Monday, 30 April 2012

'Post-normal' Science, Popper and a Planet under Pressure. A guest post by Mathis Hampel

Our colleague Mathis Hampel has contributed this post in which he uses the recent Planet under Pressure 'Declaration' to bring the notion of 'post-normal science' into conversation with Karl Popper and his idea of falsification...

Planet Under Pressure (PuP) 2012, the 'major international conference focusing on solutions to the global sustainability challenge' leaves many questionmarks (see this Merton Stone post by Maud Borie), one of which concerns the never-tiring question of the role of science in decision-making. Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz (1993) described the situation which PuP's 'First State of the Planet Declaration'  (unwittingly?) refers to as 'post-normal' – 'facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent'.

'Post-normal' science (PNS) originates from knowledge societies' demand to synthesise the results of various scientific disciplines to address pressing problems of post-industrial societies. For example, Thomas Kuhn's (1962) description of 'normal' science as a problem-solving exercise does not do justice to fields of environmental sciences which deal with complex systems and associated irreducible uncertainty. Simple puzzle-solving exercises create rather than reduce uncertainty. Funtowicz and Ravetz thus lament that “the approach used by normal science to manage complex social and biophysical systems as if they were simple scientific exercises has brought us to our present mixture of intellectual triumph and socio-ecological peril” (Funtowicz & Ravetz 2003).

“Complex social systems” points to the problem of science's legitimacy as one of independent review: research's most diverse social settings, its culture of openness after the IT revolution, its hardly comprehensible divisions of labour, its funding by profit-seekers, its use by political-activist pressure groups, i.e., its 'issue driven'-nature begs the question of how to remain neutral, hence authoritative in a policy context. Where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent the problems of quality assurance of scientific information are particularly acute, and their resolution requires new conceptions of scientific methodology” (Funtowicz & Ravetz 1993), that is, an ‘extended peer community’ “consisting not merely of persons with some form or other of institutional accreditation, but rather of all those with a desire to participate in the resolution of the issue” (Funtowicz & Ravetz 2003). In this 'post-normal' context 'extended peer communities' which assess the quality of policy proposals including a scientific element shall deal with the problem of legitimacy. PNS' ‘what-about/what-if?’ questions become a matter of  “negotiation in good faith” (Ravetz 2006): Pressing environmental issues are deliberated in consensus conferences, focus groups and citizen juries which are popular turn-of-millenium practices to which Funtowicz and Ravetz provide the theory of PNS.

Funtowicz and Ravetz conceive of PNS as theory, which, if scientific, must be falsifiable. Since Kuhn's theory of 'normal' science and dominant post-war US ideology are like chalk and cheese – his theory could legitimise science-based policies – it can be falsified, that is, it can be appreciated in a historical context. (Ironically, Popper did not agree with Kuhn's theory of 'normal' science.) PNS, on the other hand, is purposefully conceived in and for turn-of-millennium risk societies in which uncertainties dominate the educated public's discourse and search for authority on matters climate change, for instance. Scientific ways of knowing the world come face to face with 'indigenous' or 'local' knowledges, for example, experts' risk quantification meets lay people's often equally skilful qualitative assessments. Rather than providing 'sound' science for policies, scientists authoritatively frame problems by asking some and not other questions. Inquiry into areas where ‘facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent' thus requires a discourse of ‘dialogue’ instead of simple ‘demonstration’. It demands a methodology in which participants bring their own knowledges and their own commitments to the table (Funtowicz and Ravetz 2003). In 'negotiation in good faith' uncertainties, values and visions of the future are deliberated on, though not always to the likings of scientists! (see Irwin 2006 on the 'GMNation?' process for example)

Source: Huffington Post
Today “the salient policy questions in which PNS are deployed,” writes Ravetz, “are no longer those of technological risks, but those of sustainability and survival” (Ravetz 2006). The challenge of human survival within planetary boundaries offers the conceptual frame within which dialogues should be held. Planetary stewardship “requires goals aimed at global sustainability in order to achieve universal sustainable development“ for which ”we can transform our values, beliefs and aspirations towards sustainable prosperity.“ (PuP 2012). PuP's 'First State of the Planet Declaration' continues: “Integrated goals for global sustainability based on scientific evidence are needed to provide essential targets for societies ... This research must integrate across existing research programmes and disciplines, across all domains of research as well as local knowledge systems, across the North and South, and must be co-designed and implemented with input from governments, civil society, research funders, and the private sector” (PuP 2012). PNS turns prescriptive.

If the human species is indeed facing the threat of extinction the simultaneously addressed question of development and justice across North and South is translated into one of knowledge integration. When PuP marries its 'post-normal' scientific epistemology with ethics – Joseph Rouse (1993) speaks of an 'epistemological sovereign' – the theory of PNS can be falsified. More to the point, the GMNation? experience has already shown that an 'extended peer community' is not an answer to everything. Instead PNS, read as contribution to Popper's ideal of an 'open society', shows that theorising science is an exercise in political philosophy.

Funtowicz S. & Ravetz, J. 1993 Science for the post-normal age Futures 25(7) 739–755
Funtowicz, S. & Ravetz, J. 2003 Post-normal science International Society for Ecological Economics
in: Internet Encyclopaedia of Ecological Economics
Kuhn, T. 1962 Structure of Scientific Revolutions University of Chicago Press 173
Irwin, A. 2006 Politics of talk: Coming to terms with the 'new' scientific governance Social Studies of Science 36(2) 299-320
Ravetz, J. 2006 Post-Normal Science and the complexity of transitions towards sustainability, Ecological Complexity 3 275-284
Rouse, J. 1993 Foucault and the natural sciences, in Caputo, J.D. (ed) Foucault and the Critique of Institutions, Pennsylvania State University Press, 280


  1. Many thanks for the post Mathis. The use of Popper's ideas is really interesting. How do you see the falsification of social theories taking place? What kind of reasoning goes into to falsifying a theory such as PNS (if we accept it as a theory), and what is the significance of marrying epistemology with ethics for PNS's falsification?

  2. Good questions, Martin! I realise that my two examples are not well connected (and maybe shouldn't be)

    First let's take the GMNation? exercise as example of PNS. The arguably poor and to scientists dissapointing outcome of this exercise shows that the PNS commitment of including "participants who bring their own knowledges and their own commitments to the table" may sometimes be counter-productive. But as theories in natural sciences PNS may make sense for different cases/observations. Still, as a general theory of science it can be falsified which following Popper is a necessity towards his ideal of an 'open society'. Only a falsified theory is succesfull since it plays the ball back to political philosophy. Thus, theorising science is an exercise in political philosophy. For example, who did the publics who participated in this exercise represent when they ditched prospects of GM food?
    Do we need a normative theory of expertise which has been linked to a Rawlsian model of democracy (Durant 2012)? Do we need to be a bit more Machiavellian?

    Or are we too Machiavellian, preaching democracy and deliberation at home while playing 'epistemological sovereign' for the planet? I would argue that PuP's epistemology is to some degree one of PNS since it asks for input from governments, civil society, research funders, and the private sector. PNS was conceived for Western 'risk societies' and can be appreciated in this context. When married to political ethics of global sustainability and justice across North and South PNS is taken out of the Western 'risk society' context – are 'civil societies', 'research funders' and the 'private sector' universal categories? We have to ask the question of what these categories – including 'negotiation in good faith', 'dialogue', demonstration' mean for other folks. So PNS is not necessarily falsified but may become obsolet.

    I guess that new theories of science will pop up as a response to the sustainability challenge. Apparently Ravetz awaiting a non-violent theory of science...

  3. I absolutely agree that the categories used to describe the various 'stakeholders' are highly situated and deeply normative - products of Western political philosophy and thus its attendant epistemologies. I'm intrigued still about this relationship between PNS and falsification. PNS can be understood as a normative theory of science. It's about how science ought to be, given certain conditions. Falsification is also a normative theory of science. It's about how science ought to function, but no doubt is based also on Popper's descriptions of how he saw science functioning in some cases (I may be totally wrong here...). Is it therefore right to treat PNS - as a normative theory - in the same way as we would treat a physical theory, i.e. subjecting it to falsificationist reasoning? Can Popper's ideas be used to discuss theories OF science, as well as theories IN science? I'm not sure what the answer is, but it's interesting to ponder.