Solving Wicked Problems Despite Groupthinks

Wicked Problems

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems……  These problems can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping.

By this definition, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to be a wicked problem, perhaps by societal and political evolution more than the micro-organism itself.  Knowledge of the virus was initially limited, requiring solutions offered through modeling based on uncertain assumptions.  The resulting predictions remain a source of many contradictory interpretations.  Multiple disciplines have knowledge to offer in epidemics and pandemics: virologists, epidemiologists, mathematicians, data analysts, engineers, anthropologists, doctors and sociologists are a few of many examples.  Outcomes of the pandemic response have been colossal socio-economic burden to some groups and simultaneously, colossal benefit to others.


Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the [belief] that dissent is impossible. The problematic or premature consensus that is characteristic of groupthink may be fueled by a particular agenda—or it may be due to group members valuing harmony and coherence above critical thought.

Pscyhology Today

An unfortunate consequence of groupthink is scorn and ridicule of independent thinkers.  In 2020 many scientists researching the coronavirus pandemic have described a similar phenomenon.  Viral Geneticist Professor Francois Balloux summarised his own experience on Twitter yesterday:

There was such fear back in March that anything that didn’t fit into an apocalyptic narrative was received with scorn or just ignored. My views have hardly changed over the pandemic, but I can express myself more openly now without (systematically) attracting a torrent of abuse.

Problem Solving

Ivor Cummins is a Chemical Engineer from Ireland who consults on solving complex problems.  Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University recommended Cummins’ 40 minute YouTube video, linked below.  It offers an easy-to-follow illustrative analysis of the pandemic.  Although the focus is on Europe, a lot of the information is applicable as general epidemiological principles.


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