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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Post-Normal Science

Climate scientists have not been shown in a particularly favorable light lately. The "Climategate" emails, a number of high-profile mistakes and retractions by the IPCC, and the continued inaccuracy of the predictions of the climate models have shown the climate scientists to be all too fallible, biased, and not particularly trustworthy human beings.

An Oxford philosopher, Jerry Ravitz, has contemplated the special stresses put on the interface between science and the public and policy makers when there is a situation which can be described as "facts uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent".

He considers it to be a new paradigm and calls it:
"Post-Normal Science, which until now has not really attracted very much attention in the mainstream. I’ve met people who found it an inspiration and liberation, as it enabled them to recognise the deep uncertainties in their scientific work that colleagues wished to ignore. ... We are not saying that this is a desirable, natural or normal state for science.

"We place it by means of a diagram, a quadrant-rainbow with two axes. These are ’systems uncertainties’ and ‘decision stakes’. When both are small, we have ‘applied science’, which must be the vast majority of scientific work in keeping civilisation running. When either is medium, we have ‘professional consultancy’, like the surgeon or consultant engineer. The basic insight of PNS is that there is another zone, where either attribute is large."
Ravitz, as is the wont of many philosophers, tends to use a thousand words to explain a concept where ten would almost do. The other 990 words are used for nuances that are ornately twisted into pretzels and chained together to embroider and frame the concept (this paragraph is my feeble attempt to directly illustrate the sorts of extraneous prose used by philosophers - did I succeed?). As a result, it's very difficult to know exactly what the hell he's trying to say.

But the gist is that under the "decision urgent" criterion, it is permissible - nay necessary! - for scientists to frame the debate in such a manner that the public and policy makers will come to the "correct" conclusion and therefore take the "correct" actions.

It's no wonder to me that Post-Normal Science "has not really attracted very much attention in the mainstream" since it has some rather serious problems, in my opinion. The most glaring is that if we have "facts uncertain", then in general, and with Climate Change in particular, how can we know that we're in a "decision urgent" state? Especially since "decision urgent" is then used to trump truth, honesty, ethics, legality, and all of the other mores and institutions upon which civilization is built. Especially when the "correct" conclusion involves committing staggering levels of resources, remaking civilization, and consigning masses of humanity to poverty. Other than that, hey, I'm an open-minded kinda guy.

Unfortunately, Post-Normal Science has attracted attention in the Climate Science community. Using Ravitz's logic, Stephen Schneider, a Stanford Climatologist wrote:
...we are not just scientists, but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we have to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.
While the above statement is fairly old (1989), at this point it's pretty obvious to me that this attitude is pervasive throughout climate science, especially for those scientists who interact with the media, directly or indirectly. But Schneider left out one thing. Not only are the scenarios scary, but remember, the science is settled, especially if it's Post-Normal Science.


Hey Skipper said...

The most glaring is that if we have "facts uncertain" ...

If "facts uncertain" mean it is possible to make mutually exclusive statements and be unable to materially ascertain any difference in truth value, then there may be something "post-normal" going on, but science is not it.

Maybe the word he is hunting for is "religion".

Howard said...

I'm a little uncomfortable with abusing the language by obscuring things with such an innocuous name. Can we call it political science, hysterical science or perhaps "I can believe it's not really science?" Nah, let's just call it propaganda.

erp said...

Yes Howard. Propaganda it is.