The necessity of an accurate problem statement

Many times I have heard, “Both sides can’t be right.” While there are certainly times when this is true there are also lots of times when it is not true but it appears to be true on the surface.

My classic example is the Civil War. If it were true the war was entirely about slavery and those fighting for the south were fighting to preserve slavery then sure, only one side can be right. But if those fighting for the south were fighting to preserve states rights while those in the north were fighting to end slavery then both sides could be right. They are “talking” past one another, but they could both be right.

A similar thing happens in some gun control debates.

One side (exaggerated to make the point) can claim, “Innocent children should not be shot! Ban all guns!” The other side can claim, “Banning guns will not make the children safer! Let good guys carry guns in schools to protect them.”

Although the proposed solutions are at complete odds with no possible compromise between the them both sides are fighting for what are almost for certain equally valid truths. Innocent children should not be shot and banning guns will not make children safer.

While I cannot claim any extraordinary expertise in this endeavor it is going to be far more productive to identify the things you do agree with one another on before engaging in a battle over the things you disagree on. Compromise may be impossible, but there might be solutions that are agreeable to both/all sides if you can realize you have a common goal. For example a orthogonal solution may work without stomping on either side.

What’s an orthogonal solution? In the case of the school shootings a solution to “ban guns” versus “good guys with guns” an orthogonal solution would be to “ban schools”. For example if children were to be taught online supervised by their parents or in much small groups there wouldn’t be such large groups of tempting, nearly helpless, targets.

There may be many solutions to a problem but without a clear problem statement and agreement that common ground does exist people are likely to get stuck pushing their solution rather than solving the problem.

Problem statements drive the solution. Incorrect and unarticulated problem statements limit the range of solutions.

In the case of school shootings examine the following problem statements, somewhat exaggerated to make the point:

  • There are too many guns brought to schools.
  • Good guys are prohibited from protecting themselves and our children at schools.
  • An unacceptably high number of children at schools are being injured and killed by people with guns and other weapons.

Depending on the choice of problem statement the range of solutions are completely different. And there may be other problem statements beyond what I have enumerated above. Defining the problem correctly is frequently more difficult than finding solutions.

I know it’s tough but finding common ground and accurately defining the problem not only leads to a broader range of solutions but it also gets people working to solve the problem rather than fighting each other. Work on problem statements rather than fighting with others. We are better than this.

15 thoughts on “The necessity of an accurate problem statement

  1. Pingback: Random thought of the day | The View From North Central Idaho

  2. OK, I’ll play. Problem statement;
    The original principle and purpose behind the second amendment (power relations – balance of power – power being held in the people [the individual] rather than government) has been lost. The second amendment has been so degraded by thousands of laws and rules as to create large pockets of defenseless people. Couple that with an overall degradation of our culture over the last several generations ( the very concept of principles or values is lost on many people) and you have a recipe for disaster.

    But to state this problem by itself isn’t near enough. Every problem has a cause, and so we must step back and look for the cause, following the truth where ever it leads, even if it pisses off a lot of people, for without the truth there can be no solution.

    A truth seeker is by definition a political “problem” waiting to happen. Your mere existence as a truth seeker is a focal point of cultural or social division. Take it far enough and you tend to get stuck away in a gulag or nailed to a cross. There is no avoiding it. If conflict avoidance is your goal, you may as well join the Republican Party and take it easy for the rest of your life, but the conflict won’t go away– you just won’t be of any help to either side.

    So what’s the cause of the stated problem, Dearhearts? I can spell it out in one paragraph, but I’d like to know if anyone else can say it.

    • I fully agree the root problem is one of lack of principles. But I also believe that it would take at least a generation to correct if it were possible to start the appropriate education process immediately. And, of course, such an education process would be fiercely fought.

      Because philosophic principles and rational thought are ignored and frequently even derided by the great masses of people a principled approach to the current situation is almost certainly doomed in the short term.

      Short term we may be able to steer our political process in a direction which reduces the severity of the consequences of the coming economic crash. People having the skills and equipment to protect themselves and their communities may increase the survival rate and increase the standard of living.

      The ironic thing is that I’m not sure which path results in the most people having the skills and equipment. The path where a firearms ban is proposed and perhaps even implemented or the path where such proposals quickly fade away.

      The only long term hope we have is to get people to think in a rational and principled manner. But I fear we will only be able to start that process as we attempt to build back from the ashes of the coming collapse.

    • That is a very interesting video. Barb L. was listening in the background as I watched it. She was very impressed too.

  3. I think you’re right Joe. You have some really good points. And I agree.. you can’t “ban guns”.. that would be blaming the tool and not the criminal. :)

    The big trend I see is this:

    1. Unwilling or unable people that identify an individual with severe mental problems who could cause them to harm others.

    We find out too late basically. Better screening? Healthcare choices? Parent education? I have no clue personally. I knew a kid with mental issues like this once. He just had no “off” switch in his head. He was friendly and nice – even invited me over a few times. Thankfully Dad met him a few times and guessed he was “troubled” and said to stay away from him.. and he was dead right – the kid started a big fire a few days later. It seems everyone wants to “ignore” that quiet kid in the corner with the weird look on his face – until something horrible happens.

    2. Inability to quickly alert and protect innocent civilians during this kind of attack. Police, response tactics (teachers).. it seems like everything is too late before so many people are hurt or killed. There has to be some method or process that could stop or slow this kind of attack. A safe room? A shelter? Escape? Guards/security seem to be off limits sadly. I couldn’t tell you the answer but I agree.. the current approach dosen’t seem to work. During the 50′s we had some great drills and practices we used to implement in schools.

  4. As for the War of Northern Aggression (not a civil war look it up)we can firmly say both sides were fighting for states rights, the South to preserve them and the North to take them away.

    • I think it is defensible to say it is no exaggeration. But it was a possible point of debate and would distract from the more important point so I conceded it.

  5. philosophic principles and rational thought are ignored and frequently even derided by the great masses of people

    I think you have hit on the first accurate problem statement right there. Until this problem is solved our chance of coming up with a reasoned solution to any other problem is “slim to none”, and more a matter of who is luckier and better at emotional manipulation than it is dependent on actual reasoned thought and rational discussion.

    • It is very accurate, but I say it defines a symptom. Every symptom, has a cause. We’re still not really looking at the cause, which is the problem. Symptoms are problems, sure, but you ameliorate them by finding the cause and addressing that.

      “Doctor; I have severe chest pain!”
      “OK. Have a pain pill.”

      You know what’s wrong with that exchange. The pain may be due to arterial blockage, but that too is a symptom. Maybe it’s a symptom of a bad diet and lack of exercise, but those also have causes…

      Reason your way back, back, back…to the source of the problem and you will find that gun restriction laws (second amendment infringements) are at least a step or three away from their cause.

  6. Psychos are going to schools where we have gathered all our children and shooting them.
    Psychos won’t respect any new laws. They are psychos. We cannot write any law that will target that part of this problem.
    Schoolchildren will obey the law. Therefore, we need to make it against the law to gather all our children into big public schools. That is how you solve the problem.
    Ban public schools.

    • Ban gun free zones. Public schools are a subset of gun free zones, and something of another problem.

      I’ve addressed public education many times by saying that education should have been included with religion in the first amendment, for exactly the same reasons. At the time of the Founding, churches were a center (if not THE center) of cultural influence, and it was determined that such an important center of cultural influence should be protected from government control. Today, the churches have taken a back seat to education as a primary influence on culture, and so the first amendment has failed as government now controls education. It’s very simple. We should have; “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of education…” That’s really what they meant by “religion” in the practical, functional, societal/cultural sense, though they didn’t understand it. The founders missed something very important there, but then, evil always finds a way.

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