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Nested problems, nested solutions (3): theoretical problems

This is part of a series thinking through the different layers involved in solving real-world problems. It’s a sketch of ideas in process, and not supposed to be a fully formed or coherent theory.

A theoretical problem is a problem for which the underlying causes are unknown. The problem to be solved is your ignorance.

You might start with a premise:

“Air pollution is harmful.” (Okay okay, this example is tautologous).

You have a theoretical problem if you can’t answer a few whys about the premise:

Why do you think air pollution is harmful?

Your problem becomes explaining why:

“I think air pollution is harmful because it makes intuitive sense that it would be, and because I think people who live in polluted air end up dying younger than those who don’t.”

Ask another why or two and you’ll quickly discover a desire for data: What evidence do you have to back up this assertion?

You might also find yourself querying meaning and motivation: Why does this matter? Why is avoiding unnecessary death and suffering important to you?

You need answers, of course – but you also need to decide how deep to go.* How many layers of whys are enough to make you confident (enough) that you’re not completely misunderstanding your subject or wasting your time? How much data is enough, if only for the time being?

What kinds of air pollution are most harmful?
What’s is the mechanism by which the harm is done?
What’s the impact? Who suffers most?

It might be that the data you need is already available: your research might only go as far as familiarising yourself with the results of other people’s research – or even just summaries and meta-studies. Whichever way, if the topic is important to you, it’s worth making a list of sources and keeping it up to date. Doing this well with almost certainly save you time later.

This will probably be the case for most people most of the time. With the data available, “Is air pollution harmful?” quickly ceases to be an interesting question.

The interesting question becomes: what are you going to do about it?

*Deciding how much evidence is enough is important because there are always causes beyond causes: it’s turtles all the way down. There are invaluable people who spend their entire lives doing research, but if you want to bring about change you’ll need to shift from a focus on theoretical questions to asking questions to help you take action.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...