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.
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: http://jerryravetz.co.uk/essays/e07postnorm.pdf: 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? http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016328714001979)
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!