In Memoriam

Posted February 17th, 2005 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in What this is about

Among the many sources of inspiration for The Post-Normal Times, are three people listed in the side bar under the heading In Memoriam – James Kay, Douglas Adams, and Gregory Bateson. We have now finally added text that explains some of the ways in which we are beholden to them, as follows.


James Kay (1954-2004) did not quite live to contribute directly to the Post-Normal Times, but his “musings about this and that” can still be found at www.jameskay.ca. In the next post, we present musings about James himself, by David Waltner-Toews.

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) is best known as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe and everything” turns out to be forty two. For some of us, forty two, or sometimes forty two trillion, has become a standard reply when asked to provide meaningless numbers as solutions to complex problems. But he was also an honorary member of The Dirk Gently Group, a group formed one late spring when the wildflowers were all open, and the resorts all closed, while convened at a workshop held in a convent high in the Dolomite Mountains of Cortina Italy. As described by David Waltner-Toews, “the group included professionals with recognized expertise in environmental management, epidemiology, ecosystems, nutrition, thermodynamics, philosophy, poetry, economics, agriculture, public health, risk assessment and quite a few other things. A local vintner supported the workshop by providing excellent wine. But the group needed a shorthand way to refer to ‘An international working group on decision making under conditions of uncertainty and complexity.’ The problem was resolved, inevitably, by reading another Adams novel: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which contains the following advertisement:

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
We solve the whole crime
We find the whole person
Phone today for the whole solution to your problem
(Missing cats and messy divorces a speciality)
33a Peckender St., London N1 01-359 9112

David wrote Adams a note, and he agreed to allow us the use of the name. For more information see: www.douglasadams.com
A BBC obituary can be found here.

Lastly, 2004 marked the centennial of the birth of Gregory Bateson, and brought renewed attention to his legacy. We don’t know what he would make of Post-Normal Science but we do know that, in 1958, he began to allude to a new kind of science for which there was, “as yet, no satisfactory name” that was difficult to convey for lack of a base of common understanding. He also regarded prevailing scientific fallacies as a source of social troubles. Among these, the false presumption that it is possible to control and manage ecosystems through quantitative measurement which, as James Kay and Henry Regier point out, can easily lead a system to rapidly flip-flop to an alternate state.

Bateson later provided a set of principles that were, to him, obvious and self-evident, about how we can know or learn anything, and about “the wider knowing that holds together the starfishes and sea anemones and redwood forests and human communities.” He also emphasized the need for multiple levels of learning.

His work is not easy to read. During his lifetime, the unfamiliar concepts and terms with which he expressed himself, such as references to “entropic budgets of flexibility,” baffled public officials and scientists alike. Since then, the more widespread recognition of a global scale environmental crisis, that he and others had anticipated, and the inadequacy of current approaches to social problem solving, has created a new context in which his ideas seem more relevant than ever. If we have not completely squandered the flexibility budget, perhaps this new context will also provide an opportunity for the social learning necessary to respond to an ever more rapidly changing environment. As has been pointed out by Funtowicz and Ravetz “Only when a new shared experience reveals the increasing inadequacies of an established world-view, does it become possible for a society to begin the lengthy and painful task of philosophical reconstruction, always focused on the most pressing problems of practice.” In retrospect, we have found that his principles provide a solid foundation for Post-Normal Science.

For more information, please visit the Institute for InterCultural Studies.

Other sources of information:

Bateson, G., Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Bantam Books, New York, 1979.

Harries-Jones, P., A Recusive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1995.

Funtowicz, S.O. and J.R. Ravetz, Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands; Norwell MA, 1990.

Regier, H.A., Kay J.J., 2001. Phase Shifts or Flip-Flops in Complex Sytems. In Munn R.E. ed. Vol. 5. Encyclopedia on Global Environmental Change. John Wiley & Sons, UK. pp. 422-42.

Tognetti, S. S. (1999) Science in a double-bind: Gregory Bateson and the Origins of Post-Normal Science. Futures, 31, 689-704.

Tognetti, S.S. 2001. Gregory Bateson (pdf) Munn, R.E. ed. Encyclopedia on Global Environmental Change. John Wiley & Sons, UK

One Response to “In Memoriam”

  1. Fernando Mandujano says:

    Prof. Bateson made a truly contribution to improve the science and thinking for better world. Its writings are an permanent source of new and good ideas.

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