Let’s begin with an old paper: ‘Science for the post-normal age’ (Funtowicz and Ravetz, Futures, 1993). While elaborating on the concept of post-normal science it is difficult, from the paper, to ascertain the features of a ‘post-normal age’ in which post normal science would feature. Some 15 years later Ziauddin Sardir welcomes us to ‘post normal times’ in his article ‘Welcome to postnormal times’ (also in Futures, 2009).
Defining our postnormal times Sadir uses the examples of climate change, the recent economic crisis, the pandemic of swine flu*, the energy crisis, the threat of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Sadir tells us ‘The espiritu del tiempo, the spirit of our age, is characterised by uncertainty, rapid change, realignment of power, upheaval and chaotic behaviour. We live in an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense.’ Wait a minute! What about the World War I, (or even the Thirty Years War) the 1918 Spanish Flu, the 1957 Asian flu and the 1968-69 Honk Kong flu (not to mention the failure of swine flu to manifest as a pandemic), the Great Depression, World War II, - weren’t these times also characterised by ‘uncertainty, rapid change, realignment of power, upheaval and chaotic behaviour.’ Sadir also tells us ‘In normal times ... we know what to do.’ But he fails to tell us just who the ‘we’ are: politicians, dictators, clerics, scientists, general public? ‘We identify and isolate the problem and apply our physical and intellectual resources to come up with a viable answer.’ Pre postnormal Thalidomide; pre postnormal Hirosima; pre postnormal combustion engine?
Now let’s move to science in this postnormal age. Sadir tells us Ravitz and Funtowicz (1993, again in Futures) ‘noticed that the old image of science where empirical data led to true conclusions and scientific reasoning led to correct policies, was no longer plausible.’ This was unique to circa 1993? Previously ‘scientific reasoning led to correct policies’: as in the eugenics movement for example, as in the Holocaust.? No matter. Funtowicz and Ravitz wrote: ‘Wherever there is a policy issue involving science we discover that facts are uncertain, complexity is the norm, values are in dispute, stakes are high, decisions are urgent and there is a real danger of man-made risks running out of control.’ This was the description of post normal science, albeit preceding the events that seem to define the ‘postnormal times’. (If facts are ever certain, is there a need for science?)
A little after 1993 (1999 to be exact) Hans von Storch and myself published a paper titled ‘Climate Science An empirical example of postnormal science’ (BAMS 1999). Here we simply employed the milieu surrounding climate science according to a defined x - y axis, that of a high degree of uncertainty and perceived high stakes. We did NOT adopt the concept of postnormal science as the CONSTITTION and new METHOD for science. We simply, empirically, demonstrated that the climate change issue did indeed, as perceived by the climate scientist at the time, include the characterisitics of high risk and high uncertainty.
But there is more to the comprehensive version of postnormal science. It is science now dominated by value judgments; to be moderated by a postnormal extended peer community (extended peer review) . There’s more but that’s enough for the rest of this discussion.
Over the years when we have measurement, 1996, 2003, 2008, there has been little change in the urgency given the issue in terms that the time is always right for immediate policy decisions; that there is enough CERTAINTY that there should be no delay in implementing policy. But in fairness, uncertainty is definitely evident in the scientists assessment of the abilities of models and the accuracy of the depiction of future climatic conditions. Now, about the risk .. . While there seems to be great difficulty in explicitly stating climate change impacts, there is a high level of agreement that the impacts will be detrimental and that climate change is very much one of the leading problems facing humanity. Typically, over the issue of climate change, the public should be told to be quite worried. So, while the matter of uncertainty is no so clear, the risks are still estimated to be quite high. However, between 1996 and 2003, scientists who responded to the 2003 survey claimed that, over all, over the previous 10 years, uncertainty had been significantly reduced. Here the uncertainty, in all fairness, is equated to the accuracy of the science (in general but not in detail) but not necessarily to the impacts of climate change.
But what about the other defining features of PN Science, the complexity, the role of values, the extended peer review. Well, climate is a complex system so no argument there. But so are astrophysics, neurology, etc., etc., albeit on different scales. In that sense, complexity cannot be a unique defining feature unless astrophysics and neurology are partly postnormal (maybe lower risks), if postnormal science and normal science do not have to be mutually exclusive, if it is a matter of degrees. But then, can one post normal science be more post normal than another science? Are we talking science as a single social practise or sciences based on knowledge segregated disiplines? The debate could be much longer but I think that is enough to raise a few thoughts.
Values: ‘To what degree do you think climate science has remained a value-neutral science?’ A value of 1 = a great degree, a value of 7 = not at all. Mean 1996 = 4.23, mean 2003 = 4.29; no significant change, and neither was there between 2003 and 2008. In brief you could suggest that values play an equal role to objectivity in determining the achievements of climate science. In fact, when asked ‘Given our current state of knowledge, climate change is now mostly a political issue or a scientific issue’ scientists in 2008 responded that it tends towards being a political issue, and politics tends to be directed by values. Hence while the ISSUE might be directed by values it is not necessarily so that the SCIENCE is perceived of as being directed by values. But what of the role of values in the science of 'weapons of mass destruction'? What about the values of the few that are contrary to the values of the many. How does postnormal science deal with conflicting values? Whose values? Who decides what is good or what is bad? Could post normal science exist in a dictatorship?
Finally, we get to the ‘extended peer review'. For me at least, it is not clear in the PN discourse just what this should entail. In the 2008 survey of climate scientists a number of questions were designed to allude to the notion of the extended peer community. Concerning first adaptation and then mitigation, scientists were asked if priority should be given to the opinions of industry and commerce, political opinions, public opinions or scientific expertise. In all cases scientists perceived that control should remain mostly with science. A post normal issue without post normal science?
In the body of recent literature 'post-normal science' seems to be given the status of a panacea for all that ails the world, a method, a model of science, a manifesto for the conducting of science. At best, it can be described as an insight, nothing more. The call for 'dialogue': a sharing of power or the fusion of science and (some type of) religion/political bent? Is there a risk, if put into routine, that science will simply become a political lacky, watered down rhetoric?
Afterword: Given the role of credit institutes in the recent economic meltdown and the role of scientists in the recent climategate fiasco, perhaps we should begin to consider coining new terms: postmoral science in a postmoral age. As for the postmoral science I have faith that it would consist of a small crowd, perhaps those driven mostly by (ill formed) values.
*Annual flu epidemics are estimated to affect 5-15% of the global population, cause severe illness in some 3 - 5 million people and result sin 250,000 to 500, 000 deaths on a global scale. The Spanish flu killed an estimate 20 - 100 million people, the Asian flu about 2 million, the Honk Kong flu about 1 million, Swine flu 8,768 confirmed deaths.