Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Post Normal Circus

Climate Science: An Empirical Example of Post Normal Science (Bray and von Storch: 1999) addressed ‘the views regarding the certainty and uncertainty of climate science knowledge held by contemporary climate scientists. More precisely, it [addressed] the extension of this knowledge into the social and political realms as per the definition of post-normal science [Funtowicz and Ravetz (1992)]. ... [The] ... incompatibility between the state of knowledge and the calls for action suggest[ed] that, to some degree at least, scientific advice is a product of both scientific knowledge and normative judgment, suggesting a socio-scientific construction of the climate change issue.’

In the early discussions of climate science (not in climate science) climate science became characterized as post-normal science, science dealing with high risks, high uncertainty and competing values (Bray and von Storch, 1999; Elzinga 1997; Funtowicz and Ravetz 1990). The roles of scientists under such conditions often demanded comment well beyond the expertise of the climate scientist and, at times, well beyond the bounds of data, and these comments were often interpreted as 'facts'. These ‘facts’ seem to be coming home to roost.

Perhaps the natural evolution of post-normal science is to a division within the science, consisting on the one hand, of a reversion to ‘normal’ science, and on the other a transition to a situation in which moral entrepreneurship begins to infuse the objectivity of scientific thought (at both ends of the issue). This is not limited to any particular perspective but rather to the process of dissemination of scientific information excessively shaped by any moral persuasion. Where moral persuasion has an equal and opposite force there is the potential for stalemates in the application of ‘real’ science to arise, in short, elements of the scientific community do a disservice to the broader scientific community. Where one moral force prevails there is the tendency for hasty decisions with little time for reflection on competing claims. In the fan fare of public debate and name calling, the reality and efforts of ‘normal’ science are at risk of being ignored. This has led to the circus of the moment. Under such conditions normal science will likely quietly endure while, what we could call post-sensible science, runs the risk of finding itself veering of into an intellectual cul-de-sac.


Werner Krauss said...

I do agree that 'the process of dissemination of scientific information excessively shaped by any moral persuasion' has become almost the rule. From its beginning, the debate about the hockey stick and related issues had been turned into a moral question.
The script for the debate was set by Al Gore and his opponents such as Fred Singer. Both play the same game, which follows the rules of moral tales and not those of science. This also had and still has consequences for 'normal science'; I bet that graduate students or post-docs feel like working in a minefield sometimes. Furthermore, science funding is influenced by those issues of high public interest. And it was never easier for climate institutes to have direct access to the media!
This moralization of climate issues has also led to a narrowed understanding of climate. Climate is reduced to only a few factors, while in reality it is related to almost everything we do. As if the hockey stick and climategate were crucial for climate politics! As if there were not a million other equally important and rational reasons for emission reduction, adaptation and what have you!

It is hard to define what 'normal science' means. Maybe to find out how climate works? Following the debates in the media and blogs, climate science is pretty far away from such 'normal' questions. It seems also pretty far away from creating a new curriculum which takes into account the multi-dimensionality of climate. Indeed, if it does not change its curriculum and broaden its spectrum, climate science seems to end intellectually in a cul-de-sac.

Zajko said...

I'm also questioning what is 'normal science' in this case anyways. I've never been happy with Kuhn's definition and it looks like here we're talking about something else.
It looks like by 'normal science' we mean something akin to the situation of other sciences which do not have the same policy implications/stakes, uncertainties (can these even be quantified relative to each other?), and heated political/moral atmosphere of climate science. I guess this is a call for more focused knowledge-seeking which tries to remain independent of the current political circus, but I'm not sure how possible that is.
I myself am trying to navigate somewhere between the understanding that science has always been moral and political, and also that it is the autonomy of science from other social domains that has in many ways made it so effective.
I constantly read statements about how science must be rescued from politics and think "how naive", yet I can imagine (and indeed see many examples of) what science as a political pawn looks like - and I don't like it.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Like him or not, Kuhn (as many others at the time) used the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle to illustrate what normal science means. It is based on accepted theoretical frameworks and methods. You know what you are looking for and in which sequence you complete the task... until you fit in the last piece ;-)

Sciences that did not have a paradigm (like many social sciences) were seen as 'pre-paradigmatic', lacking something.

We now realize that some natural sciences are in a similar way lacking a paradigm, climate science being an example. But in all such cases where there is no cognitive core paradigm, there is always an establishment that behaves as if it were the guardian of a trusted paradigm.

Hans von Storch said...

Reiner/3 - could you spell this out in some more detail, please? What would that trusted paradigm be in case of climate science? Could you give an example of an other type of natural science, which has has an accepted paradigm? Say, oceanography? Just for better understanding?

Reiner Grundmann said...

I do not have Kuhn's book with me but these general observations may help:

Kuhn distinguishes three modes or phases of science, (1) a pre-paradigm phase, where no consensus exists on any particular theory, but there are several incompatible and incomplete theories. If the one conceptual framework establishes consensus on appropriate methods, terminology and empirical work that needs to be undertaken (2) normal science begins, and a period of puzzle solving begins. Over time, anomalies are observed which are difficult to explain within the context of the existing paradigm. Sometimes they can be explained or ignored, at other times normal science enters a crisis. If efforts of normal science to explain anomalies fail, (3) revolutionary science begins and many, if not all underlying assumptions of the field are reexamined and a new paradigm will eventually emerge.

Climate science is a relatively new field with no common paradigm. It emerged out of the combination of carbon cycle research and numerical weather modelling. Before it could establish itself as normal science it was drawn into the political maelstrom and developed a consesus that was policy driven. At many junctures in the past 30 years or so cogntive uncertainties were laid open and the field had no time to settle.
This is why Funtowicz and Ravetz coined the term post normal science.
Their motto is, Knowledge is uncertain, stakes are high and decisions are urgent. Experts are laypersons when it comes to value questions. So they should not be priviledged in decision making.