There is a phenomena in human society that IMO has extremely important implications. It has been stated perfectly by G. K. Chesterton in “The Point of a Pin,” The Scandal of Father Brown (1935):
“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”
It is my experience that this confusion in society is so ubiquitous and so little recognized that it is a major obstacle to both personal and societal progress.
Indeed John Dewey, Logic-Theory of Inquiry, pg. 108,Henry Holt and Company (1938), stated the following
1) “It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half solved”
2) “Without a problem, there is blind groping in the dark.”
Dewey used the terms “problematic situation” and “well put problem” in the development of his analysis. Let me give a specific example from my personal experiences.
About 15 years ago there was this big push in cybersecurity to develop Intrusion Detection systems, namely computer code that could look at institutional computer network traffic and assess which packets were intrusions by external threats. An i agent (with access to funds) came to us for help and after an hour tell us of the difficulties they were encountering, said something like
“we need to develop some computer methods to detect intrusions and we are seeking help”
There then ensued an hour of solution methodologies proposed and discussed.
Near the end, I raised my hand to speak and said:
I can do that, it is very simple and requires no expense, and is lightning fast and efficient, He said how? I said: simply call all packets intrusions. The room laughed as did the guest. He said, you cant be serious, the false alarm rate would be huge and our agents would be overwhelmed with investigations. I said, oh, I can solve that problem perfectly also. Simply call all packets “non-intrusions” and again the room laughed but this time the laughter was a little nervous. Now the agent become serious and said then we would have too many undetected intrusions.
I responded , now you speak of “false alarms” and “undetected intrusions”. Do you also have computational concerns like how fast this system operates? What kind of assumptions are you willing to make about the nature of historical traffic with the traffic for the deployed system? What type of “training data” might one have?( Training data is data where we know if a packet is intrusion or not).
Will the development have have access to domain experts?
To not get bogged down with the specifics of this specifc problematic situation, let me tell my readers what is the hallmark of a well put problem, according to Dewey;
If Tom produces a solution and Mary produces a solution, then there is a pre agreed on operationally relevant method for evaluating which solution is better.
One of the hallmarks of a non well put problem is that different solutions are compared with the “view graph metric” namely by the coolness of the visual display. Another common method is to rank solutions by the prestige of the problem solver.
In the following weeks and months a working group developed to address this problemlematic situation. However, it became very clear that a formulation of a well put problem or even a “performance metric” was anathematic to all but very few. The remainder had great ideas for solutions. This struggle the minority lost in quick order. But our institution was successful in getting the agent to fund a multimillion dollar research effort on intrusion detection. After 10 years, they have many solutions and no clue on how well any of them work or will work when deployed in a new environment. There is IMO a blind groping in the dark.
This is but a small example of my experience in science -there are many nonscientific examples. As a warning, once you become aware of this phenomena, you are never the same. You develop a sixth sense:
I see “solutions” everywhere