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Post-Normal Science

Mike Hulme's article, The appliance of science | Climate change | Guardian Unlimited Environment, demolishing the idea that environmental policy is science based; "In fact, in order to make progress about how we manage climate change we have to take science off centre stage." has been commentated on elsewhere. His whole thesis that "scientists - and politicians - must trade (normal) truth for influence"...What matters about climate change is not whether we can predict the future with some desired level of certainty and accuracy; it is whether we have sufficient foresight, supported by wisdom, to allow our perspective about the future, and our responsibility for it, to be altered. has been attacked by simple seekers of truth.

What they fail to realise is that this article is just part of the new school of Post-Normal Science

To engage in these new tasks we need new intellectual tools. A picture of reality designed for controlled experimentation and abstract theory building, can be very effective with complex phenomena reduced to their simple, atomic elements. But it is not best suited for the tasks of environmental policy today. The scientific mind-set fosters expectations of regularity, simplicity and certainty in the phenomena and in our interventions. But these can inhibit the growth of our understanding of the problems and of appropriate methods to their solution.

The leading concept is "complexity". This relates to the structure and properties of the phenomena and the issues for environmental policy. Systems that are complex are not merely complicated; by their nature they involve deep uncertainties and a plurality of legitimate perspectives. Hence the methodologies of traditional laboratory-based science are of restricted effectiveness in this new context.

The most general methodology for managing complex science-related issues is "Post-Normal Science" (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1992, 1993, Futures 1999). This focuses on aspects of problem solving that tend to be neglected in traditional accounts of scientific practice: uncertainty and value loading. It provides a coherent explanation of the need for greater participation in science-policy processes,..

Anyone trying to comprehend the problems of "the environment" might well be bewildered by their number, variety and complication. There is a natural temptation to try to reduce them to simpler, more manageable elements, as with mathematical models and computer simulations. This, after all, has been the successful programme of Western science and technology up to now. But environmental problems have features which prevent reductionist approaches from having any, but the most limited useful effect....

The insight leading to Post-Normal Science is that in the sorts of issue-driven science relating to environmental debates, typically facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent. Some might say that such problems should not be called "science"; but the answer could be that such problems are everywhere, and when science is (as it must be) applied to them, the conditions are anything but "normal". For the previous distinction between "hard", objective scientific facts and "soft", subjective value-judgements is now inverted. All too often, we must make hard policy decisions where our only scientific inputs are irremediably soft.

The difference between old and new conditions can be shown by the present difficulties of the classical economics approach to environmental policy. Traditionally, economics attempted to show how social goals could be best achieved by means of mechanisms operating automatically, in an essentially simple system. The "hidden hand" metaphor of Adam Smith conveyed the idea that conscious interference in the workings of the economic system would do no good and much harm; and this view has persisted from then to now. But for the achievement of sustainability, automatic mechanisms are clearly insufficient. Even when pricing rather than control is used for implementation of economic policies, the prices must be set, consciously, by some agency; and this is then a highly visible controlling hand. When externalities are uncertain and irreversible, then no one can set "ecologically correct prices" practised in actual markets or in fictitious markets (through contingent valuation or other economic techniques). There might at best be "ecologically corrected prices", set by a decision-making system. ...

The contribution of all the stakeholders in cases of Post-Normal Science is not merely a matter of broader democratic participation. For these new problems are in many ways different from those of research science, professional practice, or industrial development. Each of those has its means for quality assurance of the products of the work, be they peer review, professional associations, or the market. For these new problems, quality depends on open dialogue between all those affected. This we call an "extended peer community", consisting not merely of persons with some form or other of institutional accreditation, but rather of all those with a desire to participate in the resolution of the issue. Seen out of context, such a proposal might seem to involve a dilution of the authority of science, and its dragging into the arena of politics. But we are here not talking about the traditional areas of research and industrial development; but about those where issues of quality are crucial, and traditional mechanisms of quality assurance are patently inadequate. Since this context of science is one involving policy, we might see this extension of peer communities as analogous to earlier extensions of franchise in other fields, as allowing workers to form trade unions and women to vote. In all such cases, there were prophecies of doom, which were not realised.

For the formation of environmental policy under conditions of complexity, it is hard to imagine any viable alternative to extended peer communities. They are already being created, in increasing numbers, either when the authorities cannot see a way forward, or know that without a broad base of consensus, no policies can succeed. They are called "citizens' juries", "focus groups", or "consensus conferences", or any one of a great variety of names; and their forms and powers are correspondingly varied.

It is all clear now, we should depend on "citizens' juries" rather than scientists for the truth, Robespierre would be proud.


The whole issue of science and especially issue driven science is bunkum. The expression 'it's been scientifically proven' leaves me apoplectic. Why do people elevate science, which after all is just a study, to the level of oracle?

NuSPeak, NuScience, NuLabour. Does anyone else spot a trend here?

What is even worse is that these buggers actually seem proud that after Heaven knows how many years of state education, the bulk of the population are incapable of understanding even a simple scientific argument. And because of this singular failure of public policy we have to reduce our thinking on major matters of national importance to the level of witchcraft.

Hardly the progress of mankind the great thinkers dreamt about, is it.

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