Thinking to Hell and Back: Wicked Problems

An excellent diagram, I believe based on lecture notes, of why wicked problems are wicked problems! So much layering of complexity and interdepency (Credit: LoraCBR CC-BY-2.0)

Here at ‘We Lack Discipline’ we have a political and ethical stance.

This will not be presented to you in a manifesto so much as it can be discerned through snide remarks and sarcastic comments. It is definitely more discernable on our Twitter than in our articles.

We do not try to hide it, but nor do we advertise it.


Believe me it is not to be as people pleasing as possible. I know my crowd and they’ll find me.

But mainly there is a fear of getting ourselves caught up in what are known as ‘Wicked Problems’.

Now ‘Wicked Problems’ are more than just what people from Boston have when they’re having a hard time.

No, ‘Wicked Problems’ relates to a specific area, a cross-world of politics and scientific-technological thinking called ‘Social Planning’. Effectively how we decide the direction of our society.

The term was coined by a man named Horst Rittel, but its use as we understand it today was introduced by C. West Churchman, a philosopher and systems scientist at UC Berkeley.

A wicked problem is one for which there is no effective, immediate, ethical, consensus solution.

Take for instance marriage.

As much as I believe marriage is a silly institution, anyone who would prevent these two people from marrying their respective pigeons is a dick. (credit: Pixy CC0)

Now for me marriage is a completely needless declaration to church and/or state of your relationship with someone else.

As a result, for me, I don’t see why a man cannot marry a man, a woman cannot marry a woman, a dog cannot marry a duck, or a Swedish harpist cannot marry a Dutch pancake stand.

However mine is not the only voice in society. There are groups within society who think that marriage means something very specific. Indeed, not only do they think it, they have faith that not thinking like that will get you punished, for eternity, in an afterlife. You are forever damned if you so much as even think a human could marry a pancake stand.

There are people who believe marriage is a sacred and holy union between a man and a woman with the purpose of starting a family and there the matter ends.

So what’s the problem? Poor Lars over here wants to marry his Pancake stand and is being denied a right, in law, to do it. In attempting to change the law to allow Swedish harpists to marry Dutch pancake stands you upset the people who think marriage is holy.

Poffertjes are a small, puffy type of Dutch pancake sold as streetfood. This stand, as you can see, is already dressed in its wedding whites! How could you deny the rights of either one of these men to marry this pancake stand!? (Credit: CC-BY-2.0)

They then get very upset.

They might do some chanting.

I wish I was joking but I’m fairly certain people have been shot for less than supporting the rights of a Swedish man to marry a Dutch pancake stand.

Life is cruel.

So Lars can’t have what he wants unless we can create a consensus that marriage can be okay between a man and his snack-wagon.

There are people blocking that consensus because of an unwavering faith.

Who do we upset? Which side do we pick?

From a personal perspective I pick the side that bans marriage entirely and finds a new, more casual way of ensuring legal rights in relationships are fair. Surely nowadays we could do that with an online form and a small admin fee rather than needing a big, expensive ceremony?

This is why it’s a ‘wicked problem’ – It doesn’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer, just differing opinions. It doesn’t necessarily have a true-or-false solution, just a better or worse. There is no randomly stopping it, no way of testing what works and what doesn’t without upsetting someone somewhere and they are complex, in that they tend to be related to other problems, with multiple complicated interdependencies.

For me one of the key criteria for a ‘wicked problem’ is somewhere down the road it gets political. Although there are no fixed criteria for a wicked problem I would argue this is an inevitability.

In order for it to be a ‘wicked problem’ it would need to have no necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, in which case it would have to have multiple opinions and those opinions will inevitably be sprung upon by opportunist problem-leeches called ‘politicians’ thus, even a non-political wicked problem is destined for political discussion.

Politics – This picture makes more sense than it (Credit: Zabou CC-BY-3.0)

Hence how we now have discussions in the UK about government departments stepping in to tell, ostensibly private, academic institutions when and who they are allowed to have speak at events with a ‘Free Speech Champion’ – No self-aggrandisement in that job title.

It’s a wicked problem, it’s frankly none of the government’s damn business, but it looks good for them if they promote the side of the kind of speakers and thinkers that their voters support. These tend to be the controversial, far-right wing ones a lot of universities do not want speaking there any more.

Is there is a right or wrong answer? No. In a supposedly democratic society free speech is a fundamental right. So, however, is freedom to not have to listen. There is also no freedom from consequences for your speech, so if your speaking happens to upset a group, and the group think you’re a dickhead, then you cannot protect yourself from consequences by claiming you have ‘free speech’.

You have the right to say what you like, I am not obligated to like it, I am not obligated to listen and – if I’m an institution, I should not be legally obligated to let you use my institution as a platform for your speech.

You see how these wicked problems tie themselves in knots? Because at this point an inability, of an institution’s members, to use their voice to prevent a speaker speaking at their institution is, in effect, a curb on their rights to protest as well.

This is where ‘wicked problems’ see their complex interdependencies come into play.

Transport infrastructure is another good one. Can’t build for motorists without upsetting the cyclists, can’t build for the cyclists without upsetting the motorists, build for either of those and freight will hate you and in the meantime what do you do about the damn pedestrians?

While city planners, local advocacy groups, environmental groups and others argue about that, some upper-class twit of the year from the Tory Party is going to go all “Rah, rah! Equal rights for Chelsea Tractors, rah!” whilst another, probably equally upper-class twit with the Green Party will be all like “Umm…actually cycling emissions…Umm…reduction…Umm…environmentally friendly.” And they will each try to leverage their own support, or gain support through their own leverage. One of the two.

An example of a ‘Chelsea Tractor’ – effectively a fancy 4×4 or offroad type vehicle more for style than actual offroad use. The Range Rover Evoque has been a very popular choice among people with more money than sense (of responsibility) (Credit: Vauxford CC-BY-SA 4.0)

The environment?

Well there’s an example of a ‘super wicked problem’.

You see there are lot of ways we could fix the environmental and climate crisis. None of them would achieve a consensus.

For example, why not a mass population cull? Well that’s an easy fix. Who do you cull? How do you justify it? It’s the simplest and easiest way of doing it but good luck finding the consensus.

Plant more trees? Where? On what land? Who pays? How long will the trees take to grow? Are they even an effective carbon sink?

Why not use technological solutions? Well can they be built within existing infrastructure? If not we’ve got to use more resources to build more factories to build more technology, using more resources, in order to use less resources! That’s surely a little counterproductive?

It’s a super wicked problem because there are solutions, none of them ‘right’, none of them ‘wrong’, all of them arguable from one perspective or another.

We recently had International Women’s Day (March 8th) and I wrote an article about Livia Drusilla, the Mother of the Roman Empire, who effectively produced all the Julio-Claudian heirs. You probably know her better, and quite sexist-ly, as Augustus’ wife.

A bronze bust of Livia – She wasn’t actually made of metal in real life, but she may as well have been for how tough she was! (Credit: Fould Collection; purchase, 1860 Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

In that article I explained that We Lack Discipline is unlikely to ever touch upon the sex and gender discussion.

Even though it is current.

Even though it is huge.

Even though it is on-going.

Even though it has scientific elements to it worth exploring.


Because it’s a fucking messy (a term often used for exclusively scientific wicked problems is ‘messy problems’), wicked problem.

If we’re just discussing the biology, I’ve explained that enough times. I explain it in my article about love – Biology is weird, fucked up and has more variations than Nespresso. If you think there are only two possible chromosomal combinations of sex, and only two ways they physiologically, hormonally and psychology manifest in the body you just have not studied enough biology.

And do you know what? You’re not the first! I’m researching weird sex in the biological world…purely research…

…Anyway, I came across a submission for a research proposal for a project to research…well…weird sex. Why? Because in a student’s notebook a lecturer had noticed a student’s surprise that not only, in the avian (bird) world, is the sex chromosomal designation Z-W instead of the X-Y we have in humans, but in birds the females are the heterogametic designation – That is to say they are the ones with the two different chromosomes.

A very pregnant seahorse. Surely the mother since females are the ones that get pregnant, right? Nuh-uh! Not in seahorses! This dude carrying the kids is the dad. Sex is weird, get used to it! (Credit: Chris Huffman CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In humans, the female is XX and the male is XY, the male is the heterogametic as he has two differing sex chromosomes. In birds the male is ZZ and the female ZW, therefore female birds are heterogametic.


I have one specific rule of life, especially sex, whether it is in human relationships, genetic designations, gender identity, whatever, the rule is;


It’s a wicked problem. And now you know a little bit more about them and, hopefully, why sex and gender should be considered one. I hope it will, if not change your mind, at least change the perspective you approach it from.


Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Karl Anthony Mercer is a writer, poet, author, musician and part-time dandy. He can often be found squatting in fields looking at insects (he is an unapologetic wasp fanatic), wandering around museums over-dressed, or hiding in a dank corner singing sad songs on a small guitar. His writing on WordPress consists of MercersPoems - an outlet for his poetry often using natural imagery, gothicism and decadence to explore the struggles of living as an autistic person; and We Lack Discipline - Where he writes about factual, often academic topics he has learned and is interested in (e.g. biology, psychology, Roman history etc.) with an inimitable, often light-hearted and irreverant style. You can support Karl by; Subscribing to the We Lack Discipline Patreon - Or buying him a coffee (he loves coffee!) -

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