Revisiting Post-Normal Science in Post-Normal Times & Identifying Cranks

Posted January 9th, 2013 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Interfaces of science and policy

Special to the Post-Normal Times

Although the concept of Post-Normal Science (PNS) was a major source of inspiration for The Post-Normal Times (PNT), I was as surprised and baffled as anyone else at turns taken by Jerry Ravetz ever since he posted an essay back in February 2010 at the climate “skeptic” blog WattsUpWithThat (WUWT). The essay, which has long since been published as a journal article, appears to accept what has become the “Climategate” myth at face value. It was followed by a workshop on Reconciliation in the Climate Change Debate, held January 2011 in Lisbon, for which Jerry was the lead organizer. The agenda of that workshop was to discuss points of agreement and disagreement on some scientific issues, such as the Hockey Stick, regarding which there is little if any actual disagreement within the scientific community and which are well supported by peer reviewed literature, but that are often contested from outside of the normal scientific process, following a very different set of rules.

As if all of the above were not confusing enough, there have also been some non-sensical interpretations of PNS, made not only by the Heartland Institute at its 2011 Sixth International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC6), which have little to do with the concept as it was defined by Funtowicz and Ravetz in 1991. These essentially blame PNS for the “abandonment of the scientific method” which presumably led to “Climategate.”

Another incident was the Civil Investigative Demand filed by Virginia Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, who went so far as to allege that Michael Mann committed fraud because he did not disclose the post-normal nature of climate science in a grant application. That case was ultimately dismissed by the court on a technicality, with prejudice, without ruling on whether this claim might be considered a valid cause of action.

For anyone just tuning in, PNS has come a long way since the term was coined in 1991, and is now recognized even in the journal Nature, where a recent editorial about a workshop in Hamburg states: “Science becomes ‘post-normal’ when facts are uncertain, stakes high, values in dispute and decisions urgent; in such cases, societal needs must be taken into account to avoid costly mistakes.” As I started graduate school in 1993, after having worked at both the National Academy of Sciences and the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, I found that the concept explained a lot with respect to what has been a dysfunctional interface between science and policy, and still does. However, without some common understanding of the term, it could become a meaningless one.

When I started the PNT in 2005, Jerry became an advisor and occasional contributor – and although I have discussed this subject with him, he has not contributed to PNT since he changed course. As for the future, we will just have to see where this discussion goes.

For reasons of practicality, I decided to focus this blog on post-normal “times”, I.e., the context or situations, rather than on what can easily become obtuse discussions of science philosophy that don’t lend themselves very well to the blog format. However, In this very long and long overdue post, I am going to revisit the basic definition of PNS, at least as I understand it, and the role of “extended peer review” as a basis for public participation in science-based decision-making as. In the process, I will address a few questions that were raised in the course of these events, that I refrained from commenting on because I did not have pithy answers:

  • Is PNS “tailor made for the denialist crowd because it speaks of science in negative terms”? ( as was suggested by the Policy Lass)  or
  • Has PNS simply been hijacked? (as was suggested by Deep Climate).

Adopting Ravetz’ (2006) criteria of “negotiation in good faith” as a basis for evaluating the quality of an extended peer review process, and using illustrative cases, I will then want to address the question of how one can:

  • distinguish a “good faith negotiation” from a sham – in the context of science for policy,
  • identify cranks, and
  • evaluate the quality of scientific information when cranks are at the table.

I had a chance to talk with Jerry and other leading PNS practitioners at another Lisbon workshop held in May 2011 in honor of the retirement of Silvio Funtowicz. I also had an opportunity to ask Joseph Bast, the president and CEO of the Heartland Institute, just what he understands “post-normal science” to be. Since ICCC6 was held in Washington DC last year, and they welcomed bloggers as press, I attended it as a correspondent for The Post Normal Times, free of charge.

While at the conference, I happened to sit next to a very pleasant woman from the Ayn Rand Institute, who gave me a book entitled The Logical Leap – which seemed a fitting description of the entire affair. Although PNS does speak about certain kinds of science in negative terms, my overall argument is that the tale of corruption in climate science, as told by cranks and contrarians of various persuasions, only appears to fit this negative narrative if one takes a flying leap over crucial distinctions between the kinds of science that have led to unintended consequences – in which risks tend to be downplayed, and the kinds of science used to understand and address those consequences. It is also important to consider distinctions between different types of knowledge, uncertainty, and peer review – all distinctions that Jerry himself has observed.

That tale of corruption is only believable because of unrealistic public images and expectations of science, e.g., that it provides “proof”, or that it is some sort of a crystal ball. Although skepticism is inherent in the practice of actual science, for reasons that should be obvious, I also argue that many of those who call themselves “skeptics” are actually cranks and contrarians who are performing something like a parody of science. Missing is the crucial wink/nod to indicate it as such – thereby crossing the line from parody to outright deception (see Nachmanovitch 2009), as the act gets mistaken for the real thing by those least informed, and/or cannot tell the difference. The paradox is that parody only sticks when it has some element of truthiness, which means there are lessons in all of this for the practice of science as it enters the policy arena.

Since I still don’t have pithy answers, and it seemed useful to keep this all in one piece as a reference document, I have posted these reflections as a pdf. In response to comments, I may follow-up with shorter posts on some of the sub-topics. Click here to download.

1-10-2013: Updated to fix broken links.