapon in the political struggle to determine the decision. As a result, you can only "clarify" the vocabulary once the political struggle is over and one side has won.


    This soylent green is tasty. The American economic elite is hiding its treason to the American people behind "free trade." - Paul Craig Roberts, former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury (2/19/09)
    Stinking unions. That's the ticket. Not that many days ago our hometown paper had one of their people say that everything would be fine if workers would just become competitive with what was called the third world. Hello anybody in there!
    It was a matter of firm government plans to buy votes in the UN friends and military bases by trading away jobs. Now its the workers doing, all of it. Who owns a country? The people who live in it maybe! Or the top of the top 1%.


    Jay, in activities like SDD the vocabulary used to describe an issue is controlled by the person who raises the issue. For instance, during the process of establishing the influence map ("would addressing A serve to resolve B?" and so on) any appeals to the language of A or B go back to the person who posed the issue to begin with. In any inclusive process, where people from a cross-section of an organization or culture are brought together, and using a process like dotmocracy that allows initial anonymity in the framing of issues, essentially the only way to do what you're talking about is by controlling the initial selection of people. Which, of course, can be done but is a pretty visible intervention. You're thinking in terms of an elite controlling the framing of the issues; what I'm saying is that you can specifically design around that problem--not perfectly, but perhaps it's just not perfect YET.

    To say it one more time: collaborative processes can be specifically designed so that one group cannot control the framing or language of the problem domain. There are then ways to abuse or game those processes too--but there always are--you can rig votes, but we still find voting works most of the time.


    Karl the person who is paying for the process, controls the process. Always.

    This is why these processes rarely work in business, fundamentally the facilitator knows who is writing the check and who they have to make happy for a return engagement.

    In essence, keeping a clean and unbias process, regardless of the methodology chosen, is itself a Wicked Problem.

    You need to supply some proof for "works most of the time". The counter claim is that these processes are co-opted and corrupted "most of the time"


    unholyguy, I disagree. If I'm a business, there's no value to me to bring in consultants who will tell me what I want to hear; I want them to tell me what I need to hear. And I've never been in a consultation position where I felt even the slightest pressure to pander to the client. (Although, I've just been watching the city of Toronto using a consultant group to do exactly what you describe--frame the issues their way--so it does happen.) That's my own 30 years of experience in working with government, private and commercial interests speaking.

    As to the other--glass half full, glass half empty. Seems we disagree on a point of language...

    --By the way, I'd like to thank you, and everybody else, for the wonderful and challenging discussion we've had on this particular post--er, actually, on all of them. It's a privilege to spar with such minds. And, of course, we should all raise a glass to Charlie, whose generosity has made it possible for John and myself to use this forum for a while.


    There are lots of reasons for various stakeholders to subvert these processes. Even if the big man or woman has clean motives, the rung under him is a constant political warzone. There are many more reasons to subvert them then there are to keep them clean. The subversion can happen at various levels.

    No offense, but I do not accept you as an unbiased authority on this, so the appeal to authority will not work. We are all bias in our various ways.

    Ask yourself this though. If we assume that there exists these methods of conflict resolution and that they work a majority of the time, that they are wll known and widely practiced, is the world we see around us supportive of that assumption?


    Do you have a link to or source for SDD and the Cogniscope software? I am very interested in purchasing sources on these methodologies.


    If I'm a business, there's no value to me to bring in consultants who will tell me what I want to hear; I want them to tell me what I need to hear.

    It depends on what you value. If the goal is to get the workers to shut up and do as told then the business will do the opposite of what you say. I've seen it happen in small < 50 person companies and in departments of multi-national 50K person companies.

    I've also seen such things work. Maybe you have a rep of not pandering to the "boss" and thus don't get the gigs where the "boss" has pre-determined the outcome.


    Reread #36...he makes my point perfectly.

    As I stated back in post 3: "There are plenty of people out there already with no appreciable skill sets."

    The ones that survive are the ones that can adapt. I'm almost starting to like being a contractor, mainly because since my job is greater than 50 miles from my primary residence, everything is tax-deductible.

    Just don't let President Obama hear that...we might lose our jobs because we aren't getting "taxed" enough.


    Before we can even have a framework of asking, if a process "works" or not, we might need to define the critical resource in the system, me thinks...

    Clarity? That is breaking self-delusion and unclear fuzzy emotions to expose raw underlying power-struggle?

    Commitment? Meaning maximum mobilisation of the one party/alliance in the game who cares for longterm-survival more than the others?

    Evolution? Playing the game to learn playing it, thereby in the long run giving a performance advantage to the most open-minded.

    Or something totally different?


    unholyguy: I'll refer you back to my previous post on eucatastrophe, which in turn was based on the Millennium Project's annual State of the Future report. That group has been tracking objective measures of well-being such as infant mortality, crime statistics, life expectancy, literacy rates, freedom to participate in voting processes, and the numbers show steady improvement in nearly every area over the past two decades. Crime has been declining in terms of objective numbers for 25 years now, at least in North America. More speculatively, you could make the case that the increasingly intricate interconnection of the world economy would be impossible without steadily improving coordination between widely different ethnic and national groups. In any case the fall of the Berlin Wall, and now the potential of the Arab Spring, are also objective results. If I want to book a heli-skiing trip in Siberia, I can do that; or tour cities in China that were closed to Westerners twenty years ago. None of these factors is abstract, subjective, or trivial.

    So, yes, the world we see around us is supportive of the conclusion that our methods for governing ourselves are, on the whole, improving.


    Repost without the less than sign.

    If I'm a business, there's no value to me to bring in consultants who will tell me what I want to hear; I want them to tell me what I need to hear.

    It depends on what you value. If the goal is to get the workers to shut up and do as told then the business will do the opposite of what you say. I've seen it happen in small businesses (50 or so people) and large ones (50K people).

    I've also seen such things work. Maybe you have a rep of not pandering to the "boss" and thus don't get the gigs where the "boss" has pre-determined the outcome.


    Just don't let President Obama hear that...we might lose our jobs because we aren't getting "taxed" enough.

    Sorry to be O/T for a moment, but STFU, already.

    Unless you earned in excess of $250k a year NET you were never going to suffer tax increases.

    Try informing yourself about actual tax-law and the proposals, rather than listening to tea-party, conservatard sloganeering.

    (FYI I earn close to that number - and exceed it if my bonus is paid at 'stretch' -- and I'm on record that I'll be happy to pay more taxes for infrastructure, health, research and education. I'd also be very happy to decimate the military appropriations)


    "If I'm a business, there's no value to me to bring in consultants who will tell me what I want to hear; I want them to tell me what I need to hear. "

    True in small and medium size businesses, but not necessarily otherwise because its the empire building middle manager who will do the hiring. Quite often the contractor is there to prove him right. Anything else is an admission that he's a failure. Big company middle managers are divorced from reality at both ends of the pay scale.


    Karl, you didn't answer the question I posed, you answered a different question.

    "Is the world getting better" is not the same thing as "do you see evidence that we have evolved a system to reliable negotiate conflicts"

    If we had such a system, given that the cost of implementing it is not high, we should expect to see very little in the way of conflicts, certainly very few long lasting ones.

    Yes, the world is in many ways getting better, but it is not getting better because we have evolved a social science based communication / conflict resolution system that actually works, it is getting better despite our failure in this regard.

    If this was the case you would be able to provide examples of it in action, but you cannot


    jboss: something totally different. See comment #93 on objective measures.


    unholyguy, I cannot even begin to make sense of what you just wrote. The fact that the world is on the whole getting better IS the evidence that we are evolving better systems to resolve conflicts. On the very simplest level, the number of wars in a given year is a direct measure of our ability to resolve conflicts. That number has been declining since the 1990s. So, what are you basing your ideas on?

    When a Mom & Pop textile company in Tanzania, A to Z Textiles, can aggressively court Japanese chemicals giant Sumitomo in order to create a new class of insecticidal bednets and simultaneously make a huge profit and save thousands of lives throughout central Africa--that's a concrete triumph of the 21st century communications infrastructures that we're building. This coordination between vastly different people with vastly different interests is the evidence; and there are many other examples just like it.

    "Have we evolved a system?" We ARE evolving sysTEMS and we have objective data on how well they're working. They can be named: the internet is one of them. International standards are another example. The International Court in the Hague is another. The Geneva Convention another. I'm sure any of the readers here would be able to come up with a dozen or more. And my overall point is: this process continues, and we can contribute to it. I've suggested some approaches.

    The onus is on you to demonstrate why, eg., the number of wars per year would NOT be a measure of our ability to resolve conflicts. Or the continuing decline in infant mortality a measure of our ability to work together in groups. Unless you believe that all of the many upwardly mobile trends we currently see are upwardly mobile by accident?


    What you describe in #93 are symptoms, not crucial factors.

    Or if you assume that literacy is a critical factor, then all fancy methods of governance beyond teaching them to read and letting it all play out, become highly questionable.

    To be more specific, how would in your eyes a successful or an unsuccessful consultancy gig of yours be different?


    "The fact that the world is on the whole getting better IS the evidence that we are evolving better systems to resolve conflicts."

    I would say that it is because of several other factors, the main one being that people are getting richer and therefore less desperate and less likely to support tyranny over stability. Education is also a big factor, esp in the Third World


    I'm sorry Karl but the onus is on you, you are the one making the claim.

    Something good is happening are you are saying "this good is caused by an increase in X" well fine, prove it. I say it is caused by an increase in Y.

    Yes the number of wars are decreasing and the number of terrorist actions is increasing. Does this suggest another explanation for what is going on other then "we are learning to communicate and solve problems better"? Maybe we have learned a different way to wage war, one that is less likely to be blown up by American military might?

    There are many, many factors that go into the rather haphazard set of kpi's that the Millennium Project is tracking. Technology, educational techniques, technology, better farming practices, technology, monopolar geopolitical environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union, technology, rise of birth control in the third world, technology, and then there is technology.

    Yes the Internet makes a big difference, but the Internet has jack all to do with social sciences.

    If i were to name the causal factors 1: Technology as manifested by birth control, genetically engineered crops, the internet, computers, cell phones and a million other things 2: Education: We seem to actually be educating the third world to some extent 3: Pax Americana: Like or hate it, it's keeping the country vs country wars down 4: Globalization: While it is screwing up the 1st world gloriously it is helping out the 3rd world. The end result is overall beneficial as you are trading 1st world luxuries for 3rd world for substance needs 5: Collapse of Communism in China and India


    Ah ja, one I forgot:

    What about tolerance?

    The ability to understand and willingly endure the sheer otherness of persons, cultures, professions, mindsets without resorting to defensive behaviour?


    Well, I dunno what to say, guys. You asked if I saw evidence that our ability to resolve conflicts is getting better. I said yes. I provided what I consider to be objective evidence. You don't think it's evidence. Well, there's nothing I can do about that. (And aren't increases in overall wealth and education also signs of better coordination and cooperation?)

    If I provide the evidence you asked for and you dismiss it by demanding yet some other kind of proof that you, as the gatekeeper, will define, thus moving the bar every time I say anything... then there's nothing more I can say, is there? Your game is rigged.

    Good night, all.


    Like the wicked problems you want to solve with SDD (or something along those lines), getting the process to work in a way everyone would consider "fair" is a wicked problem of its own. How do you ensure that it is run honestly rather than manipulatively? How do you prevent it from being gamed or outright cheating?

    Trying to apply such a technique in a political context just adds to the difficulties to be surmounted. How will you get anyone, much less those currently favored by the status quo, to agree to the commitment part? How will you enforce the results? It really does sound like a police state would be necessary to coerce everyone into playing the game without cheating or reneging on unfavorable results.

    Btw, this is a thought-provoking post and interesting discussion, but the later snipe claiming those pointing out the gaping holes in the theory and the actual misuses (not even merely potential!) of the specific example methodology you gave as having a "strong commitment to the idea that this one thing--how we govern ourselves--cannot be changed for the better" was sadly just typical internet strawman wankery. Patently untrue and decidedly unkind. Very disappointing response.


    Karl the game is not rigged, we are just challenging the relationship you are drawing, saying it is Spurious

    In order to prove your hypothesis you need an experiment that controls for other factors, that isolates the presence or absence of the variable you are testing for, from the other casual factors.

    A good way to do this would be to find two very similar situations, one of which employed the techniques you are describing and one of which did not, and demonstrate different results. Basically an A/B test

    That will prove that the two things (employment of social problem solving strategy and superior outcome) are actually correlated and possible casual.

    So it's not impossible to prove your point


    "Social scientists had nothing to do with the development of telephones, email, social networking, or any other innovation that matters. They are basically irrelevant to the human story as far as I'm concerned."

    Quantum physicists have also failed to make groundbreaking vaccines. The practical contributions of social scientists naturally are going to be social technologies and therefore won't be physically tangible. Some examples: Mutually Assured Destruction. Behavior therapy. Mixed member proportional voting. The American Head Start Program. Google translate.


    "Well, I dunno what to say, guys. You asked if I saw evidence that our ability to resolve conflicts is getting better. I said yes. I provided what I consider to be objective evidence. You don't think it's evidence. Well, there's nothing I can do about that...goodnight."

    From the OP, no less. I have to say this thread is an incredible example of SDD failing to work in a real-life situation.


    I consulted 1977-1981 all over the country and also gave seminars on which stand-alone word processors would work best for their offices, how to attach them, and all the other bits of it.

    But a lot of companies sent me a secretary or a vice president -- neither the right person. It should be the tech folk. I'd always call and tell them that the employees they sent weren't necessarily the right ones, and they'd tell me I was wrong. I also had some folks who were sent as a "reward" and only had to check in and spent the three days in the city. And on St. Patrick's day, they'd all go out to lunch and never come back.

    When the first shuttle launched, I asked anybody who wanted to watch to come to my room before class and almost all of us where there: yelling and happy, even though there were folks from Canada and Mexico.

    I could tell in the seminars who was going to be able to do what I was teaching them.


    Well, I worked on MAD and I've recently been evaluated by a Behavioral Therapist. That's pretty tangible.


    The theme here is that people don't understand each other naturally. What a lot of rot. Paid liars make up propaganda to wedge people apart so they can be controlled. The head of propaganda for the Brit's in WW-2 said there was White propaganda, things anybody could see if they looked. Gray propaganda that was true but slanted. And Black propaganda that was not even close to the truth.
    So in the States the media covered Al Gore's delusional lies, but he never said them. Acorn, that all the cops say it was a frame that had nothing to do with facts. And just about everything they plant about Obma. Oh, there is no such thing as Global Warming, and if there is its no big deal.
    Just how can people come together when lots of money is being spent making sure they will not?


    ...better than defeatism.


    Karl, science has a history of tough fights against powerful entrenched opponents using slander, suppression, various forms of torture and burnings at the stake.

    In all this they only had one weapon of any use: evidence, preferably rock-solid, testable and re-testable.

    Willingness to pick a fight therefore is unsurprisingly linked to the quality of the arsenal of evidence and that's why every little bit of it gets kicked around and beaten down as badly as possible before the trouble starts. And what you're talking about ultimately comes down to a fight without quarter.

    The good news is, I don't think that hard evidence is that difficult to find.

    We live in a world that is packed with organisations, groups or networks. A lot of them do something that is more or less measurable (like making money for example). Even if you look at the most outrageous successes and failures only, you have a more than significant sample size. You can do some heavy duty factor analysis. A kind of "Big 5" for organised groups. Check "intangible" characteristics against "type of governance" clusters. Check for group size. Cultural background. Most common personality traits.

    Hell, it doesn't even look that hard...


    jboss, you've hit the nail on the head. Lots of this research is ongoing, and a lot of it takes place under the noses of technologists in the form of "human factors" design. It's also called "best practices." And the idea that human small-group interactions can be optimized is what lies behind methods such as Robert's Rules of Order.

    I was tired and stressed last night--apologies to all, I hate getting into nitpicky arguments. But it all gave me a great idea, which I will proceed to talk about in my next post...


    I provided what I consider to be objective evidence. You don't think it's evidence.

    My ongoing issue with this type of analysis is that while the evidence may be clear, the assignment of things to cause or effect is highly subjective at times and not at all obvious even when it seems that it is.

    There are a Lot of things in complex systems which statistically correlate but the root cause is several steps removed and massively dependent on intermediate items that have to be aligned a certain way for the coronations to show up.


    "what will post-bureaucratic governance look like?"

    Is the underlying issue is that people are increasingly less tolerant of hierarchical power structures, change from "cooperators" to "non-cooperators"?

    If so, techniques like SDD are attempts to overcome the centrifugal social forces that prevent group action. But what if those centrifugal forces are more powerful than the social techniques?


    It's ok Karl everyone gets the grump now and again and sorry if I was overly bombastic.

    For the record I do think there is value in conflict resolution techniques, though I think there is still a lot of work to go with them as well. The devil is in getting people to implement them.


    "Conflict Resolution" .... When one side knows that one half of the human race is as capable of doing things as the other, and can prove it, and the other side believes that said half is inferior and subject to their side's orders, and should be subjugated. And won't listen to, or look at ANY evidence, because a big invisible sky fairy has told them so ... What then?


    Although, I've just been watching the city of Toronto using a consultant group to do exactly what you describe--frame the issues their way--so it does happen.

    Not quite. You've been watching one faction in the city government do that. This is also the faction who's most prominent members seem to have no qualms about making up numbers* to support their positions.

    *Or lying, depending on whether you think they actually know the correct numbers to start with. Did Ford do any research before claiming that there were more libraries than donut shops?


    Women's Lib? (",)


    Karl, I hope you don't become discouraged by the tone of the discussion... I imagine it probably is always easier to raise objections and note problems with something (even if the criticism is completely valid and not just random free association) than it is to add constructive suggestions. At least, I've so far devoted six hours to reading up on and studying these concepts, and I'm far from having a contribution to make beyond that the ideas look promising and worth further study on my part ;)


    What I've seen, over the years, is that a lot of people seem to have no idea of how taxes work. OK, there are local differences, but I hear people saying, "If I earn any more, they'll take half my income!"

    As a practical detail, it seems a lot of people don't have a clue about how PAYE works in the UK. Not the actual tax rates, but how the system works over the first weeks of a new job.

    You could explain them both as a failing of the schools. Though if people got told what really happened it would be more difficult for the wealthy and powerful.

    I'm sorry Karl but the onus is on you, you are the one making the claim.
    Something good is happening are you are saying "this good is caused by an increase in X" well fine, prove it. I say it is caused by an increase in Y.

    At the risk of hitting this particular high hat to often, NO! This is completely wrong as a matter of good practice.

    Yes, it's okay to be skeptical, and proper to request that others show their work for any claims they happen to make. That's just good practice, scientifically speaking.

    No, it's not okay to hold that Y is the cause, but because someone else says that it's X the burden of proof is on them. In that scenario, both parties have the burden of proof.

    Big difference.

    Karl, I'm old enough to have seen trends come and go (old enough to remember when "I'm Okay You're Okay" was a hot item in a related genre.) Whether or not SDD is something genuinely new, or a rehashed mishmash is beside the point. The basic problem, same as it ever was, is how to compel power-holding elites to go with an any given policy prescription when it is against their own self-interest.

    Let me repeat that: Same as it ever was.


    " Let me repeat that: Same as it ever was." ...

    Here comes the new Boss ... just like the Old Boss? .. " Wont Get Fooled Again " ...


    Remember this book. "How to Win Friends and Influence people." Just agree with every thing they say. Nothing gets done but...


    Ah ...Toronto! I expect that things have really changed a lot since the days of ...

    No influence by the Free Masons or similar such politically orientated special interest groups these days? No prejudice against those Catholic persons and their odd beliefs. Much less bent towards the influence of the Wealthy, and certainly nothing like the US of Americas view that .. CLASS.. non existent What, US ? ..we, down here below the Canadian Border, are a Democracy, or a Republican system!Well aren't we ? What are you complaining about? WE allow you GUNS and also GOD which is more than the Canadians have!


    "No, it's not okay to hold that Y is the cause, but because someone else says that it's X the burden of proof is on them. In that scenario, both parties have the burden of proof."

    That's correct SoV and what I was intending to say. Counterclaims suffer the same burden the original claim suffers. If I say "Y" it is up to me to prove it.


    Cool. I guess I was misunderstanding you; I was thinking when I read that bit that surely he didn't mean what I thought he said. Sadly, I had to check because a lot of people seemingly do think like that.


    @ 128 * 129 EXCELLENT!

    So, the religious claim there IS a "god" and you can't disprove it, nyahh! ....

    So I have to prove a negative. Difficult, to say the least.

    My counterclaim is that: "Even if a [insert name of Big Sky Fairy here ] exists, he/she/it/they [delete as appropriate] are NOT DETECTABLE. I am making a positive, testable claim, which you, the believers could, in theory, be able to disprove. Now you get on with it.

    Curiously no-one has ever risen to the challenge. I just get wriggling lies.




    @130 no you don't, the default state of any positive claim is disbelief. So if someone claims a God, burden of proof is on them. You only assume burden of proof if you make a positive counterclaim (i.e. your god is wrong, this is the REAL god)


    Stuffing reality into binary form again?

    Personally, I think God is subjectively real and subjectively perceptible, and I further claim that I can teach you to perceive God as well.

    Does that make me an atheist or a theist? As a scientist, do you trust your perceptions (which tell you that God is real), or do you trust what you read in a book, which tells you that God is not real? Does the fact that you were taught to perceive God make the phenomenon more or less real? Or do you trust your instruments, which are based on assumptions about reality which may or may not be true?

    Or is the fact that you're stuck on reality being binary (either things exist or not, with nothing in between) really impeding any understanding of how religion might work on a human brain?


    heteromeles @ 133 There has been much research (which I have not been following recently) where people can be made to "percieve" god or devils through e/m manipulation under control in laboratories, I think ... ah, found it: Research initiated by Dr. M. Persinger, and since undertaken by others as well, has clearly shown that religious experiences and visions can be artificially induced and stimulated under controlled laboratory conditions. Thus, religious experiences {of this nature} are reproducible natural phenomena, which can be produced or replicated on demand. There is zero mystical, religious, or any other form of otherworldly content. "Religious" brain activity is centred in the posterior superior parietal lobe - ( Newberg & D'Aquili of U. of Pennsylvania Nuclear Medicine division.)

    d. brown @ 131, Or, in the scary original "Neca eos omnes. Deus suos agnoscet." Arnoud Amoury, 22 July 1209

    Except, unholyguy @ 132 I agree with you, but the religious point-blank refuse to accept that, so I was forced to turn it around. They really don't like it up'em, as they used to say in "Dad's Army"


    Religious types are not thinking about scientific proof they are claiming access to a different kind of truthiness. I remain skeptical. You can't really challenge faith with science though since faith is defined to be independent of science.

    @133 define what you mean by "subjectively" real and it will probably be possible to apply the scientific method to it. Right now you are just dancing a semantic dance.

    I can teach you how to perceive the tooth fairy as well that does not make the tooth fairy real. Take enough acid, you can see whatever you want to see. Your senses are only one source of information and not the most reliable one at that.

    Science says trust your set of working assumptions about reality until better comes along. That's all.


    Subjectively real: I can perceive something, but you do not perceive it.

    The problem is that objective reality is, to some degree, an assumption. As a trained biologist, I notice all sorts of things that people with me do not see. Sometimes I can train them to see them, sometimes I can't. This is regarded as normal and objectively real, because I often train people to identify plant species, and someone always fails the lesson. If they can't identify a plant, does that mean that the species doesn't exist? Society says that it does not.

    It gets even more complex when I try to train someone to understand environmental issues (example: "Don't build there, a flood will take out your house." "No it won't." Ten years later, a flood takes out the house. "Why didn't you warn me?" etc.). It's hard to train people to see slow processes and complex interactions.

    The fundamental issue is that, as a scientist, you HAVE to decide whether you believe "the evidence" or believe what you read in a book. The point about God being subjectively real is that, when you experience this God, you're believing your senses. If you believe this is false, then you're believing documents that tell you what is real, not your own observations. This puts you in the same camp as Biblical literalists, and you're stuck arguing whose authority is correct. It's a paradox.

    The existence of objective reality is not a binary, yes or no issue. As humans, we're stuck with incomplete senses and brains that tell us what we see more than our eyes do. I'm in no way denigrating science or and the assumption of an objective reality works reasonably well outside of quantum mechanics. Nonetheless, it is a statement of blind faith to say that you experience objective reality, and that only objective reality exists. You can't demonstrate that in the real world, any more than I can demonstrate the objective existence of God.


    What makes my perceptions believe in god?


    On SDD: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems there's an implied assumption that the stakeholders are being honest about their claims and motives, and that they're genuinely interested at achieving mutual understanding.

    This fails to take in account the fact that RARELY all the parties tackling an wicked problem will state clearly and honestly their true intentions. A great example is the recent debt limit/deficits problem the USA is facing right now: It's pretty fucking obvious that reducing their national debt is a distant second to destroyng Barack Obama's chance at reelection on the Republicans' list of priorities. No one serious about deficit reduction would oppose a tax increase on the people making more than 250k a year, and yet the press merrily eats up the GOP's bullshit.

    On the various engineers/technicians claiming to know better about social issues than the people that, y'know, spend their LIVES thinking about those issues: what most of you are suggesting as the ultimate solution to mankind's problems boils down to good ol Positivism in its most basic form, as proposed by Auguste Comte (logical positivism is a completely different beast, though). It may sound great at first, but what you get when trying to ACTUALLY put it in practice is desastrous: think about a positivistic approach to, say, criminology and what once seemed like a good idea degenerates into little more than racist "biological" interpretations of delinquent behavior (for more on this read up Cesare Lombroso's article on wikipedia).

    Really, if you want to criticize a whole area of human knowledge (Humanities), the least you can do is read the classics - you want to disregard sociology in its entirety? At least read Max Weber, so you can criticize properly.


    I recommend Peter Checkland (Soft systems methodology) as a way of thinking about "wicked" problems.

    It is possible that improvements will never be implemented because the people in power do not choose to do so. That does not mean that the plan was wrong, merely that the problem has changed.


    unholyguy @ 135 Religious types are not thinking about scientific proof they are claiming access to a different kind of truthiness. So, you then ask them: "What SORT of "truthiness" - please DEFINE IT!" And, of course they can't amd all the usal evasive lies start up again. It's so depressing.


    @Greg. Tingey

    How would you define any abstract concept involving emotions or human experience? Love? Anger? Justice? Kindness?

    Just because something canot be defined in mathematical or factual terms does not mean that people are lying. And since it is demonstrable that people will have different responses to and memories of the same event, what is your definition of a lie?


    I'd like to go back to the root topic of methodological improvements in collective action generation; that seems more interesting to me than the fact that many hierarchs and oligarchs exist who will use any and all means they can to prevent such processes from acting against what they define as their interest. This general concept of augmented group decision making with techniques to control against social and cognitive failure seems (to me) like something that may be useful. Suppose something of this sort can work for a group of 50 people to put together better planning for working groups of sufficiently allied interests; what happens when any working group you could squeeze into a single meeting hall is one or more orders of magnitude smaller than the total population they're all speaking for? How do we manage to engage all of the relevant information from those groups? Is there a sufficient, non-lossy way of generating a collective action for bodies over a thousand people and do we have sufficient neuroscience, game-theory and social structure grasp to say that such a thing is definitely possible without groupthink or ideological (hierarchical) rigidity?


    @141 What you are doing is classic goal post moving.

    The commonly used definition of the term "God" is not subjective internal feelings of truth, justice, love or whatever, but the objective existence of a supernatural being that is usually credited with interacting in various supernatural (and easily measurable) ways with the physical world.

    You may choose to redefine God however you wish. You may call a fruit bat "God" or the tingly feeling you get when you sleep on your arm. That is not the common definition however.

    However, when you talk to people about "God" and you are really talking about the tingly feeling you get when you sleep on you arm, you need to tell them that you have developed your very own special vocabulary and have chosen for whatever reason to part ways with the common definitions of the language we call "English" but which you call "French" because you can.

    So yes, some things are subjective. God just isn't one of those things.


    Is crowdsourcing the proper definition of God? Almost certainly not.

    You have presumably read the Bible, especially the gospels? The Tao te Ching? These (and many others) were written by people who had a direct experience of specific phenomena, and wrote books that attempted to help their followers see the same reality.

    Most people do, in fact, fail to see that reality. Then again, most people fail to understand, say, Bose-Einstein statistics or mycorrhizal fungus identification, and both of these are considered valid science. The crowd doesn't know everything, and experts may experience things non-experts miss.

    When I say it's a subjective reality, it's not a sensation, it's an experience. However, the available scientific data (such as EKG recordings of meditators) suggest the experience is subjective, not physical.

    Spiritual experiences are not confined to rare mystics either, especially in indigenous tribes. To pick one example, the linguist Daniel Everett (in Don't Sleep, There are Snakes) records how everyone in the Piraha village he was staying in saw a spirit named Xigagai standing on the beach, telling them not to go into the forest that day. He saw no evidence of the spirit, and neither did his daughter, but reportedly everyone else did.

    What did the piraha see? I haven't a clue, because it was their shared subjective experience. People see different things. Some people see God, some people see mycorrhizae. Most people see neither.


    I have read the bible. There was a ton of stuff happening in it that no one could have possibly missed noticing. Seas parted, the sun stood still, the dead walked. Wasn't very subjective. Conveniently all stopped too, the instant we developed objective ways to measure and record it.

    I may not personally understand the deep technical issues you bring up, but others that do understand that can use these things to benefit myself and others

    For the most part, when people are fooling themselves into believing in various spiritual phenomenon they are doing just that, fooling themselves. And yes the human brains ability for self delusion is boundless. However, their beliefs fail to deliver on their promises.

    My ancestors actually used the spiritual beliefs of the indigenous Americans to make them easier to kill. "Make them run to medicine, once you've done that, you have them." They thought the spirits would protect them, they didn't. They thought the holy places would protect them, they didn't.

    If there is something out there that can only be experienced subjective by a human brain, my advice to you is to tell it to bugger off. It cannot help you, at best it is a waste of time, at worst a fatal distraction.


    Para 1 - Just taking the "parting of the Red Sea", first you have to realise that this is a mis-translation in the Authorised Version. The correct translation is "Sea of Reeds", which strongly suggests a salt marsh. Now, if we look at the very North end of the Gulf of Suez, we find that, prior to the construction of the Suez Canal, there actually was a tidal salt marsh, which contains the archaeological remains of a pharaohic Egyptian army, that has been carbon-dated to Exodus or thereby. Add a strong spring tide, and does the "parting of the seas" still sound impossible, or just like someone knew the tides and phases of the Moon?


    "Hamlet's Ghost" @ 141 You JUST MOVED THE GOALPOSTS Whoever said "god" was an abstract concept? I didn't. Beleivers claim that "god" is real, not abstract. This is the usual weaselling, and trying-to-change-the-discussion. Do that again, and I'll use the L-word.

    I notice "unholyguy" @ 143 has noticed as well. That really wasn't clever of you, was it?

    Before anyone ELSE goes on about "Subjective Reality" and religious experiences. PLEASE re-read my piece @ 134, especialy the bit about deliberate laboratory-induced artificial religious experiences/visions. ZERO mystical content. Oops, again.


    Greg, Unholyguy: I think heteromeles pegged it better than anybody: people experience the same phenomena differently. And they name/organize information from those experiences differently. You may think they do it wrongly or sub-optimally, but you cannot deny that it is an observerd cultural/psychological phenomenon. And that people can reference that definition or experience of God without being dishonest or manipulative, as you seem to assert.

    Also, I don't think Taoists, to name an example, define "God" the way you do, except to the extent that they might not even call the Tao (a/the) "God."

    If the universe is a simulation, then there could objectively be a "God," and he could manipulate the rules in whichever way he liked, including preventing his existence from being readily provable by scientific means. Yet he could also cause certain of his subjects to experience phenomenon which inspire subjective faith/mystical ecstasy, possibly by the same means psychological experimenters have replicated. He would evade our level of epistemological forensics and yet the study of his interventions could be said to be a real and credible inquiry (if Catch 22, they actually happen.) There is, of course, no way to know this, but then again there is no way to not know it. [In other words, the transdimensional mice could be fucking with us all. Why does one suddenly die of myxomatosis in my grant funded maze, when there was no readily apparent vector for infection? Why?)

    And I realize the response will be then it pointless to discuss the possiblility and for you, I think it is. But since others feel they have experienced said phenomena, it would be a little psychopathic for them to deny those experiences to satisfy your view of reality. Maybe they can be persuaded that ergotism or particular neural firings explain those experiences better. But if you fail to persuade them, you can only say they fail on your terms of argument. You cannot say there frame of reference is nonexistent.


    "If I'm a business, there's no value to me to bring in consultants who will tell me what I want to hear;" When I read you I begin to sing "somewhere over the rainbow"... or maybe Bowie's"He's a starman". Because I don't feel like I'm living in the same world as you. It is well known that we all share the same cognitive bias and want to hear exactly what we think (except, maybe for SF readers wou want to the famous "suspensions of disbelief"). There is no way that business chiefs and stackholders should not do the same just because they are rich or are the chiefs.


    What Bible do you read? The first one the Holy Roman Emperor paid the different Christian sects to put together from what they had and believed hundreds of years AD. That's the Latin RC one. The King James one written to make the RC Pope stop giving him orders. Or the Hill Billy one that seems to be taking over America. It's from a snake oil salesman who did not know what the old English of the King James meant but knew he could make money selling what he said they meant.
    The Holy Roman Emperor got tied of paying the bills and cut the funding when the scholars were still at it. That why there are some loopy things in the Bible. They dumped a lot of loopy stuff out, but ran out of time.


    Is this a reply to my #146? If so, I explicitly said I was referring to the Authorised (aka King James) version in that posting.

    I actually prefer the "New International" or "Good News" translations.


    Privatelron@ 148

    The Tao/Dao is notoriously difficult to define. Although parts of it were incorporated into "Confucianism", it is probably incorrect to call Tao a religion. It's a philosophical system, and its' nearest European counterpart is probably the writings of Spinoza. There is most emphatically NOT a "god" in any conventional sense in the Dao. There is a "way" made up of the aforementioned guiding philosophical principles.

    And OF COURSE people experience the same phenomena differently, but that is not to say that said phenomena are, or are not real. If someone is a trained observer, they will notice more than an untrained one, for instance. However, if you are talking about "religious/mystical" experiences, EVEN IF THEY EXPERIENCE ONE, AND YOU DO NOT, there will STILL BE A MEASUREABLE EFFECT. Where? In their nervous systems, of course, and those nervous-system changes are both detectable and measurable. And to some extent, controllable from the outside.

    So I still maintain that, if there is no measurable effect, it ain't there! And, you used the word "psychopathic" to describe these people, how appropriate! Spot on!


    spend their LIVES thinking about

    That's exactly my point: Perpetuating epistemologically closed loops is not a useful endeavour.

    I really don't want to rehash a century of meta-epistemology, but this is not a critique from a positivist position. Positivism was dead before Popper. Popper is long dead as well.

    Presently there are two major epistemological "camps" in existence, one could be described as epistemological minimalism , personified by Thomas Kuhn, the other being the neopragmatism of Richard Rorty.

    Unsurprisingly both reject classic concepts of knowledge completely. With other words: positivism is as dead as a corpse.

    So what is there? Rorty: contingent "vocabularies", Kuhn: "normal science".

    Now, if you're trained in complexity science or information theory, then you see the similarities. Both have stopped looking for objects or signifiers as reliable carriers of information or negative entropy. In Rorty's world the dance with all these beautiful signifiers and possibilities is guided by the nature of the "enlightened human": ironism, liberalism, common sense, experience.

    In Kuhn's world, it is guided by the richness of the interactions themnselves. No theory can be described as true. But theories that produce richer veins of empirical surprise supplant older versions.

    The second version is recursive and open-ended and a lot more useful when applied to biology/ human nature, because human nature doesn't form the process itself so clearly. It's not a fully closed loop. At the very least, there's hope.


    Spammer, posting number 154 on this thread but they've popped up on a couple of others too.


    I really liked the Berkeley Version, but not only have I not had it since I left home, it turns out to have a new name now: The Modern Language Bible: The New Berkeley Version in Modern English.


    I haven't been keeping up with the older posts, so I don't know how Biblical tranlslation came up. But if you're going to read the "Old Testament" (The Hebrew Bible) I'd recommend sticking with Jewish translations. The 'New' Jewish Publication Society of America's is probably the most accessible, though Orthodox ones can be more literal--with some exceptions. Either way they avoid the christian tendency to read Jebus into everything (hint; the 'Suffering Servant' of Isaiah is the Jewish People, not what's 'is name.) FWIW, I read it as my people's folk history, along with some ethical guidelines, and with a big pinch of salt. However I do like it as a work of literature.


    re: Tao

    I've got a couple of copies of the Tao te Ching, and my favorite is Jonathan Starr's translation, because he actually gives all the Chinese characters and their translation.

    I'll get to Tao and God in a second, but here's the first line of the Tao te Ching:

    Tao k'o tao fei ch'ang tao.

    Tao= Tao/The Tao/way/path/paths/"That"/"The Absolute"/"Nature" k'o= can/able to/can be/"becomes" fei not/cannot/surely not/opposes/"other than"/"not identical with" ch'ang=eternal/everlasting/constant/unchanging/always/fixed//The Absolute/The Eternal

    So, the first line of this book is "The Tao that can be Tao'ed is not the eternal Tao."

    Yes, that's a pun, right in the first line of the book. That's a good reason to like Taoism IMHO.

    Now, if you remember someone calling the Christian God "The Way, the Truth, and the Light," you might see why mystical types equate God and Tao. It's not a 100% overlap, but given the language differences, it's quite possible that mystics were trying to describe the same experience, using languages that were badly suited to their shared experience.

    As for religious Taoism, yes, it exists. The deities are beings such as the Jade Emperor and the Eight Immortals, none of which are the Tao. This post-dates the Tao Te Ching and has nothing to do with Confucianism.


    Funny, most of the things people don't like about what Moslems believe and do is from the real Old Testament (The Hebrew Bible). God wants us to stone people for just about anything. Like not doing every thing your father wants you too. No matter how old you are.
    Modern Christian religion is what we want it to be and makes us feel good. Not what the people who started it said God wanted.


    "UnholyGuy" said at #145 "$variousstuff that appears to require $divineintervention happened. Conveniently all stopped too, the instant we developed objective ways to measure and record it". I challenged that statement on the basis that at least some of $various_stuff is easily explained when you correctly translate the original Aramaic texts.

    The translations I reference at #151 are original translations from the original texts (language as applicable to Book), although I'm not sure how well-known/used they are outside the UK.

    All of which means that I agree about using a good modern translation if you want to debate plausibility of events etc rather than "enjoy the archaic language".


    One thing to keep in mind about Old Testament Justice is that there isn't all that much evidence that it was actually used often--afaik. Judaism matured beyond it fairly quickly, if you're familiar with Talmud you know that alternatives were developed, they realized that "the whole world would be blind". I tend to think of Judaism, and most Eastern religions, as fairly mature, with Christianity as post-adolescent (though Evangelism is pretty immature), and Islam is still in its late adolescence. Modern Christian religion is what we want it to be and makes us feel good. I always wonder how many Christians actually read the gospels. How do they explain away statements like "Think not I bring Peace, I do not, I bring the Sword" or "If you love your Family [paraphrased] more than Me, you can not be my follower."?

    paws4thot @ 159; thanks for the explanation. You nailed it with your Sea of Reeds comment, that's one I like to mention when discussing things lost in translation. As for rational explanations of Biblical phenomena, I rather like the Plagues of Egypt being, mostly, explained by the explosion of Santorini.


    Para 3 - Thanks, any time.

    Para 4 - So do I, but I couldn't remember it in sufficient detail.


    For anyone wondering what we're talking about wrt Exodus/Santorini, this link has a good overview in the middle:


    While I agree with the sentiment, I'm not sure I agree that religions follow a maturation channel. There are always schismatic groups who want to "return to the source," ( fundamentalists), just as there are always people who want to reinvent a faith for modern times (reformers), or those who want to contact The Source directly, because they believe that the historian scripture readers have taken over and lost the original intent of the transmission (evangelists). Even a group as young as the Mormons has schismatic groups that show all these types.

    I don't think that any religion is free of trouble, especially once hardball politics gets mixed in. Buddhist schisms have produced the Ikkō-ikki and the White Lotus Rebellion, both of which are reminiscent of the current Tea Party. Taoists have a similar cultic history, if I recall properly. Even the Hawaiian cult of Kuka'ilimoku might be seen in this light.

    We could extend this list ad nauseum, but if we did, it would also be fair to add in the compassionate sects and movements who really did (and do) attempt to make the world a better place. That's religion for you. It doesn't mature. Rather, the street makes its own use of it.


    Thanks, but I've read a lot of types of bibles because my father would have killed me if I didn't pretend to believe his god. I'm still pretty good at pulling up bits and pieces of them.


    I don't think the Sea of Reeds is all that new. And not all go along with it. But it looks good to me. if you were running and saw the sea go down. Well it would be worth a try. But it would take a storm to drive the water to the other side.
    I've read the Egyptian records show no sign of the Exodus. They show the Jews were hard guys that were settled in border areas hold the border lands till the Pharaohs Army got there. Subjects but not slaves. A lot of them disappeared from history. Maybe they stayed home and did not go with Moses.
    I am not sure of the facts, but I read DNA testing has opened a big can of worms about who was what about that time.


    My reply was intended to be more generally aimed at everyone who'd commented on the subject. Yours just happened to be the most recent one that I hit reply to.


    Marilee @164: A second thought; I'm surprised he didn't kill you for reading bibles other than the "Right" one.

    d brown @165: It's fairly well known that the ancient Egyptians had a habit of re-writing their history when it suited--plenty of defaced and re-carved sculptures to attest to that.

    heteromeles @163: Agreed. It's just an old thought I've had, not too worked out. I think it holds at a basic level, with plenty of younger offshoots. In Judaism there's Hasidism; a lot of people tend to think that Hasidism is old-school ultra orthodox, but it was actually a fundamentalist reaction against the Reform movement of the late 18th century, itself a reaction against older orthodoxy. And so on to today's Conservative and Reconstructionist movements.


    heteromeles @ 163 Not forgetting of course ... that the whole "religion" idea is a load of foetid Dingoes kidneys .....

    Big Invisible Sky Fairies!


    That's your belief. Personally, I'm not terribly interested in the non-existence of big sky fairies, but to each his own.

    It's unlikely to be accurate, since dingoes have been around a lot shorter time (2000-5000 years BP) than evidence of human spirituality in Australia (about 40,000 years BP, based on extant rock art).


    Oh, I had a King James version, too, which I used for "serious" things. The Berkeley was just something I could play with.


    The first real Bible came hundreds of years AD. The first Holy Roman Emperor called a Council to form one church out of all the different teachings that had grown over the years.
    They dumped a lot of loopy stuff but funding was cut before they were done. The Latin Bible that came from it is mostly the RC Bible. So if you want to know what the nearest thing to the word of the god is that's the one to study. But most will not. They like what theirs says. Not that any of them matter.
    Any body here remember Heinlein's IF THIS GOES ON? It's about after the take over of the US by a TV preacher.


    You'd have to define bible for that to be accurate. In general, bibles gather ancient verses together and arrange them.

    And if you want to see strange preaching, watch this kid bang on the diminished pulpit and jump up and down.


    If you fast-forward this whole debate (the original one, not the last 50 posts on the Bible), you may end up back in Science-Fiction territory, with what Robert Charles Wilson calls Cortical Democraties in the latest of his Spin series "Vortex". The one thing from the far future that may already be true and applicable to this web-based democratic system are the unintentional yet catastrophic feedback loops that the system might incur : A common understanding and subsequent action plan might spin out of control and -more to the point- out of touch with reality as a whole. It then become impossible to stop for the very reason that no one WANTS it to stop, as everyone has thoroughly bought into the plan. Then an obvious solution may be the use of a moderating system... but that would defeat the whole purpose of the exercice, wouldn't it?


    Take a look at what computer programing the stock market has done. We have a lot of selling and buying stock that has nothing to do with the stock or the real world. Only what the programs think other programs will do. And they all do the same thing at the same time.


    Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the Republican party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them. Barry Goldwater (R) Late Senator & Father of the Conservative



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