post-normal science graph
Picture Source: Shaping Science Policy

Jan Mickelson interviewed Dr. Calvin Beisner, who is the founder of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, Friday on WHO Radio.  Dr. Beisner has been a guest on Caffeinated Thoughts Radio in the past, featured in the recent documentary Blue and is a keynote speaker at the Caffeinated Thoughts Briefing on Saturday.

Dr. Beisner discussed a phrase called “post-normal science.”  This phrase is a concept developed by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz it attempts to characterize a method of inquiry that is “appropriate” for contemporary conditions.  It is further explained this way:

We can understand ‘Post-Normal Science’ by means of a diagram, where the axes are ‘systems uncertainties’ and ‘decision stakes’. When both are low, we have ‘applied science’, the routine puzzle-solving like the ‘normal science’ described by Thomas Samuel Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When either is medium, we have ‘professional consultancy’ for which the examples are the surgeon or the senior engineer. Although their work is based on science, they must always cope with uncertainties, and their mistakes can be costly or lethal. It had once been believed that environmental and general policy problems could be managed at this level, but the great issues of global warming and diverse forms of pollution show that framing and implementing policies must frequently be done before all the facts are in. Thus many problems occur in the high-stakes, high-uncertainty region of the diagram, a condition referred to as ‘post-normal.’

Mike Hulme, the founder of the Tyndale Centre for Climate Change Research, in an article written in The Guardian in 2007 that climate change must exist in the realm of post-normal science.

The other important characteristic of scientific knowledge – its openness to change as it rubs up against society – is rather harder to handle. Philosophers and practitioners of science have identified this particular mode of scientific activity as one that occurs where the stakes are high, uncertainties large and decisions urgent, and where values are embedded in the way science is done and spoken.

It has been labelled “post-normal” science. Climate change seems to fall in this category. Disputes in post-normal science focus as often on the process of science – who gets funded, who evaluates quality, who has the ear of policy – as on the facts of science.

So this book from Singer and Avery can be understood in a different way: as a challenge to the process of climate change science, or to the values they believe to be implicit in the science, rather than as a direct challenge to scientific knowledge.

In this reading, Singer and Avery are using apparently scientific arguments – about 1,500 year cycles, about the loss of species, about sea-level rise – to further their deeper (yet unexpressed) values and beliefs. Too often with climate change, genuine and necessary debates about these wider social values – do we have confidence in technology; do we believe in collective action over private enterprise; do we believe we carry obligations to people invisible to us in geography and time? – masquerade as disputes about scientific truth and error.

We need this perspective of post-normal science if we are going to make sense of books such as Singer and Avery’s. Or indeed, if we are to make sense of polar opposites such as James Lovelock’s recent contribution The Revenge of Gaia, in which he extends climate science to reach the conclusion that the collapse of civilisation is no more than a couple of generations away.

The danger of a “normal” reading of science is that it assumes science can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow. Singer has this view of science, as do some of his more outspoken campaigning critics such as Mark Lynas. That is why their exchanges often reduce to ones about scientific truth rather than about values, perspectives and political preferences. If the battle of science is won, then the war of values will be won.

If only climate change were such a phenomenon and if only science held such an ascendancy over our personal, social and political life and decisions. In fact, in order to make progress about how we manage climate change we have to take science off centre stage.

Beisner, in this interview, points out that on the subjects of climate change and evolution we have seen an epistemological shift among members of the scientific community.  Which is why climate change naysayers are dismissed and the theory of intelligent design, even though it also follows the scientific method, is dismissed as “psuedo-science” by those who disagree.

You can listen to Mickelson’s interview of Beisner below:

You can also listen to Jan’s full show below:

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