Monday, August 23, 2010

A post-normal situation: Gulf oil spill revisited

To find out the truth about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should be simple compared to the question of anthropogenic climate change. Just send some scientists over there, and they will find out. Far from that: according to a commentary in the New York Times, we have a situation familiar to us from our climate discussions. It is a post-normal situation: locals and the public need to know what is at stake in the Gulf; politics asks science, science comes up with contradictory answers; there is interest from the oil industry, of course, and  the media pressure politics to send more experts to clarify the situation.... just another day in the reality of the 21st century. Muddy waters, stinking fish, and clueless politicians.

Only recently, science and politics produced an almost happy ending:
'The White House last fully addressed the issue in early August. A report by government scientists declared that three-quarters of the five million barrels spilled had disappeared — skimmed, burned, dispersed. Top officials took to the airwaves to celebrate the news'

Unfortunately, this 'rosy narrative has since been badly shaken' - new studies came up:

'Scientists at the University of Georgia said last week that the rate of evaporation and biological breakdown had been greatly exaggerated. Another team of scientists wrote in the journal Science about the discovery of a vast 22-mile underwater oil plume the size of Manhattan. Most alarmingly, they said they saw little evidence that the oil was being rapidly consumed by the gulf’s petroleum-eating microbes, raising the possibility of significant future damage to the ecosystem.'

And if this were not enough, there is the question of fishery. Is it safe to eat fish from the Gulf coast? Guess what the answer is: yes, no, maybe....


Anonymous said...

The report which the White House released was not peer-reviewed although it was claimed to be. NOAA complained recently that they were still doing peer review on that report.

Dennis Bray said...


It would be nice if you could define 'post-normal' situation (as is seems to bantered about a lot lately - to the point where it tends to lose meaningfullness - it has become tired and worn neologism) and contrast it with a 'normal situation'. In other words - what are the unique features of 'post-normal'? Was there pre-normal? Are we facing ab-normal?

Werner Krauss said...

I knew you were asking, Dennis. Mentioning post- is enough to wake you up from sweet summer dreams. Good question. I'll think about it and come back with Any help appreciated!

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

According to Funtowicz and Ravetz a post-normal situation (science) occurs when "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent."

Normal science would thus be when fact are certain or values in agreement or the decision stakes are low. I'd elaborate this to say it is not simply the presence of uncertainty, but the managability of uncertainty and the preence of ignorance (where uncertainties themselves are uncertain).

Building an airplane or developing a vaccine is normal science. An oil spill is not,

Werner Krauss said...

thanks for that, Roger. More on the new thread above.