During the last few weeks there have been a number of attempt by AGW Alarmists to reach out to the sceptics. These included two guest posts on Watts Up With That. The most recent, by Judith Curry, discussed how trust in climate research might be rebuilt. Willis Eschenbach’s scathing response – included a wish that the trust in the pseudo-science of climate change is never rebuilt – pulled a chorus of approving comment. The other attempt was by a less well known figure in the climate change debate, the philosopher of science, Jerry Ravetz. It turns out – and I was not the only one surprised not to know this – that Ravetz has been working in the background of this controversy since the mid 1980s. His intervention also drew heavy criticism from Eschenbach, and also from an anonymous blogger known as ‘ScientistForTruth.’
These were indeed two brave essays into this highly charged sceptical domain deserving the interest they received. But it is Ravetz’s intervention that is of particular interest to us here because he is primarily concerned with epistemology and scientific methodology. In fact, Ravetz believes that the conditions of knowledge in environmental sciences are so new and extraordinary that they require a new methodology. Since 1986 (earlier?) he has been advocating this new methodology for environmental science – and most particularly for the science of climate change.
The new condition of practice prevailing in climate change science is not, as you might have guess, the post-modern condition that Jean-Francois Lyotard, famously describes in his essay of that name (translated in 1984). Rather it is the post-normal condition. And because climate change science is in a post-normal condition, normal science practice will fail. Thus, it is incumbent on scientists to abandon normal scientific practices and turn to this new way of doing science. Radical stuff! But was anyone listening?
Well apparently some were. A number of the prominent advocates of AGW, including Stephen Schneider, Hans von Storch and Mike Hulme refer to Ravetz approvingly. Von Storch and Hulme recognise climate science to be in this post-normal condition, and, in different ways, they support his call for a methodological revolution (watch this blog for more on their interpretations of PNS).
Now, it has always been my view that down through the history of science the various popular philosophies of science have rarely affected a direct and intended influence on the practice of science – they remain little more than a sideshow to the course and nature of its advance. Newtonian science may have been marketed on the continent as the marvellous product of Lockean doctrine of no-innate-ideas and all-we-know-arrises-from-the-senses. But in practice Newton’s mathematical investigations were another story. One exception to this rule is the German philosopher and physicist, Ernst Mach – with his strict alignment of knowledge with experience he seems to have influence the heated debates of a century ago in theoretical sub-atomic physics – and maybe you could make an argument for Karl Popper with his (new?) method of falsification. But here with Ravetz we may have another exception. Well, that is, if the blogger ‘ScientistForTruth’ (SFT) is right about his impact on the most controversial science of our day.
In a posting prior to Climategate (Climate Change and the Death of Science) and in the WUWT controversy, SFT argues that the methodological recommendations of Ravetz (and his colaborator Silvio Funtowicz) has influence climate change scientists so as to legitimate the corruption of normal scientific practices by political practices and outright activism. PNS promotes just the sort of corruption of normal scientific practices that are now under investigation at the University of East Anglia and at the United Nations.
For Ravetz, science in the post-normal condition is no longer about establishing truth, as this is impossible due to ‘irreducible uncertainties.’ In the post-normal condition these ‘high level uncertainties‘ sometimes approach ‘shear ignorance.‘ And yet, in this new method, positive claims can still be made. The quality of this science can be assured by involving what he calls ‘the extended peer community‘, which includes all stakeholders and interest groups. And the involvement of this community in the science is not limited to the normal-science process of peer review. They participate in the very problem-solving strategies of the science, and in the scientific decision-making. This ‘democratisation of science‘ is also a politicisation such that political interactions are used to generate the knowledge and to develop the decisive conclusions upon which government policy can subsequently be based.
Some of the dangers that our blogger SFT sees in this methodology are that it could easily be interpreted as encouraging or legitimizing such corruptions as: science practiced as activism; activist groups (such as Greenpeace and WWF) injecting advocacy into the scientific process; and the use of unscientific sources to establish scientific conclusions. Here is how Funtowicz and Ravetz, themselves, explain it in one of their landmark publication, Science for the post-normal age (1993):
The extension of the peer community is then not merely an ethical or political act; it can positively enrich the processes of scientific investigation…Those whose lives and livelihood depend on the solution of the problems will have a keen awareness of how the general principles are realized in their ‘back yards’. They will also have ‘extended facts’, including anecdotes, informal surveys, and official information published by unofficial means. It may be argued that they lack theoretical knowledge and are biased by self-interest; but it can equally well be argued that the experts lack practical knowledge and have their own unselfconscious forms of bias.
Note that this is not an argument for scientists to consult widely among locals or interest groups, it is not merely encouraging them to seek out informal sources of information. Rather, it is an argument for involving these non-scientists – using their informal knowledge as they choose – in a process of science that is political in nature:
Within such extended peer communities there will be the usual tensions between those with special-interest demands, and the outside activists with a more far-reaching agenda, along with the inevitable divisions along lines of class, ethnicity, gender and formal education. However, all such confusion is inevitable, and indeed healthy, in an embryonic movement which is fostering the transition to a new era for science.
Judging from the responses to SFT comments at Ravetz’s WUWT post (and also to his much earlier blog-post on PNS), I guess I am not the only one who would like to investigate PNS further so as to verify the nature and extent of this influence on climate changed science. I will thus present some results of my preliminary investigations through a series of posts on this blog in the hope that, with the collaboration of others, we might over time sharpen the analysis and gain a clearer picture of what has been going on.
I will not be giving a general introduction to PNS here, but I encourage those who are unfamiliar with it to please explore some of the introductions to PNS that are already linked from here and others easily found around the web. You could start with the wikipedia article or some of the PNS research papers on open access, for example this one or this one.
What I would like to do first is start with their definition of a science in a post-normal condition, and then relate various aspects of this definition to the historical situation of this theory while at the same time finding its affinities with, and influences on, the practices of climate change science.
Here is the definition:
A science is in the post-normal condition when the facts are uncertain, values in
dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.
I intend to discuss these 3 aspects:
- science as activism
- making claims based on uncertainty or ignorance
- the assessment of high stakes and urgency.