Summary

The concept of Post-Normal Science (PNS) applies well to climate science and epidemiology. Science becomes post-normal when society urges clear and speedy answers in a politically and culturally charged social environment. The political utility of scientific assertions becomes more important than scientific methodology.


Post-normal conditions make communication between science and society different from that of "normal” sciences. A tendency emerges that it is no longer the scientific rigor and methodology (as covered by e.g., Merton's CUDOS norms) which makes scientific results “good”, but its consistency with a-priori cultural constructions and political preferences.

According to Silvio Funtowicz: "What matters in PNS conditions is not truth or rigour but fitness for function or purpose socially determined."


The social process of doing science also changes. Some scientific actors become social actors. Media presence and political influence become assets for scientific recognition, careers and relevance. Also, the definition of research programs and the competition of ideas is affected.


The "post-normal science" concept ws introduced by Jerry Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz in the 1980s, and was found to fit well to the state of climate science by Brav and von Storch in 1999.

Funtowicz, S.O. and J.R. Ravetz, 1985: Three types of risk assessment: a methodological analysis. In C. Whipple and V.T. Covello (eds): Risk Analysis in the Private Sector, New York, Plenum, 217-231

Bray, D. and H. von Storch, 1999: Climate Science. An empirical example of postnormal science. Bull. Amer. Met. Soc. 80: 439-456

"Good science"

The purpose of science is to allow individuals and society to make sense of a complex natural and social world. Science is improving "quality of life", because it enables a promising confrontation of challenges. "Good" science repells also  knowlegde claims made by interested parties for lending support to certain political or economic goals and strategies.


In environmenal sciences, in particular, some scientists act as stealth advocates for such positions of social interests, exploiting their purported objectivity as scientists. Merton's CUDOS norms are a measure to limit such false labelling - it requests natural fundamental scientists to accept that scientific knowledge is nobody's property; that properties such as race, gender, age, nationality and language of the creator of such knowledge are irrelevant; that such science is not done for furthering a hidden political agenda, and that all knowledge is permanently subject to open and critical review by the scientific community.


CUDOS norms are certainly not strictly followed by scientists, but their general validity is recognized among cimate scientists.


Given this framework of "good science", science cannot detemine optimal policies. Indeed, "good scientists" know their usually very limited field very deeply - are, as a German word summarizes well: "Fachidioten". If some claim having deep knowledge covering a very broad politically relevant field, they are likely not scientists.

Merton, R. K., 1973: The Normative Structure of Science, in N.W. Storer (ed.), The Sociology of Science (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press): 267-273
Pielke, Jr., R.A., 2007: The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Cambridge University Press.
Bray, D., and H. von Storch, 2017: The Normative Orientations of Climate Scientists. Science and Engineering Ethics 23:1351–1367 DOI 10.1007/s11948-014-9605-1

Climate science in post-normal conditions

There are four criteria which allow to  categorize a science as being in a post-normal (PNS) phase

  1. A number of significant scientific questions are associated with considerable and persistent uncertainty.
  2. Political decision are considered urgent,
  3. Societal stakes are high
  4. Cultural values are affected by the possible different decisions

 

These criteria a clearly fulfilled in case of climate change science:

1) There is uncertainty, for instance the equilibrium warming related to a doubling of CO2 concentrations - estimates of this characteristic number vary still between 2 and 4 degree. Since additional empirical evidence accumulates only slowly, this range will only be slowly narrowed.

2) To limit future warming and other climate change, emissions must be reduced as quickly as possible for being effective.

3) The decisions include a restructuring of the energy supply and efforts to improve the resillienice of societies and ecoystems. Both are very expensive actions

4) Remodelling the eocnomic system to make it carbon free may be understood as preparing a "good" world for the next generations, while waiting to act may be understood as leaving the choices of what a good world constitutes to future generations.

 

PNS foreast: The utility of the science, for either achieving the Paris goal, or an alternative goal of postponing costly economic structuring, is gettng more attention than the solidity of the science. Science is getting de-scientized, policymaking de-politisized ("there is no alternative"), and fails to use societal negotiations for balancing different interests and for reaching for societal acceptance.

Many young scientists consider "motivating the public for action" as the main task of climate science. - as a series of small-sample surveys shows at a number of European academic institutions, some of which dedicated to climate science:

 

von Storch, H., 2020: Surveying opinions among environmental students on climate science and Baltic Sea issues. Extended abstract, 3rd Baltic Earth Conference, 190-191

Post-normal science:
history and open questions

Postnormality, even though named and postulated only in the 1980s, is not a new phenomenon. Also in the past sciences found themselves in such conditions. Genetics seems to have repeatedly been a prime example, with the phases of eugenics, of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union and of GMO food today,. Other examples refer to nuclear power generation, the fight over smoking, but also various virus diseases in the late 20th century (mad cow disease, for instance)

An open question concerns the circumstances, which favour a field to become post-normal, and how it may find its way back to "normal conditions". A suggestion is that the presence of "folk science " may be favourable.

Conditional upon national conditions, the intensity of postnormailty may vary in different countries.

Ravetz, J., 1994: Economics as an Elite Folk Science: The Suppression of Uncertainty. Journal of Post Keynesian Economics 17, 165-184 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4538434

Lindzen, R.S., 1996: Science and politics. Global Warming and eugenics. In R.W. Hahn (Ed.): Risks, costs and lives saved. Oxford University Press, 85-103

What do do?


To maintain the main societal service of science, namely to allow understanding of complex phenomena, scientists should provide possibilities to society, how to respond to challenging situations (such as anthropogenic climate change). Scientific arguments may disqualify some options as impossible, but cannot select a "best", simply because science canot oversee the full social and natural complex implications. Thus, policymaking, involving a variety of stakeholders ("extended peer-review"), is the final decider to chose from  possible options. When science and policymaking respect their own limitations and dynamics, the process will be constructive.

When finding oneself and one's field in  post-.normal conditions, scientists should invest in accepting that they are social actors, and not “providers of truth”, abstain from concepts as “knowledge speaks to power” or “empty vessel”. They should understand how they themselves are conditioned by cultural constructions, and that communication with the public and policy makers takes place in a societal arena of conflicting knowledge claims and interests.

von Storch, H. und W. Krauss, 2013: Die Klimafalle. Die gefährliche Nähe von Politik und Klimaforschung, Hanser Verlag, ca. 250 pp

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