Post-Normal Science or [Pseudo] Sort of Science?

This post is just for my own amusement. Feel free to comment but I don’t expect a lot of dialogue since this is just because I’ve been reading the literature on “post-normal” science and am finding it quite enlightening and entertaining at the same time.

So I’m strange like that. 😀

I’d heard about “post-normal science” a while ago on some skeptic blog, but wrote it off as just another attempt to create a sexy new approach to policy studies and not something to waste my time on, but I was wrong. It’s not a waste of my time. 😀 I think it provides me with an insight into a number of issues au courant, including its alignment with climate ‘skeptics’ such as Watts and its popularity with that crowd.

Now, there can be no doubt of the credentials of Dr. Ravetz — according to his WIKI page, he has a PhD in Maths from Cambridge and was a Fullbright Scholar. His focus has been an ongoing critique of science, specifically uncertainty in science and ethics in science.  He taught the philosophy of science during his career at Leeds University.  He and Funtowitz created the theory of “post-normal science” (PNS) and have since then written a number of books and articles applying this theory to the study of various science issues such as genetics and the environment.  I’ve spent a bit of time in a literature search and there is quite a lot of work out there using PNS as a conceptual tool, some of it quite interesting and insightful.

However, I think at base, it misses the mark. I am still working on this, so my conclusions are all contingent and very rudimentary, but still, I am not convinced that this PNS is an antidote of any kind for the problems it appears to have been developed to address. More on this later.

First, I want to do a bit of review of PNS.   This is from “Post-Normal Science”, the International Society for Ecological Economics, February 2003. As an aside, I’d like to note that 12 of the 21 references in this paper were to Funtowitz and Ravetz.

“Post-Normal Science (PNS) is a new conception of the management of complex science-related issues. It focuses on aspects of problem solving that tend to be neglected in traditional accounts of scientific practice: uncertainty, value loading, and a plurality of legitimate perspectives. PNS considers these elements as integral to science. By their inclusion in the framing of complex issues, PNS is able to provide a coherent framework for an extended participation in decision making, based on the new tasks of quality assurance (1).”

Huh?  Uncertainty is neglected in normal scientific practice?  What science are they talking about?

Here’s more:

“In the sorts of issue-driven science relating to the protection of health and the environment, typically facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent. The traditional 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 requirements for the ‘sound science’ that is frequently invoked as necessary for rational policy decisions may affectively conceal value-loadings that determine research conclusions and policy recommendations (2).”


“In such novel contexts, there is a new role for science, both natural and social.  The facts that are taught from the textbooks used in training institutions are still necessary [whew!], but they are no longer sufficient. Contrary to the impression that the textbooks convey, in practice most problems have more than one plausible answer, and many have no well-defined scientific answer at all…” [my comments]

Yeah, but that doesn’t reflect on science itself, but on policy development — they are always several options in any policy decision even when considering the science, because policy is not determined by the science. Policy is informed by the science. Policy decisions are political. What kind of world do we want to live in?

Science doesn’t provide policy answers — it provides evidence used to help make policy decisions.

And when persons with no formal qualifications attempt to participate in teh processes of innovation, evaluation or decision making, their efforts have been viewed with suspicion or scorn. PNS provides a means for correcting this sort of mindset, which has now become quite counterproductive, both for the legitimacy and for the quality of science-related policy processes (3).”

Here is why I think the ‘skeptics’ have latched onto PNS. This was intended to ensure that all policy actors get some kind of voice in the policy process, but it really has nothing to do with science qua science. More on this later…

Here’s some material on post-normal science from “Science for the Post-Normal Age” by the same authors:

“Post-normal science can provide a path to the democritization of science, and also a response to the current tendencies of post-modernity (365).”

Hmmm. I might agree we need a response to current tendencies of post-modernity, if I knew what they were, but the authors don’t really tell us.  And what’s this about the democritization of science?  Does this mean science is decided based on a vote or majority? They don’t clarify so for now, let’s just mosey along…

“The reductionist, analytical worldview which divides systems into ever smaller elements, studied by even more esoteric specialism, is being replaced by a systemic, synthetic and humanistic approach. The old dichotomies of facts and values, and of knowledge and ignorance, are being transcended. Natural systems are recognized as dynamic and complex; those involving interactions with humanity are ’emergent’, including properties of reflection and contradiction (366).”

Ho hum. This is standard social science critique of science — science is reductionist, analytical, local, and inhumane — some would even say racist and patriarchal. It argues that we cannot assume any longer the modernist belief and faith in the dichotomy between facts and values or knowledge and ignorance. Gee, I kinda want to keep facts and values separate as much as possible. Same with knowledge and ignorance. Go figure.

So if I understand this, the advocates (creators) of PNS argue that a more human science is emerging, one which recognizes that there is no clear cut division between facts and values or knowledge and ignorance. It claims that this new science recognizes that nature is dynamic and complex, and thus is not easily analyzed using the typical tools of experimental science — lab science will not do to study the natural world, in other words.

So far, so good and by that I mean this is all pretty standard stuff when it comes to the critique of science.

Here’s one of the money quotes:

“The science appropriate to this new condition will be based on the assumptions of unpredictability, incomplete control, and a plurality of legitimate perspectives (366).”

Hmm. Unpredictability?  Incomplete control?  A plurality of legitimate perspectives?  Sounds to me like postmodernist critique. I’ll have more to say on that in a moment, but here’s more:

“This emerging science fosters a new methodology that helps to guide its development. In this, uncertainty is not banished but is managed, and values are not presupposed but are made explicit. The model for scientific argument is not a formalized deduction but an interactive dialogue (366).”

Egad. I can practically hear thousands of scientists who were part of founding the greatest advancement and method for producing knowledge in human history rolling in their graves at that.

Here’s yet more wisdom on this new science:

“It has hiterto been a well kept secret that scientific ‘facts’ can be of variable quality; and an informed awareness of this human face of science is a key to ints enrichment for future tasks.

What’s that you say?

A well-kept secret?  Not all facts are of equal quality?

‘Fact’ is usually taken to refer to something that is correct or is known to be so, so if they are really arguing that some facts are better than others, then the whole concept of “fact” has to be jettisoned.

Perhaps they mean that “evidence” is of variable quality — that I can accept.

But no, I think they really do mean ‘fact’ because they are contrasting it to “value”. Facts are supposed to be true and value free. So F&R are claiming that we can no longer be assured that facts are pure and free of value. This dichotomy of fact and value is just a mirage, created to obscure the reality that facts are created and are influenced or even imbued with value such that some of them are better than others.

I dunno. I’m not a philosopher but it seems to me that certain facts might be more or less relevant to a given issue, but to be of lesser quality?

Let’s move on past this second little puzzle since it seems that we are at an impasse.

Here they discuss science and policy:

“When science is applied to policy issues, it cannot provide certainty for policy recommendations, and the conflicting values in any decision process cannot be ignored even in the problem-solving work itself (366).”

When science is applied to policy issues?  What does this mean applied to policy issues?  Do they mean “used to inform policy issues?”

It cannot provide certainty for policy recommendations? Why? Do they mean scientific facts alone cannot determine policy recommendations?

You see, this is where I think the problem lies.

There appears to be a, well, innacurate model of the policy process in use here.

The clash between “facts” and “values” is a normal part of the policy process. Science produces facts. Humans have values. The two often conflict.  As in the ‘fact’ that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and the ‘value’ of a mobile society in which cars and trucks and planes and trains burn fossil fuels and thus emit CO2.

The conflicting values in any decision process cannot be ignored even in the problem-solving work itself?

What conflicting values?  The conflicting values of stakeholders? Of the party in power and the part of the electorate who did not vote for them?  The interest groups with different agendas?

This is all very imprecise.

Here’s what I’m really interested in:

“In this new sort of science, the evaluation of scientific inputs to decision making requires an ‘extended peer community‘. This extension of legitimacy to new participants in policy dialogues has important implications both for society and for science. With mutual respect among various perspectives and forms of knowing, there is a possibility for the development of genuine and effective democratic element in the life of science (367).” [my emphasis]

This is where I started scribbling “hogwash” in the margins.

What does it mean “respect among various perspectives and forms of knowing”? There should be only one form of ‘knowing’ or knowledge production in science — the scientific method. Sheesh. The whole purpose of the scientific method was to overcome non-scientific ‘ways of knowing’ that tended to include some kind of truncheon, whether it was religious or tradition or superstition. Knowledge and knowing produced through science proved to be amazingly productive — far beyond other ways of knowing in terms of allowing humans to become the dominant animal on the planet. Sure, there’s a downside to this in that we can also destroy ourselves and most of the planet if we wanted to, but the upside is sure worth it — at least in my opinion.

Science don’t need no stinkin ‘democracy’.

The ‘democracy’ — the people — need more science education so they can recognize when they’re being bamboozled by pseudoscientists and other charlatans preying on their ignorance of what science is and what it does.

Here’s more wisdom about this sort of science:

“Much of the success of traditional science lay in its power to abstract from uncertainty in knowledge and values; this is shown in the dominant teaching traditions in science, which created a universe of unquestionable facts, presented dogmatically for assimilation by uncritical students (367).”

Hmm. I had a science education at the college level, including courses on biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, mathematics, statistics, geology, astronomy. Yes, there was a language to learn in each discipline.  There were theories and there were concepts and there was evidence and facts. We had to learn them, but the experiments we did in lab were there to show where these facts came from so that we could understand the concepts and theories and learn the process. We were even expected, at the higher level, to come up with experiments on our own, using our imagination and the knowledge we had gained.

As to assimilating unquestioning facts, I mean, if we were to start questioning the letters of the alphabet, soon we’d not be able to communicate along longer.

The above description of science education contains a grain of truth, of course, as anyone who has had to memorize dozens of stereoisomers and steps in various metabolic pathways knows, but it sounds as if science students exist in some sort of 1984 Orwellian hell in which Big Science Brother shoves facts down their cowering throats, which they spew out during two minutes of hate.

Here’s more of F&R on the need for PNS:

“Now that the policy issues of risk and the environment present the most urgent problems for science, uncertainty and quality are moving in from the periphery, one might say the shadows, of scientific methodology, to become the central, integrating concepts. Hitherto they have been kept at the marins of the understanding of science, for laypersons and scientists alike. A new role for scientists will involve the management of these crucial uncertainties; therein lies the task of quality assurance of scientific information provided for policy decisions (369).” [my emphasis]

I suspect that a lot of scientists would protest the notion that uncertainty and quality have been kept in the shadows of scientific methodology. Uncertainty seems to be one of the foremost concepts in science. Heck, even one of the infamous ‘hockey stick’ papers had this as a title:

Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the past millennium: inferences, uncertainties, and limitations

As to quality assurance of science information provided for policy decisions, well, here is where I think the real issue comes to play. But more on that later.

Here is more:

“The triumph of the scientific method, deployment of the technically esoteric knowledge of its experts, has led to its domination over all other ways of knowing (368).”

Here are a few key words — “deployment”  “domination” — they are heavily laden words meant to imply that science is a system of power that deploys in the same way that a military deploys weapons. It is not merely successful, or dominant — it is involved in “domination” in the same way that a dictator might be in domination over a people or society; science is in domination over other ways of knowing and thus, one assumes, silences them the way a dictator might silence opposition.

This is the language of postmodernism, of Foucault and others who focus on power in modernity.

Scientists are therefore no longer objective puzzle solvers working within a tradition of science and using a method to arrive at scientific facts, but like troops deployed by a dictator in a war with non-scientific ways of knowing.  Clever language, no?

“Although formally democratic (since there are now no formal barriers to the training for that expertise), science is in fact a preserve of those who can engage in a prolonged and protected course of education, and thereby of the social groups to which they belong (368).”

So science is not democratic in a real sense, according to F&R. They are implying that only the privileged are able to engage in science due to the barriers to science education. For those unable to engage in this prolonged and protected course of education, F&R imply that they are not able to use science to pursue their ends — deploy science, in other words.

Again, there is a grain of truth in all this, but I don’t think that PNS is the solution.

Like it or not, until the entire world follows Sweden, getting a PhD in science requires not only a lot of smarts, but time and money. You can get there by sheer hard work, grades, scholarships, student loans, etc. Not everyone can do it. There are barriers. But I don’t really believe this idea that the science is less valid because of who does it. It might be that scientists pursue problems that interest them, and their interests might be class-specific or race-specific or gender-specific, but I am sure I’ve seen climate scientists of many different ethnicities, ages, genders studying climate and they all seem to be producing similar conclusions.

So you can see how this PNS approach sees science as a weapon or tool to be deployed or used to further agendas and values. The implication is that science must some how be democritized so that more people — people who are affected by policy decisions — have the opportunity to influence science.

Is that what they are arguing?  Is this what “extended peers” or “extended peer groups” means?

Here’s more:

“The technical expertise of qualified scientists and professionals in accepted spheres of work is not  being contested; what can be questioned is the quality of that work in these new contexts, especially in respect of its environmental, societal and ethical aspects 9383).”

So, PNS questions the quality of the science.

PNS is intended to provide quality assurance of science used in the environmental policy process.

“The epistemological analysis of post-normal science, rooted in the practical task of quality assurance, shows that such an extension of peer communities, with corresponding extension of facts, is necessary for the effectiveness of science in meeting the new challenges of global environmental problems (384).”


Quality assurance. Extension of peer communities. Extension of facts.  The effectiveness of science.

This is PoMo pseudosocialscience masquerading as some new era of science.

Finally, from F&R:

“This analysis is complementary to that of our previous articles on post-modernity. Both deal with the loss of hegemony of a single worldview based on a particular vision of science. the post-modern phenomenon is one of a deepening disillusion and consequent fragmentation at all levels including the ideological and the societal. One reaction, as among some leading exponents of postmodernism, is despair. Another reaction is to reassert ‘normality’; thus some leading scientists claim the solution of our ecological problems lies through funding their large programs of relevant basic research, in which uncertainty is never mentioned (384). “

F&R create a straw man of science in which no uncertainty is ever mentioned, where discussions of uncertainty are kept to the margins, and in the shadows.

I don’t know if this straw man even has legs on which to stand.  But that’s the problem with postmodern critiques of science. They’re largely hogwash — drivel written by people so far removed from the object of their analysis that they don’t know what the heck they’re talking about.

What they’re really saying without all the academic doublespeak is this:

Environmental problems, such as the effects of environmental toxins on ecosystems/humans, or the potential for damaging climate change, are complex issues. The science used to study these problems is very complex as a result, and its findings are incomplete and have different degrees of uncertainty attached to the evidence.

Despite these uncertainties, policy development must go ahead due to the development of the precautionary principle as a general principle governing public policy development. There must be some process in which to evaluate the risks associated with large complex environmental problems, despite uncertainties in the science. If the uncertainties are better articulated and understood, then the risks can be better determined. Thus, when policy actors, including interest groups and stakeholders as well as policy makers come together to decide on which course of action to take — if any — they will have sound evidence on which to base their decisions.

Enough with the gobbledegook.

There is nothing post- about science today. There is nothing unique about climate other than its complexity, but many things are complex. I’d suggest that cosmology is complex. Galaxies are complex. Heck, developmental biology is complex and I know, because I’ve been there, done that, got the credit. Complexity is not a problem for science. Uncertainty in science is not hidden, in the shadows or margins. It’s a basic principle. Even lil ol undergrads like Susann was once upon a time learn about it. Papers in peer-reviewed journals discuss it all the time.

Where is uncertainty hidden or downplayed — or overplayed for that matter?  In political debates over policy.

This is really all about the policy process and has very little to do with the science.

This whole PNS development harkens back to the policy wars that took place in the age of environmentalism, in which there was a battle between competing interests over the science in order to either support a particular policy direction or reject it. Clearly, there were advocates for the use of precautionary principle when it came to the safety of drinking water, or air quality, consumer products, or the environment. There were also those who rejected it and sought to argue against the science they presented as evidence.  Clearly also many of them succeeded in delaying policy action or once policies were developed, these interest groups sought to sway the resulting environmental legislation and regulations, either propping them up or watering them down. Also clearly, large corporations or their representations had a great deal of power in influencing policy directions — power lacking on the part of citizens, as individuals or as interest groups. This is, to me, the context in which PNS emerged. Its real target is the policy process, but science has become quite the favorite whipping boy of academe, especially amongst postmodernists. I am suspicious that this whole bashing of science is nothing more than the authors using the language of postmodernism to give their new approach the appropriate aroma of being current.

Climate change and the current war over AGW is an exemplar of this new era of outright war between citizens and public interest and industry over policy, and science has become a weapon on both sides.

It’s not a problem with science qua science, other than the attempt by vested interests to either deny or support the science.  Such was the case in the tobacco wars, in which policy actors “stakeholders” battled over what the science said, in which corporate interests tried to create doubt about the science and citizen groups or environmental groups reinforced or played up the certainty.  During this time, we see the rise of astroturf in which scientist shills were write to produce pseudoscience in order to bamboozle the public and either delay or prevent policy action.

In my preliminary estimation, this PNS approach is sort of science masquerading as some new science appropriate to a post-modern age.


We need sound science free from political interference and sound policy based on it and in which all interests get a say, nothing more and nothing less.

The rest of it is just a bunch of academics hoping to make the next increment in their tenure system.

That, of course, is just my opinion.

About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

12 Responses to “Post-Normal Science or [Pseudo] Sort of Science?”

  1. Yep.

    To denialists, this post-normal stuff is just another useful source of nonsense. The more the better, anything to dilute insight.

  2. I’ve been playing in this sandpit for a while and have just spent the past 8 weeks digging holes too deep to see out of. (Finished a draft of a paper on the philosophy of science, risk and climate change yesterday). Saw this post a couple of days ago and of course was interested in the topic and your opinion.

    One of the spin-offs was I decided (after being agnostic for a few years) that F&R’s post-normal science is totally unnecessary.

    Given the problems science is having with pseudo-skepticism (uncritical disbelief masquerading as hard-nosed fact checking), the last thing it needs is to dance off into PoMo relativism.

    It’s hard to believe that these jokers thought they were taking the mantle over from Kuhn, who had much useful to say about sociological paradigms in science. But never considered that it lose it’s efforts to be as objective as possible. My view is that taking the Methodological Science Research Program of Lakatos, which integrated and modified the views of Popper and Kuhn is the way to go. It needs to be updated with some later thinking and driven around the block a few times, but is very suited to climate science, and would beef it up considerably, allowing a platform from which to identify and attack pseudoscience.

  3. “This post is just for my own amusement.”

    You might have written it that way, but I stumbled across your postnormal post and found it quite helpful. Thanks for taking the time to illuminate this murky topic.

  4. Susann, Eli is on your wavelength 😉

  5. I believe you’ve misunderstood how the bulk of the skeptics at Watt’s Up With That view Ravetz. Dr. Ravetz’ articles were accepted at WUWT as part of that blogs’ policy of accepting articles from prominent scientists with opposing views (something the leading alarmist sites don’t do). Ravetz is a pro-AGW alarmist. To the skeptics he is the opposition.

    If you read the many responses from readers to Ravetz’ articles they are almost universally in sharp disagreement with him and for many of the same reasons you seem opposed to PNS. One of the ‘inclusive values and contexts’ most often cited around PNS is the precautionary principle. In this way PNS is used as by climate alarmists as justification for prematurely adopting policies with staggering economic and societal costs despite the scientific evidence still having high degrees of uncertainty.

    The skeptics see PNS being used to gloss over the scientific uncertainties of the catastrophic forms of the AGW hypothesis and thus reducing the rigor of science. I suggest that you read some of the responses to Ravetz’ articles. You’ll find many of the serious skeptics are from the ‘hard sciences’ (physics & earth sciences) and simply despise the post-modern attempts to contaminate science with social and political values.

    • I am not saying this in defence of the author of this blog; with your remarks of contaminating science with social and political values, by the way why are doing research? just to hang on our neck? put in a shelves? because in my I am doing research find the solution why are we now state of ecological system collapse, I personally agree that actually normal science is considered part of the global problems on society, Meaning the end-user of our research are the society, therefore we need to get involved the society which is inclusive of social and political. It better to contaminate the science as you say but offer some kind of solution to the global problems than uncontaminated but away from being part of the solution of the problem: Go for PNS.

  6. hard rock scientists, mind your tongue,because,ut desint vires, tamen est laudandum voluntas, scientific results as presented in science journals (e.g. on irrigation and hydrology, animal diseases and breeding, feed conversion and physiology , to mention but a few I am familiar with) need proper translations for the knowledgable citizens and quantification of the collateral damage involved, otherwise the political discussions and procedures to prepare for action remain clumsy and inefficient.

  7. another consideration on this subject:hard, pure and genuine, valuefree science as known to us these days developed only as late as in the 18th century, mainly throug the science philosophy of Descartes, Kant and La Place.Before, scientific reasoning was more aften than not mixed up with all kinds of religious,ethical or moralistic preachings, even Newton was not free from it. But subsequent science, even the best -normal- one, such as e.g. from Liebig, was often far from valuefree, Liebig (and Mayumi in our days) could fiercely attack unsustainable husbandry practices and wasteful behaviour, so his science was not only puzzle driven, but also mission driven, as meant by funtowicz and ravetz. rachel carson used another mission propelling again, that of the romantic apocalypse in prose for a broad audience, it worked very well .

  8. diet is one often asked by people looking to adopt more ancestral eating patterns.
    diet- What is it? I found the basketball on clearance at a big-box store for around
    $7 and the rest of my life. Head over to our agenda page for the day’s full rundown, and jump past the break for a video demo of this cringe-inducing, gesture-controlled cacaphony.

  9. It is wherein couples agree to have extramarital sexual I Want To Get Him
    Back simultaneous without being accused of infidelity.
    Run a personality-revealing question by him. Think of someone in your life.
    When we don’t think, we are strong. After a painful break-up at 28, I spent most of my 30s single. My advice would be to be stingy with upfront payments. These changes point to a subtle but important shift in the i want to get him back balance of power between government and public bodies.

  10. GO FOR PNS: To provide some kind of solution to the problems brought by pure science.


  1. Open Thread #2 « The Policy Lass - October 30, 2010

    […] peers” is hubris! You already know my view of Post-Normal Science —  I call it “Pseudo-Sort of Science… and apologies to Willard, but I don’t much truck nor trade with the post-normal post-modern […]

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