Some insights from Post-Normal Science

Posted March 15th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Interfaces of science and policy

The piece by Mike Hulme, previously posted here, is now published in the Guardian in a revised form that expands on the discussion of Post-Normal Science. It is also the subject of a post by Tom Yulsman on the blog Environmental Journalism Now, which I have been meaning to add to the blogroll (done). The jumping off point for both is the use of “scientific” arguments by climate change contrarians as a fig leaf for disagreement about values embedded in the science.

Rather than quibble with the validity of arguments that current global warming trends are just part of a natural cycle – arguments already reviewed and rejected in assessments of the IPCC and explained over and over again on blogs such as RealClimate, they use it as an opportunity to discuss the differences between normal science, and science developed and/or used in the public arena to inform and justify policy decisions. They also acknowledge that the narrower more simplistic frame, which assumes that if we just get the science right, the right policies will follow, has been used by both sides, to avoid discussion of more difficult policy questions that science cannot solve for us – for example, whether or not we have confidence that technology will solve the problem, and whether we have obligations to future generations, or even to those in our own time who have been marginalized or”externalized” from participation in the process of making policy decisions, i.e., the poor.

As regular readers of this blog know, the framework of Post-Normal Science was developed by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz, and inspired this blog, the purpose of which is to consider science in this broader social context. Far from being an “anything goes” approach to science, the main concern addressed by PNS is how to assure quality of information, given unavoidable uncertainty and precisely these kinds of value conflicts which have led to the abuse of uncertaintyby contrarians for purposes of obfuscation. In a new book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Science by Jerry (Jerome) Ravetz, fine tunes the distinctions between different kinds of science, reminding us that there is a big difference between the kind of science used to develop the atomic bomb and other technologies that have had unintended consquences, and the science developed to address those unintended consequences – full book review forthcoming. In the meantime…

Yulsman concludes witha constructive suggestion, that “journalists should push them [i.e., scientists] to reveal those underlying factors.” He also points out that “that’s exactly the opposite of what William Broad did in his story this week – no doubt because of his own undisclosed values and beliefs.” When I first read that Broadly ironical and misleading piece, my fingers started sputtering at the keyboard so I decided I would come back to it. Since then, cooler heads have done blow by blow analysis of what is technically wrong with it. I could say more, and I will… but it is the New York Times that needs to “Cool the hype” and start adhering to basic standards of journalism.

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