McAbee: Problems, problems |

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McAbee: Problems, problems

False dilemma is the fallacy of oversimplification that offers two options when in reality more options are available. Black or white, night or day, Leno or Letterman. For the cognitive miser, the intellectual equivalent of the couch potato, these are the fast foods of citizenry that allow us to propose solutions to problems without any tedious thinking. You’re either with us or against us.

Sometimes you find yourself between a rock and hard place. When you do, you are actually at Morton’s fork, a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives. Named for John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury who observed the man living modestly and concluded that he must be saving money and therefore able to afford his taxes. At the same time he observed the man living lavishly, he probably had a refrigerator or something, and concluded that he must be rich and could therefore able to afford his taxes.

Henry Ford offered the Model T in any color the customer wanted “as long as it was black.” Known as Hobson’s choice, this particular model asks us to take it or leave it. We usually do.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes and solutions can be deliberated, dictated or dichotomized. Further, the nature of problems deserves a little thought.

Engineers coming out of college in the 1960s started going back to their professors and complaining that the types of problems that they were trained to solve were not the types of problems they were encountering in the public domain.

In school, engineers are taught to address problems that can be divided into manageable parts, that are technical in nature and that can actually be solved by scientific means. For example, building a dam on a river is one of these “tame problems” and its solution is judged in terms of efficiency. Tame problems are not necessarily easy problems; they just have a calculable solution. Are you with me?

What the engineers weren’t being taught were the problems that arose outside the graph paper grids and scientific calculators. “Wicked problems”, as they are called, involve competing underlying values, paradoxes and tradeoffs that cannot be resolved by science.

Which of the following of these values involved with building a dam would you say we scrap? A healthy river with a healthy ecosystem? Water for homes or lawns? Water for local farms? Economic vitality? Low cost of living? There’s more of course, but taken one at a time all of these seem like desirable things to have, right? Okay, maybe we can do without lawns but you get the point.

If only health care, foreign policy, taxation, immigration and budget deficits could be fixed with a surveyor’s transit and a backhoe. Rather, these seriously wicked problems inherently involve competing positive values, so argues Martin Carcasson Ph.D. and director of the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University.

“Solving these problems requires making tough choices – decisions defined by the tradeoffs inherent in situations where multiple legitimate values point reasonable people in conflicting directions,” writes Mr. Carcasson.

This requires a mind that’s as fit as a Colorado cyclist. Our other public problem-solving processes, glaze over these tough choices and appeal to the cognitive couch potato in all of us by oversimplifying the problems to the point of negligence. Then, we are chained to the Procrustean bed of partisan politics with our wallets empty and laying on the floor beside us.

Mr. Carcasson recommends a deliberative approach to problem solving where these tough choices are uncovered. Trained mediators help citizens work through the difficult decisions that have to be made. Just clearly identifying these opposing values can improve understanding and mutual respect across perspectives. It can therefore lead us away from the “my way or the highway” approach.

I don’t know about you, but all that pointless bickering that gets us nowhere makes me feel like the fish who swam into the brick wall and said, “Dam.”

Jeff McAbee is a former Summit County resident now living on the Front Range. Contact him at or via Twitter @Jeff_McAbee.