Babel and bubbles with a vengeance

Haris Shekeris
5 min readJan 30, 2023

Introduction This piece is about problem framing. I have already encountered some literature on this problem, and I’ve been most notably influenced by the original Rittel and Webber article on wicked problems, in which they argue (if I remember correctly) that the framing of a problem defines the space of possible solutions. My attempt will be to elaborate on this problem. As much more has been written than I have read about the topic, I will not claim any degree of originality. Main part So, my first claim will be to come out as a wicked-problems convert, in the sense that I believe that most problems worth wasting time and energy on are (and perhaps, an even stronger claim, ought to be thought of) as wicked problems (for a reference, one can google-scholar ‘Rittel and Webber’). So, climate change, sustainability, artificial intelligence talk, migration talk, neoliberalism, the nation-state in the 21st century and many others, are in this sense, wicked problems. Of course the concepts mentioned above may be also thought of as concepts, frameworks, ideologies, conceptual frameworks, ideas, and many things besides, but as I hope will become clearer soon, that’s a symptom of the problem that I am trying to highlight: that ‘words’ are often labeled differently in different circles or communities of persons (‘actors’) and then different actors in different circles end up either using the same words but meaning very different things (Babel) or using very different words to discuss what are essentially the same topics. So far, so good I suppose. After all, a person may say that, as in the original Babel story, the phenomenon mentioned in the above paragraph may be quite harmless, being the same as language use. There are many languages and many conversations may happen in different languages, either with words meaning the same or different things. However, such a move wouldn’t be that reassuring, at least not to me, as I would like to move beyond propositions-talk (from a realist’s point of view, that words in different languages make up the same propositions which are languageindependent), but also, even though I’m more naturally attracted to it, a total language relativity in which there is absolutely no communication at least among natural languages. My answer will stop just short of language relativity, by articulating the thought that physics-talk, economics-talk, mathematics-talk, taxi-driver-talk, fruit-picker-talk, (and so on), with their dialects of, for example, Spanish-taxi-driver-talk and Romanian-programmer-talk are just as language-like as what is traditionally thought of as language (for example Italian, Portuguese, or Cantonese). Now, why do I think that the above thought is not banal and is deserving a small article? Well, because, as mentioned in the first sentence of the introduction, problem framing is, well, a problem. More specifically, who or which community frames a problem is itself a very big political problem. So, for example, an IMF economist producing a report on the state of the greek economy and a greek kiosk owner speaking thoughtfully whilst smoking their cigarette may, on my account, be discussing exactly the same thing, even though if they were to meet their encounter would perhaps be more awkward than the meeting of two people from different planets. And, of course, this matters a lot, for the following reason. The IMF economist’s report will, at best, significantly affect the greek economy. This will happen in a technocratic society where the IMF economist will be termed as an expert. At worse (for the economist, not sure about me), the report will simply be ignored by EU politicians who see politics as more than technocracy. As a possible consequence, the course of the life of the kiosk owner may be greatly influenced by the IMF expert’s report. On the other hand, the kiosk owners’ opinion would at best influence some other people’s votes in the national elections or a few other people’s behavior’s in the upcoming protest, or at worst, have no effect at all, by being dismissed by everybody as just another stinking and ignorant opinion by a person who should rather stick to selling (and smoking) cigarettes. Another example may be the inside and the outside of a UN COP (Conference of Parties) gathering. Whilst seemingly discussing the same thing, the discussions among politicians on the inside and protesters on the outside will differ significantly. Furthermore, it may not suffice to resort to ‘the experts’ or ‘the scientists’ to establish a common language, as the experts may also speak different languages, in the sense that an atmospheric physicist may simply have not much common ground with a conservation biologist or an environmental economist. It is very much possible that these sorts of different experts will express different opinions on the same question, and that their opinions may in large part be explained by their disciplinary viewpoint (economist-talk vs physicstalk) as well as their national cultural and educational background (for example, an Ivy-League university American economist vs a Bangalore University Pakistani economist). Implications (and takeaways) So, the main part defended the thesis that different people from different communities frame problems differently, and that the activity of framing and who gets to frame a problem are issues that matter a lot. A further claim that I will make here is that under the current regime (at least in the global north, the area of the world I know best), framing is delegated to two classes (or communities, I don’t here mean classes in its marxian sense) of people, expert scientist technocrats and politicians. As a result, policy gets produced in rather secluded bubbles, in a science/policy language which only pays lip-service to democracy — sometimes the notion of a division of epistemic labor is evoked (see Philip Kitcher’s work on a division of epistemic labor which reserves the right of producing significant knowledge to scientists). In closing, I would like to suggest an alternative, which has been there perhaps as long as the sun has been shining on humanity — in various guises. This is the idea that when it comes to wicked problems, to problems that as mentioned above are the most important ones, people promoting and claiming to speak in the name of democracy ought to try, as much as possible, to forge and speak the same language when taking the important decisions. This attempt to speak the same language need not be conducted by force. However, the scope of this activity ought to encompass the whole of the given society — or state or supra-national entity. In other words, the activity of framing ought to be done by all citizens in their capacity as citizens. This can emerge naturally from a civic mindset in which the perceived activity is framed (again, that word!!) as a civic one rather than a technical one. People ought to deliberate on wicked problems qua citizens first and foremost, qua stakeholders and qua interested parties — only then will government be of the people, for the people, and by the people.

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