I’ve been thinking about the Lisbon Postnormal Workshop on Reconciliation, which you can read about at Rabett, Climate Progress, Tamino and Deep Climate. What is the whole PNS project? It claims to be about providing a new “science” for post-normal times — one that includes an extended peer community and extended “facts”.
PNS claims that a new science is needed because, as opposed to a previous period of normal times when normal science “held sway”, we are now in post-normal times when “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high” (Ravetz 1990). What exactly makes this period post-normal? There has been some kind of rip in the old division between facts, values and politics such that they’ve leaked into each other. This means the old assumptions about scientific objectivity are no longer valid. Whereas once we [naively] believed that science was about fact and politics was about value, today there is no clear distinction.
Hence a need for a new science. A science where “extended peer communities” provide extended “facts”…
What would this new science look like?
In an article “Extended peer communities and the ascendance of post-normal politics”, Stephen Healy (1999) quotes Bruno Latour, professor of Science and Technology Studies:
“…we continue to believe in the sciences, but instead of taking in their objectivity, their truth, their coldness, their extraterritoriality … we retain what has always been most interesting about them: their daring, their experimentation, their uncertainty, their warmth, their incongruous blend of hybrids, their crazy ability to reconstitute the social bond. We take away from them only the mystery of their birth and the danger their clandestineness posed to democracy”
I can’t tell you how relieved I am to know that Latour and his crew “continue to believe in the sciences”!
But — not so fast… What’s this “danger their clandestineness posed to democracy” stuff?
Apparently this “belief” does not equal “trust”.
“the taken-for-granted trust in ‘normal’ science is no longer assured, necessitating the cultivation of trust by other means. It is argued that extended peer communities provide a focus for the ascendent politics of the post-normal realm, in resonance with recently articulated insights into broader social theory.”
I don’t know about you, but isn’t this PNS stuff just the biggest bunch of postmodern gobbledegook you’ve ever read?
As my gran once said, Bullshit Baffles Brains…
One can see immediately why, despite the rather opaque language, some among the skeptical / contrarian crowd like PNS. It speaks of science in negative terms, suggesting that it has lost the objectivity it once might have had (or never had to start, it all being a big modernist illusion) and can no longer be trusted. Isn’t that a familiar refrain from the denialist crowd? PNS seems tailor-made for them.
Here’s more from Healy:
“Post-normal science was conceptualized as a means of confronting increasingly prevalent post-normal situations in which conventional distinctions between the sphere of facts, values and politics no longer hold sway and which without urgent remedy threaten calamitous outcomes…”
“Central to the efficacy of post-normal science is the notion that “an extension of peer communities, with the corresponding extension of facts, is necessary or the effectiveness of science in meeting the new challenges of global environmental problems”.
Hold it a minute! Extension of peer communities — to include whom? Peers of whom and over what? Extension of facts? Do these extended peers have their own facts? How does one determine what a fact is and establish its validity?
I guess that when you no longer trust science, one person’s “facts” are as good as the next person’s.
Extended peer communities not only extend the traditional quality assurance role of conventional peer communities to all legitimate stakeholders and enable their participation in related policy debates but also “positively enrich[es] the process of scientific investigation by enabling the use of ‘extended facts’ involving local and anecdotal knowledge.” (Healy p. 656)
Quality assurance — where have I read that before???
So now we learn who comprises the extended peer community — all relevant stakeholders. They have “extended facts” that involve local and anecdotal knowledge. But but but… you mean non-scientists can put their facts forward on the same footing as scientific facts? Who judges which facts — scientific and non-scientific — are more valid and more relevant to the issue at hand? A vote of hands? Who decides who the legitimate stakeholders are?
This feels all very muddled and unclear, indeterminate.
“By embracing uncertainty rather than futilely attempting to banish it, an arena is revealed in which the limitations and weaknesses of both scientific and lay knowledge may be opened up and examined side by side, so facilitating a dialogue that can be use to effect their reconciliation.”
Here’s the familiar refrain we have come to know from Judith Curry and the PNS crowd — embrace uncertainty. You can’t banish it either by more research or by denying it. The solution is to put scientific and lay knowledge side by side and reconcile them through dialogue.
This seems to be what Curry is attempting — and what the Lisbon conference had as its goal. Reconcilation between the lay knowledge of the skeptics / contrarians / deniers and the scientific knowledge of the climate scientists. They wanted Gavin to come and debate with skeptics over the issues of “ice” and “climate sensitivity” and the Medieval Warm Period, but not to talk about policy. No.
We have been trying to find a way to begin to overcome the polarisation on this issue, which as you know has already done great damage to the cause of coping with climate change, as well as to the reputation of science itself. At this stage we are planning to have a workshop where the main scientific issues can be discussed, so that some clarity on points of agreement and disagreement might be reached. We would try to stay off the policy issues, and will also exclude personal arguments.[my emphasis]
Gavin didn’t see that these were the real issues facing climate science. Rather, he saw that there was a need to discuss what is to be done, not what the climate was 1,000 years ago.
The fundamental conflict is of what (if anything) we should do about greenhouse gas emissions (and other assorted pollutants), not what the weather was like 1000 years ago. Your proposed restriction against policy discussion removes the whole point. None of the seemingly important ‘conflicts’ that are *perceived* in the science are ‘conflicts’ in any real sense within the scientific community, rather they are proxy arguments for political positions. No ‘conflict resolution’ is possible between the science community who are focussed on increasing understanding, and people who are picking through the scientific evidence for cherries they can pick to support a pre-defined policy position.
A kerfuffle ensues wherein Fred Pearce wrote up an article in the New Scientist “Short Sharp Science” falsely claiming that Gavin refused to participate because “the science is settled”.
“…leaders of mainstream climate science turned down the gig, including NASA’s Gavin Schmidt, who said the science was settled so there was nothing to discuss.”
You can read about the entire sorry episode at Rabett, Climate Progress and DC.
Back to PNS’s framing of the problem facing climate science:
“Traditional scientific peer communities evaluate core and applied science by established, although implicit, criteria that centre on notions of detachment, objectivity, originality and repeatability. [thank the gods] Fundamental to their operation, and to the practice of science and Western conceptions of rationality more generally, is a posited distinction between notions of objectivity and subjectivity that derives from the western scientific tradition. This postulated difference, while key to the instrumental power of core and applied science becomes an impediment once we enter the post-normal realm in which clear distinctions between fact and value cannot be upheld and knowledge is ‘soft’ and irredeemably indeterminate.” [my snark and emphasis]
This is postmodernism’s claim: there is no objectivity because there is no subject. The whole subject/object dichotomy is a creation of Modernity. A myth that has been perpetuated by science in order to appear to be creating objective knowledge. Objectivity requires a clear break between subject and object, and if there is no subject, well…no object! No objectivity! It’s all a postulation and a posit. Likewise, there is no fact separate from value. Hence all “facts” whether scientific or lay, are to be considered on the same level. Relative. Value-laden. Judged on equal footing, with no preference for science.
Let me see if I can condense all this down:
One upon a time, we believed in objectivity and science. We believed that we could separate fact from value, science from politics. Now, due to, what — the veil being lifted? The fall of the Berlin Wall? we live in post-normal times which require post-normal science, including extended peer communities and extended facts.
I don’t buy it.
‘Postnormal science’ is infected with the virus of postmodernism and its anti-science and anti-enlightenment nihilism. As a consequence, those who created and promoted PNS have done so with the postmodern orientation to science and objectivity, politics and values. PNS, because it is informed by this anti-Enlightenment ethos, can’t help but get the whole problem wrong as a result.
While it is important to understand how culture influences the larger directions of science and research, and while it is not possible to completely and perfectly separate human subjectivity from science, to follow the postmodern route is to fall into absurdity and cynicism. And frankly, if we were to follow PNS, we’d just spin our wheels even more than we have already done because it gets the main problem ass-backwards!
Here’s my diagnosis:
Politicians and corporate interests have used the normal uncertainty in science to question and raise doubt about the scientific consensus view on policy problems relating to the environment, public health and climate. They did so in order to push their own political and economic agendas, including preventing or delaying government regulation of their industry or products. The tobacco wars, wars over lead, benzene, CFCs and other pollutants and now the war over climate science are exemplars.
This is not because of some break with normal times or some collapse of normal science and its postulates about objectivity, but because of the corruption of politics and the undue influence of the corporation in the policy process!
These policy actors politicized the science, using uncertainties in the science to undermine the scientific consensus and smear scientists. They hired shill-scientists and PR firms to raise unfounded doubt about the science, overblew uncertainty, and used that doubt to sway politicians and the public and hinder policy development.
For most of the time preceding the modern environmental movement, this was Business As Usual. But the environmentalists challenged this, claiming that the science used to determine policy was bogus or incomplete. They argued that corporate interests had too much power in the policy process and demanded a seat at the table. Since then, the war has been waged between corporations and other interest groups over the direction of public policy.
This is not a problem in science but politics. It does not require a new science or a new peer review system or new peer communities. It needs a new politics in which corporate power is prevented from politicizing science.
How’s that work for you?
The bottom line is this: science must try to be as objective as possible in the pursuit of knowledge. That’s why the scientific method and scientific peer review exists — to minimize the influence of personal values on the science and to also minimize error and bias. It’s not perfect but frankly, it has been pretty damn successful over the past couple of hundred years. We wouldn’t have made it to the moon, or to the edge of the solar system or have created CERN to the smash the atom and discover the secrets of the universe if it hadn’t been good at this.
The problem is that governments have not done their jobs ensuring that science is protected from political and economic interference. Politicians and the policy process have been unduly influenced by corporate power and lobbyists.
Influenced by postmodernism’s antirationality and anti-science ethos, the PNS group has been unable to correctly diagnose the problem It imagines that the problem lies in science itself rather than in modern politics, mistakenly creating the “uncertainty monster” to star as its very own scientific bogeyman. PNS has become, not the defender of public interest as it supposes, but corporate power’s defacto lackey because it — unwittingly? — feeds into this manufactured distrust of science and denial of the adequacy of peer review.
What does PNS look like in action?
Here’s an exchange that, I’m afraid, does not bode well for the utility of PNS to policy, especially in something as important as climate policy.
In the post at Climate etc. on Slaying a greenhouse dragon Parts I, II and III, Judith Curry appears to try to put PNS into action. She presents the book to the public and offers to have her readers interact with the authors and see if they can come to some understanding through [non-violent] dialogue.
Put nicely, the three threads are a trainwreck of PNS anti-science postmodern crankery.
In the third post on the subject, Curry seems to finally see the light, and ends up defending the normal scientific publishing and peer review system:
I am hoping that Johnson learns from this that if he wants his scientific arguments to be taken seriously, that publishing them in a politically motivated book does not help his credibility and does not motivate people to take his arguments seriously.
I am hoping that Ken Coffman is learning that some discrimination and quality control might be needed in the writings that he publishes if his publishing house is to have any continuing credibility regarding science books. I am hoping that John O’Sullivan will find better scientific horses to back in his quest to debunk AGW (or better yet, just fight the policies he doesn’t like and stay out of the science).
YAY! Fight the policies and stay out of the science! But that’s not what PNS wants. It wants to change the science, to let in a new group of “peers” and their “facts”. Judith still doesn’t get it!
What does our “extended peer community” have to say in response to Judith’s defence of the old guard of peer reviewed science?
I don’t think it’s necessary to dismiss an argument becuase of where it appears. Even if Johnson spray-painted his equations on a highway underpass there’s no reason not take a solid look at them. But you have to argue in good faith, and I don’t think we got that from Claes.
IOW, so what if it doesn’t exist in the peer reviewed literature? We should still give it due consideration. This must be the extended facts to which PNS refers…
The problem with a spray-painted equation on the underpass is this: while a scientist might see it during the commute to work and scribble it down on the back of a napkin, and then discover if it has any merit back in the office using his or her scientific expertise, us non-scientists can’t. Peer review provides the rest of society with a modicum of trust that the science has been vetted by the experts. There is no other systematic and trustworthy method. Hence, new astounding discoveries overturning a century of established science must be subjected to peer review or else linger in obscurity…
Speaking of overturning the consensus science on CO2, the claim of the book is just that:
Johnson’s unique approach to unravel the mess climatologist had spun from the various laws succeeded and such that genuine flaws in the foundations of the greenhouse gas hypothesis have been exposed and will never be so glibly glossed over again. Truly, the GHE is not the driver of climate that politicized post normal ‘scientists’ claim it to be.
Even Curry is having none of it:
John, your assessment is beyond belief. Johnson’s “theory” that there is no back radiation is falsified by mountains of measurements made by infrared radiometers pointing skywards (measurements that school children can make). Further, Johnson’s mathematics were shown to be seriously in error by Tomas Milanovic and Dave N. In science, either one of these two would be the kiss of death; re CJ’s theory, the combination of both is a death knell. CJ’s failure to have any of this sink in leads me to believe that he does not know anything about the scientific method. His insistence on not even responding to these criticisms leads people to regard him as a crank/crackpot. Based on Part II, he can probably get this published in E&E, but certainly not in any scientific journal of any repute or credibility.
I don’t claim to understand much of what this Claes person is claiming about climate science, but it seems to me that Rob B nails it:
When I heard that you had agreed to host a discussion on this book I made the remark that it sounded like the publishers/authors were using it as cheap advertizing. The following nonsense merely confirms my suspicions:
John Sullivan: “The authors of ‘Slaying the Sky Dragon’ are delighted that on a blog less likely to be favorable to our position, so little if anything was shown to be demonstrably wrong with Johnson’s analysis.”
I wouldn’t be surprised to see a reference to your blog in the book’s future promotional material. I think you might have been conned as to their intentions.
self- or vanity published indie publisher book written by cranks people with questionable scientific credentials given wide exposure to the lay climate science community — what was she thinking?
Here’s more from John O’Sullivan, the “coordinator of the writing” of “Slaying the Sky Dragon”:
Frankly, the evasion by you of any such discussion suggests to me that you know Johnson is right and there is no greenhouse effect causing extra warming to our climate by so-called “back radiation.” Johnson exposes the error whereby the GHE employs a radiative model working with averaged values where emission properties to and from gases dominates yet physical processes cannot react to average values, ever.
Moreover, that there is not a shred of empirical evidence to support your beliefs, despite $100 billion and 25 years spent by climatologists to prove the alleged additional warming effects of such feedback, further discredits your unproven hypothesis. QED on the QED!
Here is the bankruptcy of PNS exposed. It fails to grasp the real problem facing climate science and climate change policy and thus ends up diverting attention from the main issues. PNS does not offer us an acceptable alternative to the existing peer review system. Put simply, the average layperson or even the average policy stakeholder does not have the scientific chops to get the science right. Curry’s whole blog is a testament to that fact. It’s filled with cranks, crackpots and nutters with their own theories and agendas and a lot of Joe and Jane Public who can’t tell the difference between a crackpot and a real scientist.
Curry finally gives up. Even Moncton is not impressed.
Maybe she’ll think twice about PNS’s extended peer community and extended facts after having to deal with crackpots…
In conclusion, it’s not the uncertainties in the science that is the problem. The problem is the lack of political will on the part of politicians and an attempt by some stakeholders to prevent action. Why is there a lack of political will? Because climate change is a very complex problem and demands very complex solutions. There is little appetite for the solutions at this point.
Climate change is global in nature, but local in impacts. It will require international cooperation to develop treaties on mitigation but also national programs of adaptation. There is no immediate substitute for fossil fuels, and so there is a need for investments in new technologies. The developed world has caused most of the problem but the developing world’s suffering will be incommensurate with their contribution.
The problem is not one of “uncertainty” in the science, but “complexity” in the politics and economics.
This complexity and lack of political will is made worse by a very vocal and devious denialist movement made up of those who want to delay action so they can continue to benefit from burning fossil fuels and/or by those who want to remain faithful to their ideologies.
This is why, in my opinion, this conference was doomed from the start. These academic policy types have a remedy to sell us but they haven’t even identified the proper disease! Until they do, they are irrelevant at best and a hindrance at worst. If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.