Thursday, March 26, 2015

PNS and Chinese Science

I was recently asked (from someone located in China) ‘to what extent “postnormal” conditions may acquire significance more in the democratic West than in  authoritarian countries.’ History hints that China might have had, and still has, elements of PNS. I conclude that in the end, PNS, in its current configuration, is  about power and control, no matter where one sits and, unfortunately, as a unified concept, PNS  resembles Swiss cheese, making it all the more difficult to explicitly determine exactly what it is.

PNS Today

Some years ago I was one of two authors of a paper that suggested that climate science resembled post-normal science based on the reasoning that climate change presented a case fraught with high risks and high uncertainty.  Since that time, the concept of post-normal science has transformed in to the post-normal syndrome, evolving from a description that addressed the characters of a scientific issue to post-normal science as a method, whereby the extended peer community (all stakeholders in an issue) assesses the quality-assurance of scientific inputs into policy using extended facts - - somewhat akin to a forensic analysis of the science. More recently, the authors of the PNS concept suggest that currently PNS is concerned more about moral issues.

 It would seem that over the years, PNS have shifted concern towards the acceptance and the utility of science and away from the production of science and is now, in essence a concept for the management of the science-policy interface.  PNS has become a call for a new ‘science of, by and for the people’ [whereby science will be conducted] ‘in the causes of justice and sustainability’.  PNS is no longer about science production but about science negotiation.  From there is seems to have transformed into a manifesto. To sum up, PNS has gone from description of a scientific issue to a method of addressing a scientific issue to the management of a scientific issue to the providing the moral foundations of solutions to (mostly environmental) issues.  PNS, it is claimed, ‘is able to provide a coherent framework for an extended participation in decision-making, based on the new tasks of quality assurance. […]PNS has been developed as the appropriate methodology [methodology?] for integrating with complex natural and social systems’ by replacing ‘truth’ with ‘quality. In practice this entails ‘involving wider circles of people in decision-making and implementation’ and ‘[t]he contribution of all the stakeholders’ [because] ‘the maintenance of quality depends on open dialogue between all those affected. [I would assume that there is no longer any need to question normative claims?] ‘This we call an ‘extended peer community’, consisting not merely of persons with some form or other of institutional accreditation, but rather of all those with a desire to participate in the resolution of the issue. […] This is not merely a matter of extensions of liberty of individuals. With PNS we can guide  the extension of the accountability of governments […T]hey assess the quality of policy proposals, including a scientific element. […] They are called ‘citizens’ 'juries’, ‘focus groups’, ‘consensus conferences’, or any one of a great variety of other names.’ As a suggestion in line with extended peer review, would it not be wise to integrate the ‘extended peer community’ in the evaluation of funding proposals?  (All quotes in this section are from a single source: Post-Normal Science in the context of transitions towards sustainability, 2006).

PNS and China

The culture of Chinese science has, like science elsewhere, undergone a long series of changes, albeit a significantly different pattern of change. In the West we grew up with the teaching that it is the inalienable right of humans to master nature and science is one of the tools to do so.  The Orient grew up with teachings that emphasize living in harmony with nature, and science is to the tool to determine how.

 That behind us, leaders in China have been involved in the formulation of science policy to a much greater degree than in the West.   Often government efforts to direct science met with frustration, which in turn, meant frequent reversals of science policy, raising tension between political and scientific elites over who controls science, so much so, that it has led to episodes in which scientists were persecuted. After 1949 China reorganized its science along Soviet lines, characterized by bureaucratic – rather than professional – principles of organization (a slightly modified version of PNS’s extended peer review). In the 60s, the Cultural Revolution represented the qualities associated with professionalism in science. Intellectuals were assumed to be inherently counter-revolutionary, and it was asserted that their characteristic attitudes and practices were necessarily opposed to the interests of the masses – just as PNS suggests is the case currently in the West.

Of particular interest to this discussion, in the 1970s Chinese science was a topic of a mass experiment.  Large numbers of peasants were used to collect data and were encouraged to view themselves as doing scientific research (an extension of participation in science). Geologists went to rural areas to collect folk wisdom concerning the prediction of earthquakes and thousands of observers were enlisted to monitor signs based on the folk wisdom. (To see how this relates to the current situation in Germany and how PNS tendencies might contribute to the resolution of complex scientific issues, see: Climate Change Lore and its implications for climate science: Post-science deliberations?

In 1975 Deng Xiaoping called for rehabilitating scientists and experts and reimposed strict academic standards. (Does this point to a failure of an attempt to fully integrate PNS into science-policy negotiations?)  In 1977, positions of authority in research institutes and universities were replaced with qualified scientists and intellectuals and media attention was given the value of science and the qualities of scientists. In 1978, the government suggested scientists be given free rein to carry out research that was consistent with broad national policies.  (This, is in many ways, is consistent with the current EU Framework for funding European science.)  In June 1985, the Institute of Policy and Management (IPM) of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) was established.  Within this framework there is The Division of Science, Technology and Society that includes the Research Center for Ethics of Science and Technology and the Research Center for Morality and Ethics of Science and Technology.  Among its interests are operating mechanisms and development modes of science; codes of scientific conduct and the construction of scientific morality; the scientific community and its governance; ethical, legal and social issues of emerging science and technology; social risks of science and technology, and relevant government regulation and social governance issues, much of which falls within the scope of Western social sciences, a much excluded partner in Western science. The Division values ties with science and technology experts and social organizations, building an interdisciplinary dialogue platform to integrate science and humanity, and science and the public. Perhaps the current situation as decried by the advocates of PNS lies within the Western education system.

So, as to what extent “postnormal” conditions may acquire significance more in the democratic West than in authoritarian countries – it might be suggested that the PNS devoid of its label is, in some form, alive and well in China, but likely in a more controlled manner.   China too, it seems, once tried to introduce the citizen-scientist but the project seems to have failed. Given the structure of the Chinese Academy of Science, then for science in China, the tenets of PNS as a methodology are embedded in the institutional basis of science.

Perhaps under both authoritarian and democratic regimes, the shared question is one of power and control.  The difference lies in the possession and acquisition of power and control.  In democracy, power is ideally a free flowing commodity, available for all those who are able to achieve it - there is equality of opportunity, and with power comes control. We bequest this power on individuals through various voting schemes.  It is a matter of what authorities wish to control, and PNS, in its current state, is much about declaring authority and the redistribution of power.

Is PNS more suitable for Western democracy - that would depend on how one defines PNS.  With the extended peer community and the moral content of Post Normal Syndrome, perhaps in the West we feel more entitled to a benign opinion, have the luxury of being able to express it and believe the illusion that it matters. Those organizing the likes of PNS discourse and implementing its praxis have the thrill of temporary power. But public dialogue (effective or not) is nothing new and does not require relabeling.  Is PNS more likely to acquire more significance in the West than in China? A difficult question given that I am not even sure what PNS is anymore.  The external mediation of scientific knowledge?  My understanding is that this is not exclusively Western. 

But think of the logistics of a town hall meeting to house China’s 1.357 billion people!


Hans von Storch said...

Thanks, Dennis, for this discussion of PNS. It wass actually me, who asked - because I am giving a series of seminars "Advanced conceptual issues in climate and coastal science"; one of the seminars is on "Concepts of regional climate servicing", and I was planning to present a standard talk of mine, within which PNS plays an important role. The I noticed that the basic analysis of competition of knowledgge claims for attaining certain political goals may be invalid in a political system like China's. That was the background of my question.

Now, after Dennis explained that it has become quite unclear what PNS stands for, I should emphasize that for me it is the issue of a situation "inherent uncertainty, values in dispute, high stakes and urgency of decisions", not a method. If building extended peer communities is a good approach in this sítuation, I do not know, but that bulding a dialogue with stakeholders when engaging in regional climate service is mandatory for success - in my view.

When we see in the "West" the built-up of antagonistic positions, which claim scientific legitimacy, as support for different worldviews, we observe an overselling of scientific assertions, premature conclusions, claims of "sciene is settled" - then this makes sense in an open society where different positions fight for public recognition and, evetually, "power and control". But in China, the situation seems different, with a dominant partyline and major conflicts only behind closed doors, so that positions with claimed scientific legitimacy may have much less significance for the public and a variety of stakeholders than in the "West".

Dennis, there was one sentence in your paper, namely: "Intellectuals were assumed to be inherently counter-revolutionary, and it was asserted that their characteristic attitudes and practices were necessarily opposed to the interests of the masses – just as PNS suggests is the case currently in the West." - I do not understand what you referring to.

Dennis Bray said...

@ Hans
Your comment raised an issue that I think also needs some clarification. This concerns the ‘Concepts of regional climate servicing’ and the role of PNS. First, I would like to address PNS. Post Normal Science, as the name implies, deals with the issue of science. Basically, as far as I understand, it calls for the involvement of stakeholders in the evaluation of science, and maybe the uses of science. Climate service is about presenting the results of science to stakeholders. It is an information service and I am not sure where the ‘dialogue’ enters. Someone from a climate service center presents the best scientific information concerning climate change to a group of stakeholders with the intention of informing them as to what might come, so they can devise an adaptation strategy. The person from the climate service center, while likely an expert on things climate, is not an expert on the thing which concerns the audience, i.e. agriculture, transportation, etc. A dialogue involves an interchange of thought. My question would concern the nature of this dialogue between climate services and the client. To me, climate services are little more (in form) than an evening weather forecast. Climate services tell me what I could possible expect in the future – and to date, as far as I know, that is where the ‘service’ stops, or should stop. From the weather forecast I plan my next few days; from the climate services information, I plan the next few years. As I said above, PNS, as the name implies was once about characteristics of a scientific issue. In its latter configuration it seems to focus on ‘the extended peer review’ whereby the quality of science is questioned, pitting tradition, religion, folklore, lay observations, etc, against science, leading to the political determinism of science. I do not believe climate services opens the floor to the discussion of the validity of the science, it is about giving advice as to what the future climate might look like, and if this is debatable with a lay audience then we are obviously not ready to give this advice. To sum up PNS and Climate Services are apples and oranges. As for climate services, just what is the nature of the dialogue that is mandatory for success? As for PNS, the same question. Explicit examples would go a long way to forming an understanding.
In reference to your request for clarity of the statement made in the posting, intellectuals in China were at one time perceived of as against the public good and were controlled (or persecuted accordingly) by forces external to science. PNS in its most recent form also sees science as opposed to the interests of the masses and in need of control by forces external to science. Both refer to the political determinism of science.

Hans von Storch said...

Jerry Ravetz writes:

What is – or has been – PNS?

I’m grateful to Hans and Dennis for setting up this question so well. As Dennis shows, ‘PNS’ is now a label used for a great variety of perspectives and proposals on the complex system of science in the policy context. His irritation is quite understandable; how can one seriously analyse a term that continuously slides from one set of meanings to another? I confess that I do not share his annoyance; for I had known all along, that if PNS were to survive in use, it would inevitably mean different things to different people. What it originally meant to Silvio and myself, what sorts of problems it was intended to solve, is nearly irrelevant to those who use it now.

By contrast, Hans has focussed on that original meaning, which was about knowledge and methodology, with the politics apparently tacked on as an extra. That is, if I were standing on one leg I would say that PNS consists of just two things: the fourfold mantram and the quadrant-rainbow three-zone diagram. Everything else is deduction, including ‘Extended Peer Community’. There was a pragmatic reason for this severely restricted focus. This is that scientism was, back in the 1980’s, just about totally hegemonic. Only a handful of angry sociologists dared to question its identification with the True and the Good. To be sure, some scientists took the blame for the Bomb, but society in general was the cause of our environmental ills. Even to claim that sometimes facts are uncertain, was itself a radical act, which attracted sharp criticism. So we focused on epistemology and methodology, and let the political implications look after themselves.

We anticipated that, if the idea survived, there would arise divergent meanings. Some have found ‘extended peer community’ rather threatening, and so have used ‘extended peer review’ instead. The most prominent recent proponent of PNS, Sir Peter Gluckman in New Zealand, tells about drastic uncertainties and strong value disputes alerted him to PNS, but as Chief Science Advisor he seems to have no need for an extended peer community. On the left, as it were, are those who are irritated by the failure of PNS to draw the logical conclusion that the whole capitalist-technocratic social order is responsible for the ills addressed by PNS. And in its radical critique, PNS may well be outflanked by radical Greens on the one hand, and by a militant practice of sections of DIY science on the other. We shall see.

2nd part to follow in next comment

Hans von Storch said...

2nd (and last) part of Jerry Ravetz

Perhaps we were negligent in failing to draw attention to the complexities and contradictions of political action under the banner of PNS. I should say that I had been well aware of them when I wrote Scientific Knowledge…. In my Conclusion I referred to Ibsen’s play The Enemy of the People (about the prototype science whistleblower), and how its original plot caused embarrassment for progressives. I am sure that large-scale tragedies occurred in the development of peoples’ science during the Cultural Revolution in China. A story still being played out concerns the earthquake that devastated Tangshan. Then warnings were made, based on the traditional popular earthquake prediction lore. But the politics of China were just then complex and unstable, and so the city itself had no warning of the impending catastrophe. (See Wikipedia for a suggestive brief history). The subsequent history is quite murky, but a very recent item brings it all to light again. This is a scientific study that relies on automatic surveys of wild animals, and it found that some days before an earthquake, they disappear! So in this instance the ‘extended peer community’ may well have been right, and the facts about future earthquakes have been just too uncertain to be ascertained by mainstream professional consultancy. You may know that earthquake prediction is a highly charged area of conflict between official scientists and amateurs. The court case, messy as usually, over the scientists at Aquila in Italy, is a good case in point. And it seems that the second earthquake in Christchurch alerted Sir Peter Gluckman to PNS; see the picture in his Nature article.

Finally, I would respectfully disagree with Dennis over the question of expertise. Some years ago Steve Rayner did a study of climate forecasts; he and some others had developed a system of quarterly forecasts, and were disappointed to learn that none of the anticipated users were interested. On further study, they found that each class of users had their own risk-benefit configuration, none of which involved predictions of that sort. More recently, Roger Pielke Jr. has provided an analysis with four quite distinct sort of science advice, depending on a match between the user’s needs and the specification of the information. Although neither of these examples touches directly on PNS, they are a reminder of the complexity of science, and science advice, in the policy context.

I hope that this is useful. With relation to prospects in China, I would only say that any cultural product is liable to be politicised, perhaps violently so. One can think of music, poetry, art, religion, language (examples come to mind as write each of these), and so why not science? We can understand PNS as a very early attempt at bringing these issues to light, long before there was a political milieu in which they became recognised as salient.

Werner Krauss said...

Thanks, Jerry, for providing context for the concept of PNS. I always appreciated the openess of PNS. In my understanding, postnormal situations are not just a temporary suspension from normalcy; instead, they point to the limits of normal science concerning the organization and solution of complicated geo-socio-techno situations. Many people have to deal with postnormal situations on a daily basis; they develop strategies on basis of their own terms and possibilities (= lore) - and they do so often times successfully.

This means it is no longer enough to only disqualify "lore" as scientifically incorrect, as alarmist, as "only" religiously motivated or whatever derogatory terms are applied to it; instead, the task is to understand how and when configurations of people and things turn out to be "resilient", and how they deal with postnormal situations (and for many societies, postnormal is normal, see for example people actually living in mega-cities, in slums, in war zones etc). Sometimes, there is no time nor hope to wait for science to find the appropriate solutions and to lead the process; in these cases, science is better understood as an additional tool for improving local strategies. This necessitates communication. It is not truth versus lore, it is about understanding better complex situations.

The climate debate unfortunately helps to keep the illusion alive that someday science will replace all other forms of knowledge and "normalize" climate and society. This indeed is truely global lore in the negative sense that Dennis applies to it.

I do not know much about China. But of course, postnormal situations appear there as much as in every other society or, due to the acceleration of each and everything, even more than elsewhere. Postnormal science is not a luxury only the wealthy or democratic societies can afford; it is better understood as a tool and a methodology for life support. Even dictatorships cannot ignore reality forever; and yes, the organization of geo-socio-techno-situations necessitates intact communal decision structures. PNS is political, as is science.

Hans von Storch said...

I got this e-mail from Jerry Ravetz, who allowed me to publish it here:

Recently I dug out this item. It expresses ‘normality’ very well. If we recall that the typical scientist spends at least a dozen very formative years in a rigorous, restrictive training described well by Thomas Kuhn, and where (Kuhn does not mention this explicitly) he learns by example that for every scientific problem there is one and only one correct solution, precise to several significant digits. Layton was Professo of Science Education at Leeds, and (as you see from the extract below) a very penetrating observer of the science scene.

- Science is coherent, objective, unproblematic and well-bounded.
- Science is central to decisions about practical action in everyday life.
- Science is unencumbered by social and institutional commitments.
- Uptake of science is determined by intellectual ability.
- Ignorance on the part of the public has to be remedied.
- Unscientific behavior results from the failure to apply scientific knowledge.
- Scientific thought is the yardstick with which to measure the validity of everyday thinking.

D Layton et al, 1993. ‘Inarticulate Science? Perspectives on the Public Understanding of Science and Some Implications for Science Education’, Studies in Science Education.

(I (HvS) did not know the termn "unencumbered" - LEO tells me it could be translated by "unbelasted".)

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Thank you Jerry for digging up this quote. In fact it nicely summarizes the standard view of many, scientists and lay people about the nature of science and how it relates to decision making and publics.

I have two questions:

- Would you say that climate science deviates from this account, but that other forms of science are still operating within such a 'normal' framework?

- Do you think that science is central to decisions about practical action in everyday life?

Anonymous said...


interessante Fragen, aber ich persönlich sehe nun gar keine Sonderstellung der Klimaforschung. Warum auch?

Mal ein Beispiel aus der aktuellen Presse:

Forscher haben eben entwickelt, wie man Gene beim Menschen gezielt manipulieren kann. Nun fordern einige ein Moratorium dafür.

Daher meine Fragen: ist das ein Fall von PNS?

Ist die Forscher, die das Moratorium fordern, Honest Broker? Ist doch sehr alarmistisch und vorallem politisch. Vielleicht retten sie uns damit alle, oder verhindern eine Krebstherapie oder das ewige Leben, oder es hat gar keinen Effekt. Wer weiß.

Aus anderen Wissenschaftsrichtungen kann man ähnliches berichten.

Ich finde den Versuch der Klimaforschung eine Alleinstellung zu geben hier zwar verständlich (heißt ja Klimazwiebel und nicht Wissenschaftszwiebel), aber letztlich ist es falsch (das muss man so hart sagen.) und z.T. wird damit die Klimaforschung absichtlich schlecht geredet.