Another welcome to Post-Normal Times

Posted March 31st, 2010 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Living in Post-Normal Times

“All that was ‘normal’ has now evaporated.” It is now official that we have entered Post-Normal Times. Ziauddin Sardar has published another Welcome to postnormal Times [pdf] in the journal Futures – a good article – but don’t forget you heard it here first, in the very first post on this blog.

Although it never made it to the top of the priority list, I always thought it would be a good idea to provide the concept with more scholarly treatment. On the other hand, the main idea behind the blog was to get such ideas out from behind the paywall ($41.95 for this article if you don’t have access to a good library) (now available here) and see if it might be possible to better illustrate science and policy conundrums from a post-normal science perspective, in more practical terms, in the context of commentary on day to day events which science illuminates, or to which it is applied. The closest I came to providing a formal definition of the concept was probably in the second post, on Unknown knowns and known unknowables, as a time when changes in climate are outside the range of natural variability, which brings us into terra incognita, or Post-Normal Times, and that are leading to greater and greater uncertainty that is found in our lives as much as in science, The post goes on to discuss the social aspects of this uncertainty, raising the question of whether all obtainable scientific information would actually make any difference in policy decisions and in actual practices, and ultimately, with their consequences. An issue that goes well beyond the question of

…whether or not estimates fall inside or outside acceptable margins of error. Use of science to support policy decisions implies also the need to understand the often rapidly changing conditions to which those estimates presumably apply, and therefore, to make judgments not only about the technical quality of information, but also about whether it is even relevant to the questions being asked, and whether the right questions are being asked. Whether outcomes are achieved also raises issues of trust and cooperation, and whether promises are kept. These questions cannot even begin to be answered unless there is some semblance of accountability, as well as agreement about the scope of the problem itself, and visions of the future.

This in not inconsistent with Sardar’s more formal and inclusive characterization of the concept, which also builds on the concept of post-normal science. A few excerpts – but read the whole thing if you can get access to it:

…It’s a time when little out there can be trusted or gives us confidence. The espiritu del tiempo, the spirit of our age, is characterised by uncertainty, rapid change, realignment of power, upheaval and chaotic behaviour. We live in an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. Ours is a transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future. It is a time when all choices seem perilous, likely to lead to ruin, if not entirely over the edge of the abyss. In our time it is possible to dream all dreams of visionary futures but almost impossible to believe we have the capability or commitment to make any of them a reality. We live in a state of flux beset by indecision: what is for the best, which is worse? We are disempowered by the risks, cowed into timidity by fear of the choices we might be inclined or persuaded to contemplate.

In the normal scheme of things, we know where we stand. The winters are cold and the summers are hot, the seasons flow-spring forward, fall back like clockwork – in a natural cycle. The economy grows steadily, at rates varying from sluggishly to dramatic, but guaranteeing a reliable general increase in prosperity and security. Markets work, warts and all, they regulate prices and we have confidence and trust in our financial institutions. Politicians, never the most trustworthy of breeds, acknowledge, and by and large adhere to, accepted principles of behaviour as they legislate effectively to order the affairs of society. When we are faced with a new disease or danger, science and medicine come galloping to our rescue. A global balance of power, with all its imperfections, maintains a semblance of peacable law and order; tin pot dictators, fearing the consequences of their actions, know where to draw the line. We live in coherent and cohesive communities, safe in the knowledge that the futures of our children are secure.

In normal times, when things go wrong, as they so often have, we know what to do. We identify and isolate the problem and apply our physical and intellectual resources to come up with a viable answer. The solid foundations and proven theories of our disciplines, from economics and political science to biological and natural sciences, guide us towards a potential solution. The weight and sheer power of intellectual, academic and political orthodoxy ensures that we successfully ride the tiger of change.

Little of this now holds true. Much of what we have taken as normal, conventional and orthodox just does not work anymore. Indeed, normality itself is revealed to be the root of all our ills. Take the current economic crisis, for example. This provides ample evidence that the old business model on which we have relied for centuries is bust. Not only has free market capitalism become dangerously obsolete but the branch of economics, which provided theoretical justification for this edifice is also intellectually bankrupt [1]. Economic man, the intellectual construct underpinning the edifice, a species once vaunted for his rationality, is extinct [2]. Markets propelled only by the profit motive have become ungovernable, predicated only on personal greed and unconscionable accumulation of unimaginable private wealth concentrated in few hands, Competition and the free flow of capital around the liberalised, deregulated globe is a revolving tale of beggar my neighbor to produce ever cheaper consumer goods that leave more and more ‘rust belt’ communities as de-industrialized wastelands while the realignment of global trade imbalances increases volatility and mutual distrust within and between nations [3].

The world itself is now a far more uncertain place than it was during the second half of the twentieth century. It is not just that our own political system, based on self-regulation and comradely rules of gentleman’s clubs, is irreparably broken; the more politicians legislate, reform and amend the less significant and effective laws seem in achieving or delivering appreciable social benefit the more unintended and undesired consequences appear. The global geopolitical landscape is also changing rapidly. There is hardly a country where politicians, of whatever persuasion, are either trusted or respected. Even the regular cycles of our weather cannot be trusted anymore – thanks to global warming, with its attendant rises in temperatures and sea levels, changing ocean composition and transformed ecosystems.

‘The first decade of the 21st century has been a series of wake up calls’ says an advertisement for IBM. ‘These are system crises – from security, to climate, to food and water, to energy, to financial markets and more’ [4]. What is unique about these crises is that they have occurred simultaneously: ‘we have never seen any era when we have been hit by all these multiple crisis at the one time’, says UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon [5]. It is not just that things are going wrong; they are going wrong spectacularly, on a global scale, and in multiple and concurrent ways. We thus find ourselves in a situation that is far from normal; and have entered the domain of the postnormal.

The concept of ‘postnormal’ was first introduced by Ravetz, the celebrated British philosopher of science, and the Argentinean mathematician Funtowicz [6]. Working on the mathematics of risk, they noticed that the old image of science, where empirical data led to true conclusions and scientific reasoning led to correct policies, was no longer plausible [6]. There was a great deal of uncertainty in scientific work, which together with changes to funding, commercialisation, social concerns about developments in science and the complex issues of safety, all meant that science was no longer functioning in the ‘normal’ way. ‘ Whenever there is a policy issue involving science’, wrote Ravetz and Funtowicz, ‘we discover that facts are uncertain, complexity is the norm, values are in dispute, stakes are high, decisions are urgent and there is a real danger of man-made risks running out of control’ [7]. They described the emerging developments as ‘postnormal science’, which has now become an established field of inquiry.

Much of what Ravetz and Funtowicz said about science in the 1990s is now equally true about other disciplines – indeed, society as a whole. Everything from economics to international relations, markets to products in local shops, politics to dissent has become postnormal. There are very good reasons for this state of affairs. All of them are related to three c’s: complexity, chaos and contradictions – the forces that shape and propel postnormal times….

Another observation, that seems particularly poignant to anyone who has followed the dysfunctional or postnormal discourse on climate science, regards a major obstacle in negotiating our way towards new normal times:

the space, time and willingness to engage in coherent debate has become scarcer, the more complex, contradictory and chaotic things have become….  …there is no natural law that states that activism will should or ought to be, dedicated solely to the common good. Nor is there any rule that they should take a balanced view and think through the risks and benefits of their agenda. Indeed it is in the nature of many of the self-organizing networks that have emerged to confound the times by offering simplistic, single issue, one-dimensional prescriptions and thereby increase the toxicity, animosity and dissatisfaction of society as a whole.

It gives one the feeling we have entered into Dante’s inferno. Although Sardar does not quite suggest that we abandon all hope, the conclusion, that we will need to rely on imagination, creativity and an ethical compass to avoid the conventional patterns of thought and pathologies that got us into this mess, suggests that the way out might entail a similar kind of a journey.


Update 2: Zia has kindly allowed me to post the full article. As it is still in press, the page numbers are not yet available but it will be Futures 42:5 June 2010. The permanent url, where you will eventually be able to find the correct citation is:

He may also join the discussion in the near future. In the meantime, we welcome your comments. The question that particularly interests me, is: how science can play a more constructive role in finding our way to a new normal?

Continue Reading »


Posted March 14th, 2010 by admin and filed in Other Stuff

This blog just moved from Movable Type to WordPress but I have not yet managed to redirect the links or move the RSS feeds to feedburner. Until then, links here may go to the old site and I don’t know where feed burner will go. And a tree knocked out power to my house early yesterday so I am doing this at a coffee shop. But real blogging will be back soon, with comment functionality…

Update: The redirections now seem to be working. Figures appear to be missing from older posts – will fix those over the next few weeks.

Weather and climate

Posted February 11th, 2010 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Living in Post-Normal Times
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
We’re Off to See the Blizzard
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

In addition to being snowed in, I lost power for part of yesterday and most of last weekend, but I have another post on the way. Since I get paid for things other than writing this blog, it may not be until the weekend. In the meantime, an insightful report on weather and climate, from who else but Stephen Colbert.

Update: for more insight on the relationship between the snowstorm and climate see also: Capitol Climate, Jeff Masters/WunderBlog, and Jon Stewart. While no single event proves anything about the climate, the bottom line is, record breaking snowfall we just had in the northeast is what can be expected from record breaking moisture in the atmosphere, which is what can be expected from global warming, which increases evaporation from the oceans.

And welcome to visitors from wattsupwiththat, where Jerry Ravetz posted an essay I only partially agree with. As Jerry has provided much of the inspiration for this blog, and has been an occasional contributor, disagreements with him are not something I take lightly. His post merits discussion and careful comment. I will link to wattsupwiththat in the blogroll when I see arguments there that hold water and have not been refuted. Other than part of Jerry’s essay.

Structuring science for policy

Posted January 29th, 2010 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Interfaces of science and policy

Complex problems, like climate change or the decline of honeybees, ultimately come down to debates about causation that tend to also be highly contentious, because, with multiple potentially contributing factors, uncertainties can never be fully eliminated. When stakes are high and decisions are urgent, the analytical difficulties are inevitably compounded by value judgments. A new paper by Laura Maxim and Jeroen van der Sluijs, nicely summarized by Kate Ravilious on the Environmental Research Web provides an approach for analysis of these kinds of debates, that could be useful as a structure for providing transparency in the assessment of any type of complex environmental problem.

In this paper, they apply the approach to a case study of the decline of honeybees in France, which appeared to be associated with the use of the insecticide Gaucho as sunflower and maize seed dressing. But several other potential factors were widely cited in the public discourse, such as imported queens, unfavorable climate during flowering, insufficient pollen, diseases and viruses, inadequate or illegal use of pesticides, and changes in sunflower varieties. Using a set of criteria for causality, they developed a set of questions regarding the potential relationship between each of these potential factors and the signs of the problem, which included a 30-70% loss of honey, lethal and sub-lethal signs in the bees during flowering (e.g., mortality, paralysis, loss of orientation, apathy, shivering and other abnormal behaviors). For each question and for each potential causal factor, stakeholders were asked to provide scores of 1-10 regarding the convincingness of the evidence, based on standards used in US courts. They were also asked to provide justification for their scores. The stakeholders interviewed included 2 representatives each from the Bayer Institute of Crop Science, AFSSA (the French food safety authority), and the French Ministry of Agriculture. Also, 5 public scientists, and 20 beekeepers who had experienced the problem in their own apiaries.

Among the results: an association between 5 of the eight potential factors with the lethal and sub-lethal effects that had been observed could be ruled out because they were either not biologically plausible, not verified in the field, or were unknown. They note that, although the scientific details of these potential factors were never addressed, they were widely cited as “plausible” in the public discourse. They also note two distinct storylines. One, defended by the beekeepers and the public scientists, and based on both field observations and scientific studies of the impacts of imidacloprid (the active ingredient in Gaucho), was that Gaucho was the main contributor to the loss of honeybees in areas with seed dressed sunflower and maize crops. The second storyline, defended by Bayer and AFSSA, and based on research that did not reproduce the observed effects, was that other factors were to blame. They also referred to honeybee losses in general, rather than to the particular sunflower and maize areas where crops had been treated with Gaucho.

In other words, the results “showed that in public discourses, some expert actors can present as being plausible hypotheses which are not scientifically validated and thus downplay a correct understanding of the problem by their listeners. Not all experts are equally attentive to the robustness of the scientific support for the hypothesis that they evoke.”

To anyone who has followed the public discourse on climate change, this story will sound familiar. The approach presented provides a more formalized and systematic way of asking the kinds of questions often raised in this context, although in a more diffuse manner that can be hard to track for anyone who has other things to do. Although the results are unlikely to persuade those whose aim is to delay action by sowing confusion, it can provide some much needed transparency for those who are perplexed by contradictory messages about the science of climate change, and who are truly interested in good faith negotiation of policies that rest on science.