Post-Normal or a return to normal?

Note: This post is a work in progress. Expect some revision as the time goes by.


Some interesting discussions around the climate blogosphere re: post-normal science.

Horror Fish

Watts Up With That has a guest post by Jerome Ravetz himself titled: “Climategate: Plausibility and the blogosphere in the post-normal age”.

Here is an excerpt:

Climategate is particularly significant because it cannot be blamed on the well-known malign influences from outside science, be they greedy corporations or an unscrupulous State.  This scandal, and the resulting crisis, was created by people within science who can be presumed to have been acting with the best of intentions.  In the event of a serious discrediting of the global-warming claims, public outrage would therefore be directed at the community of science itself, and (from within that community) at its leaders who were either ignorant or complicit until the scandal was blown open.  If we are to understand Climategate, and move towards a restoration of trust, we should consider the structural features of the situation that fostered and nurtured the damaging practices.  I believe that the ideas of Post-Normal Science (as developed by Silvio Funtowicz and myself) can help our understanding. [my emphasis]

How convenient…

There are deep problems of the management of uncertainty in science in the policy domain, that will not be resolved by more elaborate quantification.  In the gap between science and policy, the languages, their conventions and their implications are effectively incommensurable.  It takes determination and skill for a scientist who is committed to social responsibility, to avoid becoming a ‘stealth advocate’ (in the terms of Roger Pielke Jr.).  When the policy domain seems unwilling or unable to recognise plain and urgent truths about a problem, the contradictions between scientific probity and campaigning zeal become acute.  It is a perennial problem for all policy-relevant science, and it seems to have happened on a significant scale in the case of climate science.  The management of uncertainty and quality in such increasingly common situations is now an urgent task for the governance of science.

His conclusions are that Climategate is wholly the result of scientists trying to act as if they were working in a period of “normal science’ when they are really in a period of “post-normal science”.

Here’s the money quote:

Details of shoddy science and dirty tricks abound.  By the end, the committed inner core were confessing to each other that global temperatures were falling, but it was far too late to change course.  The final stage of corruption, cover-up, had taken hold.  For the core scientists and the leaders of the scientific communities, as well as for nearly all the liberal media, ‘the debate was over’.  Denying Climate Change received the same stigma as denying the Holocaust.  Even the trenchant criticisms of the most egregious errors in the IPCC reports were kept ‘confidential’.  And then came the e-mails.

We can understand the root cause of Climategate as a case of scientists constrained to attempt to do normal science in a post-normal situation. But climate change had never been a really ‘normal’ science, because the policy implications were always present and strong, even overwhelming.  Indeed, if we look at the definition of ‘post-normal science’, we see how well it fits:  facts uncertain,values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent.  In needing to treat Planet Earth like a textbook exercise, the climate scientists were forced to break the rules of scientific etiquette and ethics, and to play scientific power-politics in a way that inevitably became corrupt.  The combination of non-critical ‘normal science’ with anti-critical ‘evangelical science’ was lethal. As in other ‘gate’ scandals, one incident served to pull a thread on a tissue of protective plausibilities and concealments, and eventually led to an unravelling.  What was in the e-mails could be largely explained in terms of embattled scientists fighting off malicious interference; but the materials ready and waiting on the blogosphere provided a background, and that is what converted a very minor scandal to a catastrophe.

Let’s stop and review this bit of wisdom for a moment:

The committed inner core confessing to themselves that temperatures were falling  but it was far too late to change course?

“What was in the e-mails could be largely explained in terms of embattled scientists fighting off malicious interference; but the materials ready and waiting on the blogosphere provided a background, and that is what converted a very minor scandal to a catastrophe.”

Ravetz dismisses the argument that Climategate is the result of scientists fighting off malicious interference, claiming that the evidence otherwise was in the blogosphere waiting to be unearthed (the various IPCC “gates”?).

He’s written off climate science and appears to have taken the word of skeptics/ contrarians/ denialists.


What exactly is this thing called “post-normal science”?

Interestingly, it appears to be something that skeptics, especially those who are bloggers, have warmed up to. After reading up on the subject, I can understand why.

Here’s more from Ravetz’s post at WUWT:

Consideration of those protective plausibilities can help to explain how the illusions could persist for so long until their sudden collapse.  The scientists were all reputable, they published in leading peer-reviewed journals, and their case was itself highly plausible and worthy in a general way.  Individual criticisms were, for the public and perhaps even for the broader scientific community, kept isolated and hence muffled and lacking in systematic significance.  And who could have imagined that at its core so much of the science was unsound?  The plausibility of the whole exercise was, as it were, bootstrapped.  I myself was alerted to weaknesses in the case by some caveats in Sir David King’s book The Hot Topic; and I had heard of the hockey-stick affair.  But even I was carried along by the bootstrapped plausibility, until the scandal broke. (I have benefited from the joint project on plausibility in science of colleagues in Oxford and at the Arizona State University).

It’s all an illusion…

At the core, so much of the science was unsound?

I’ll tell you what’s unsound — this analysis.

As I was reading several texts on “post-normal science” including that of Ravetz, my overwhelming response was BULLSHIT.

In fact, that word litters my marginalia. Bullshit.

Shoddy science and dirty tricks?

No wonder this “post-normal science” BS reads well to skeptics / contrarians / denialists.

Here’s my bottom line: it’s just wanking. It’s intellectual wanking. It’s pseudoscience. It’s cargo cult science. It’s tailor-made for contrarians and denialsts, catering to their interests in hi-jacking climate science, delaying action on global warming, smearing scientists and discrediting science, relying on junk science and blog science instead of real science.

It’s laughable. I’ve trained in science, social science, and policy analysis. I’ve worked in policy analysis.

This is bogus.

Wiki defines post-normal science as:

“…a methodology of inquiry that is appropriate for cases where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”. It is primarily seen in the context of the debate over global warming and other similar, long-term issues where we possess less information than we would like.”

The Wiki article cites James J. Kay, who argues that post-normal science is:

“…a process that recognizes the potential for gaps in knowledge and understanding that cannot be resolved other than through revolutionary science, thereby arguing that (in between revolutions) one should not necessarily attempt to resolve or dismiss contradictory perspectives of the world (whether they are based on science or not), but instead incorporate multiple viewpoints into the same problem-solving process.”

Let’s step back a moment.  Normal Science, according to Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is a period when scientists are involved in “puzzle solving” under the umbrella of the existing and widely-accepted overarching scientific paradigm. This period of normal science continues until a critical mass of anomalies has built up such that practitioners of normal science are forced to consider opposing theories or paradigms to explain all the anomalies. A revolution occurs when the alternate paradigm is accepted and scientists resume their puzzle solving under the new regime and normal science can once again take place.

Those who support the idea of post-normal science argue that, at times, due to a lack of scientific certainty, and because of the stakes, the processes of normal science have to be suspended or augmented by those of post-normal science, including incorporating multiple viewpoints as part of the problem solving process.

Here is a link to an article on Post-Normal Science by Mike Hulme, The Appliance of Science published in the Guardian:

Here is Hulme:

“The danger of a “normal” reading of science is that it assumes science can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow. Singer has this view of science, as do some of his more outspoken campaigning critics such as Mark Lynas. That is why their exchanges often reduce to ones about scientific truth rather than about values, perspectives and political preferences. If the battle of science is won, then the war of values will be won.

If only climate change were such a phenomenon and if only science held such an ascendancy over our personal, social and political life and decisions. In fact, in order to make progress about how we manage climate change we have to take science off centre stage.

This is not a comfortable thing to say – either to those scientists who still hold an uncritical view of their privileged enterprise and who relish the status society affords them, or to politicians whose instinct is so often to hide behind the experts when confronted by difficult and genuine policy alternatives.”

So, he sees the problem we face as this:

Science does not have an ascendancy over our personal, social and political live and decisions necessary for it to determine policy.

Science has to be taken off the centre stage.

In its place?

Citizen science.  Blog science.


Hulme concludes:

“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. All of us alive today have a stake in the future, and so we should all play a role in generating sufficient, inclusive and imposing knowledge about the future. Climate change is too important to be left to scientists – least of all the normal ones.”

Yes, I can see why this analysis of “post-normal science” appeals to contrarians and deniers. It plays right into their biases.  Get rid of the scientists.  Bring in the blogs.

Finally, Hulme concludes:

“Given the greater importance of climate systems and the fact that we know even less about them, conventional methods of inquiry, based on determining all relevant information before proceeding, are too slow and uncertain to deal with an issue too complex to be fully understood and too important to wait on.

Because of this, advocates of post-normal science suggest that there must be an “extended peer community” consisting of all those affected by an issue who are prepared to enter into dialogue on it. They bring their “extended facts”, that will include local knowledge and materials not originally intended for publication such as leaked official information. There is a political case for this extension of the franchise of science; but Funtowicz and Ravetz also argue that this extension is necessary for assuring the quality of the process and of the product.”

It’s as if The Great Puzzler, WUWT, Pilke Jr. all hired Ravetz and Co to write justification for their version of blog science.

Let’s peek back at Ravetz’s conclusion:

Elsewhere, scholars are exploring methods for managing disagreement among scientists, so that such post-normal issues do not need to become so disastrously polarised.  A distinguished scholar, Sheila Jasanoff, has called for a culture of humility among scientists, itself a radical move towards a vision of a non-violent science.  Scientists who have been forced to work on the blogosphere have had the invaluable experience of exclusion and oppression; that could make it easier for them to accept that something is seriously wrong and then to engage in the challenging moral adventures of dealing with uncertainty and ignorance.  The new technologies of communications are revolutionising knowledge and power in many areas.  The extended peer community of science on the blogosphere will be playing its part in that process.  Let dialogue commence!

Of course, WU denizens laud Ravetz and the analysis, throwing accolades around as if in the presence of a new Caesar of Science Theory.

What is “Post-Normal Science” really saying?

In a nutshell: When the stakes are high and the science is not perfectly certain, war will ensue over policy and science will become corrupted when scientists become advocates instead of disinterested puzzle-solvers. In these times, citizens and others must push them out of the way, holding science up to close scrutiny to ensure the science is of a high enough quality on which to base public policy.


Some of Rabett Run’s bunnies are discussing it here, but it doesn’t appear to have received any traction. I suppose a proponent of “Post-Normal Science” would argue that makes sense, since most of Rabett’s bunnies might be normal scientists…

Martin sez:

Anonymous, thanks for the warning.

So Ravetz rediscovered blog science? Good for him…

I would like to thank Martin for the link to Denial Depot (highly recommended BTW) and the very good laugh, especially at The Horror Fish

I digress…

So, I’ve already passed judgement on this amazing new theoretical development. Not only do I find the conclusions about AGW and Climategate to be bogus, I find the theory to be highly vacuous.

It’s a mess.

The problem is not, as I see it, one of the definition of “science”, whether it be normal or otherwise. The problem is that there is a failure to understand how public policy is made.

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: You can have the absolute best science in the world, certain, backed up by decades of peer-reviewed literature and research and it can matter not one whit to the final policy decision.

Public policy is a political decision making process – it is not a scientific one. As such, the questions it asks and the decisions about how to respond to problems are not solely determined by what the evidence does or does not say about the problem.

This has nothing to do with the certainty in science. It has to do with power.

It seems intuitive and rational that policy decisions are premised on the best science available, but that is not always the case. Other matters intervene and affect the policy decisions – economics, politics, personality, etc. Anyone who tells you different is either ignorant or a charlatan.

Science is only one part of the policy equation. Even with the soundest and most reliable science on hand, that the policy response will be based on the science is not a given.

In other words, science cannot tell us which path to take when we face a threat.

Science can describe the dangers we face; it can tell us which path will take us longer, or which will take us faster through the danger; it can tell us where we might come out.  It might even suggest that we need to take a path, but it cannot tell us which path to take.

That is a political decision.

I would say that what we need is not “post-normal” science but normal science left alone to do what it does best — produce the most objective reliable knowledge about the natural world possible.

We need a return to normal science as free as possible of political influence and a clearer understanding of the policy process.

This is not to say that science is pure, objective and pristine. Of course it isn’t. It takes place within a context and that context filters in to affect what science gets done. But there are processes and procedures and values in place to minimize as much as possible those outside influences.

What we need is clarity about what is really transpiring with respect to global warming policy development.

In my view, and based on my training and experience, we are witnessing a battle over policy decisions regarding what to do about global warming. The science is pretty clear cut, despite a few mistakes here and there in any given IPCC report, or the comments made in private of a few scientists who feel set upon by enemies.  There are uncertainties, but all scientists and those who understand science know that science is never complete or final.

It’s not settled, in the sense that there is always more to learn, there are still puzzles to be solved, and there are uncertainties in what we think we do know, but that does not undermine the basic science.

As such, those powerful lobbyists and the interests who back them, who are fighting against policy action on global warming have seen the writing on the wall. They recognize that the science is pretty damn convincing. They understand that continuing down the path we are going is not defensible in scientific terms.

They also see that they will be a loser in all this.

They have intervened in the policy process to influence the policy debate in order to sway it, and ensure that their interests are being realized.

This is normal public policy development.

Where it differs from most policy development is that this time, those with interests in the continued use of GHG emitting processes and products have learned from past successes (e.g. tobacco, lead, etc.).  They have set out, not to expound on their natural realm — economic issues, social issues, financial issues — but to get into science itself and muck about, hoping to undermine it, muddy the waters, create a “climate of doubt”.

The goal?  From the API’s Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan:

Victory Will Be Achieved When

  • Average citizens “understand” (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional wisdom”
  • Media “understands” (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science
  • Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current “conventional wisdom”
  • Industry senior leadership understands uncertainties in climate science, making them stronger ambassadors to those who shape climate policy
  • Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extent science appears to be out of touch with reality.

Here is more from that document:

Because the science underpinning the global climate change theory has not been challenged effectively in the media or through other vehicles reaching the American public, there is widespread ignorance, which works in favor of the Kyoto treaty and against the best interests of the United States. Indeed, the public has been highly receptive to the Clinton Administrations plans. There has been little, if any, public resistance or pressure applied to Congress to reject the treaty, except by those “inside the Beltway” with vested interests.

Moreover, from the political viewpoint, it is difficult for the United States to oppose the treaty solely on economic grounds, valid as the economic issues are. It makes it too easy for others to portray the United States as putting preservation of its own lifestyle above the greater concerns of mankind. This argument, in turn, forces our negotiators to make concessions that have not been well thought through, and in the end may do far more harm than good. This is the process that unfolded at Kyoto, and is very likely to be repeated in Buenos Aires in November 1998.

This is what has happened and it is this that has led to Climategate IMO.

A concerted effort on the part of fossil fuel, certain political interests and others to raise doubt about climate science and thus sway public opinion and through them, politicans. While this is cleverly worded to make it appear to be about “the best interests of America” it is clear that it is the best interests of the API and its members.

Politicians, ever obsessed with keeping power, look to their “stakeholders” and the electorate to decide how to act. The lobbyists know this and thus they seek to sway public opinion, they act to raise doubt —  legitimate or otherwise — and they resort to smear and obfuscation.

To do this, they are carrying out an attack on normal science such that we are witnessing a concerted campaign to discredit it.

Climategate is a response to that attack.

The net result is a politicized environment in which normal science is not taking place.

It’s not a problem with science qua science. It is a political and economic and social problem.

Because of the enormous stakes involved – to the climate and our civilization if the AGW projections are valid – and to the economies of our nations premised on the use of abundant fossil fuels – the science has become politicized and we are now facing the fallout.

Politics is about influence. It is about having one’s will achieved. It is about the exercise of power. It is played out in the public sphere, in the media, in public discourse, and this public discourse percolates up to the political realm where the decision makers are.

So all this blather about “post-normal science” is distraction. You see how facile is Kravetz’s dismissal of the “well-known malign influences outside of science”.

Imagine that — with one facile dismissal, provided with no evidence to back it up whatsoever, Kravetz writes off the role of industry and its lobbying an PR campaign, well documented elsewhere, in this whole affair.

It’s shameless. I am uncertain if it is the product of mere academic masturbation or outright deception, but it is just plain wrong.


About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

4 Responses to “Post-Normal or a return to normal?”

  1. Susann,
    Policy is a political decision, not one based strictly on science. But science is often the authority the politicians and policy wonks point to in their appeals for their political agenda.

    You disagree with Ravetz, but your disagreement seems to be mainly over the fact he sees how “shoddy science and dirty tricks abound” in climate science and you do not. This is not a deficiency in Ravetz, but in you.

    You dislike Steve McIntyre, but he is right. Wegman agreed with him. Von Storch and Zorita agreed with him. Every statistician has agreed with McIntyre. Even the NAS panel agreed with McIntyre on every significant point of science (although they were much more polite to Michael Mann than Wegman was).

    In spite of all of these people, across the AGW spectrum, who agree with McIntyre, you are firmly on the side of Michael Mann and his surface temperature record spliced on the end of a tree-ring proxy. An act he vigorously denied until the CRU email made it undeniable.

    I am not saying all AGW science is shoddy, but a great deal of it is – especially the paleoclimate work. I have a feeling this is what Ravetz had in mind.

    Your knee-jerk reaction to Ravetz does not serve you well.

    • Ravetz shows no evidence for anything he claims. That’s shoddy.

      I have no confidence in the Wegman inquiry or report, given revelations about his panel, their advisors and the quality of their product. But I can see how deniers and contrarians cling onto it for it has the aroma — but not substance — of analysis.

      You don’t even know what you’re talking about re: Mann and splicing the temp record onto proxy record — or you’re being deceptive.

      My reaction isn’t knee-jerk. I read the main papers and it’s junk social science. I base that conclusion on 10 years of post-secondary education, 6 of it graduate level and 10+ years of policy and political experience.

    • Ron, the funniest thing about Ravetz’ remark about “shoddy science and dirty tricks abound” is that he posted it on WUWT. If there is *any* climate ‘skeptic’ blog that uses shoddy science and dirty tricks, it is WUWT. But because Ravetz essentially admits to getting most of his knowledge on climate science from Roger Tattersall, a WUWT regular, he will never know this.

      And you are very wrong on Mann splicing the temperature record on the end of a tree ring proxy.
      In *all* cases the temperature record is clearly labelled, and in *all* cases there is more than just tree rings as proxies. Get out of climateaudit and actually read the papers. You’d not make such howling errors.

  2. “Post-normal science” – that describes the denialosphere in a nutshell. This is one reason I admire the patience of climate scientists – trying to do normal science while all this nonsense is going on around them and directed towards them. Tough field to be in.

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