Coping with a complex messy world: Education for the 21st century and beyond

Critical Thinking—surfacing and rebutting fallacious arguments/claims--is one of the most important skills in dealing with Wicked Messes.


We live in a world whose complexity grows by the nano-second. And yet, few have been taught the full complement of skills necessary to make sense of and thereby cope with a complex, messy world. And yet, our very survival hinges on it.

Because they’re all highly interdependent, and thereby interrelated, we could start with any of the critical skills. But since the kind of knowledge necessary to deal with a complex, messy world is fundamental, Philosophy is a natural starting point. Further, if any Philosophic system is especially suited for dealing with complexity, it’s the Philosophical School of Pragmatism. Its essence is best captured in terms of a brief definition of what it regards as the Truth, especially how to obtain it. While the definition is important in itself, it’s made even greater by the unparalleled insights it offers into the nature of complexity.

In brief, “Truth is that which Makes an Ethical and Spiritual difference in the Quality of Our Lives.” Thus, unlike other Philosophic systems for producing knowledge, according to Pragmatism, Epistemology, Ethics, Spirituality, and Aesthetics are not only interrelated, but inseparable. In short, Truth does not consist of facts and abstract propositions alone.

Epistemology is the systematic means by which produce and thereby secure Formal Knowledge. Ethics is the means by which we know what is Right Ethically and what we need to do in order to achieve it. Spirituality is the feelings deep inside of us by which we know that there is more to the Human condition than our bodies and Pure Thought alone. The Quality of Life is a stand-in for Aesthetics, that is, what is Harmonious and thereby Pleasing.  Finally, the little word “Makes” means that Truth does not consist of a set of published articles and books, but a carefully crafted set of Ethical Actions designed to Right a set of Wrongs. In other words, Ethical Actions are not only the means by which Truth is achieved, but its very essence.

The true importance of the Pragmatist approach is that it leads to a deeper understanding of complex, messy systems. The late, great distinguished Social System’s educator and scientist par excellence, Russell L. Ackoff appropriated the word “Mess” to stand for a whole system of problems that were so highly interconnected, and thus constantly changing in direct response to one another, such that one couldn’t take any of the so-called individual problems out of the Mess and attempt to analyze them on their own without doing irreparable damage to the fundamental nature of the problems and the entire Mess of which they were a part. In other words, looking at problems in isolation violated one of the key properties of every Mess, all of the vital interactions between the problems. Indeed, interactions are the key attributes of every Mess.

(As an aside, Ackoff was the first PhD students of my Philosophical mentor at UC Berkeley, C. West Churchman. In turn, Churchman was a student of E.A. Singer who was one of William James’ best students, one of the principal founders of Pragmatism. Thus, if intellectually speaking, Singer is my Grandfather, then James is my Great Grandfather, a fact of which I couldn’t be prouder. My link with Pragmatism is direct indeed.)

There’s another important consideration that makes things both more complex and interesting. The late, distinguished UC Berkeley Architectural planner Horst Rittel introduced the concept of Wicked Problems. Wicked Problems are the complete opposite of Tame Problems, of which Exercises are the prime examples. Their endless attraction is due to the fact that students and teachers alike prefer them because they’re Bounded and Well-Structured, thus lowering the anxiety associated with uncertainty. “X+5=11, find X” is a typical example. Thus, following the classic rules of Algebra, everyone is expected to get the single right answer, X=6. Furthermore, once solved, Tame Problems stay solved forever. Not so with Wicked Problems. No single academic discipline or profession has the final say in either their definition or solution. Furthermore, they are constantly changing.

Putting the two together, the result is Wicked Messes. All of the key problems with which we are faced—the Economy, Extreme Divisiveness and Polarization, Homelessness, Women’s Rights, etc.–are Wicked Messes. But things are even more complicated. Because they continually impact one another, all Wicked Messes are thereby part of the larger Wicked Mess known as The World Mess. In short, all of the known problems of Society and the World are deeply interconnected.

In this way, Pragmatism not only forces us to grapple with, but challenges us constantly to surmount the immense turmoil associated with the most complex entities imaginable. Psychology is thereby a key element with regard to our ability to cope with complexity. In short, one’s state of mind is a key component of every Wicked Mess. Not only does one need to able to tolerate high degrees of uncertainty, but to appreciate the widest possible diversity of Expert Opinion. Indeed, one needs to seek it out. Without it, one is doomed to falling prey to one of the most damaging of all errors, the Error of the Third Kind: “Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely.” Before one makes the critical decision as to which problem one ought to solve, multiple perspectives are absolutely essential.

Since crises are an ever-present feature of today’s world, Crisis Management (CM) is also an integral component of coping with Wicked Messes. Indeed, every Wicked Mess both contains and leads to enumerable crises.

CM is fundamentally Thinking the Unthinkable and then doing everything in one’s power to prevent it from happening. But since crises both happen to and are the result of the faulty and irresponsible—read “Unethical”–behavior of organizations, specialized knowledge of organizations is also a critical ingredient in coping with complexity. In order to be as prepared as possible, it not only necessitates understanding what organizations need to do Before, During, and After crises, but especially why too many are resistant to CM. 

The set of activities that encompass Before are first of all the consideration of as many Worst-Case Scenarios as possible. Namely, how crises can and will occur in the most unimaginable ways and at the most inopportune times. Second, that none of the known types of crises should be discounted. Rather, the key question is, “What is the form that say Product Tampering or Domestic Terrorism can and will assume such that it’s either our fault or does insurmountable damage to us?” Third, how do we identify and overcome the barriers that stand in the way to making CM a key priority for our organization? Fourth, how do we form and maintain Crisis Management Teams (CMTs) throughout our entire organization that will meet regularly, assess our susceptibility to crises, and address if our preparations are adequate?

During involves enacting all of one’s Before preparations. And After involves the most brutal, no-holds- bared assessment of what one did right versus wrong so that one is better prepared for future crises. In other words, learning is key.

One of the most critical of all activities is coming to terms with the different forms and sources of Denial.

In a previous blog[i], I examined a series of arguments/claims that have been constantly bandied about for not getting vaccinated for Covid 19. It quickly became clear that as bad as the individual arguments/claims were, they were made even worse by the disturbing fact that they reinforced one another in the most insidious of ways. Not only are they highly interactive, but they naturally grouped together into tight clusters thereby bolstering one another even more.

While they are by far one of the most destressing outcomes of Covid 19, the situation is made worse by the fact they are a direct reflection of the sad state of Reason in general. The greatest downfall is that they impede our collective ability to tackle the important issues facing us. In short, they are Denial writ large.

To recall, first and foremost is the Hoax Cluster, namely that Virus is not real, and therefore, not deserving of any, let alone serious, attention. It’s supported by the false assertion that the numbers of people affected are too small to worry about. It’s further reinforced by the Conspiracy/Paranoia Cluster. Namely, the Virus has been intentionally fomented by the Government so that by surreptitiously placing microchips in the vaccines, not only can it track our every whereabouts and thoughts at all times, but control them and thereby take away our precious freedoms and liberties. The I Know Best Cluster is the false belief that I and I alone know better than anyone else everything there is to know about myself. Therefore, I and no one else has the right to make important decisions pertaining to my body. The Invulnerability Cluster is the mistaken belief that “If in the highly improbable case that the Virus is real, I’m immune to it.” The Product Defect Cluster is the unfounded claim that the Vaccine, not the Virus, is the true culprit since it’s responsible for causing the Virus in the first place. In other words, it completely reverses the correct order of things. Furthermore, the vaccine has not been tested enough to ensure its complete safety. Therefore, there are no valid reasons for our trusting it.

The major point is that all of the Clusters are part of every Wicked Mess. Whatever the particular case, there are always voices claiming that it’s a Hoax, and so on. For this reason alone, Critical Thinking—surfacing and rebutting fallacious arguments/claims–is one of the most important skills in dealing with Wicked Messes.

Coping with Wicked Messes calls for all the fortitude and skills we can muster. Nothing less will do.


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