Saturday, July 21, 2012

Post-normal Science?

Recently the Liberal-National Party came out again in favour of teaching Climate Denialism in schools, and I wrote in Google plus about how this policy came directly from the Heartland Institute - a USA neocon policy institute.  LNP declared that climate science is "post-normal science" and thus should not be counted as real science.

Huh?  There's a new science?  What does "post normal" even mean?

This bogus tag of "post-normal" has been constructed from incoherent ramblings in the name of philosophy of science by writers including Jerome Ravetz, whose writing can be seen on notorious climate denialist blog "Watts Up With That".  According to Watts, vociferous climate denier, author of the blog, and recipient of funding from the Heartland Institutes coffers, Ravetz is an honoured guest.  Wonder what I mean by incoherent?  See if you can make any sense out of the gibberish at the post normal science blog referred to in the Watts article.  It reads like the worst excesses of post-modernist philosophy, or like something from computer generated post-modernist satire the Da-Da engine.  (hint: if you go to that link, refresh the page and each time you'll get a nonsensical pile of computer generated post-modern drivel).  Here's a sample of post-modern as generated by the dada engine:

1. Stone and conceptual socialism
“Society is dead,” says Sartre; however, according to Brophy[1] , it is not so much society that is dead, but rather the meaninglessness, and some would say the rubicon, of society. Several narratives concerning precapitalist theory exist. The characteristic theme of Cameron’s[2] analysis of dialectic narrative is a posttextual whole. Therefore, Sontag uses the term ‘postsemiotic Marxism’ to denote the difference between class and sexual identity. The main theme of the works of Stone is the role of the observer as writer. If one examines precapitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either accept Batailleist `powerful communication’ or conclude that language may be used to exploit minorities, given that the premise of dialectic precultural theory is invalid. Thus, the subject is contextualised into a conceptualist theory that includes truth as a totality. Baudrillard uses the term ‘precapitalist theory’ to denote the fatal flaw, and therefore the absurdity, of subdialectic culture.
Just to make it crystal clear - that quoted paragraph was not written by a human - it was generated by a computer algorithm programmed to produce crazy.  And here is Ravetz explaining post-normal science:

1. Introduction
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.  The shift to a post-normal mode is a critical change. The approach used by normal science to manage complex social and biophysical systems as if the were simple scientific exercises has  brought us to our present mixture of intellectual triumph and socio-ecological peril.
Notice a similarity?  :-)

I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek here, but the sort of stuff that Ravetz is on about is exactly what the programmers who built the dada engine were satirising.

So what is Ravetz on about then?

Its origins are in the media storm about emails published from the Climate Research Unit in East Anglia, England.  There's not room to go into it here, but a massive archive of emails and other material were published by a journalist, and items cherry-picked from it purported to show ill-intent and unethical conduct on the part of climate scientists there.  In the event there was no smoking gun, no-one owned up to stealing the emails from CRU, and  the CRU scientists were shown to be innocent of the claims.

However during the fracas the likes of Ravetz turned up claiming (in his almost inaccessible prose) that the CRU emails meant that scientists must all open up everything they do, and in particular that unqualified people should be able to get in on the peer review process - Hulme, the co-author is a climate scientist at CRU, and author of the book Why We Disagree About Climate Science.  It reached a huge audience when published in a much referenced article by the BBC.  So how is that the denialists are fete-ing Ravetz as a champion of their cause, when he was launched to fame at the side of a prominent climate scientist?

When the issue with climate change became urgent enough for governments to see that action was needed they called on a dream-team of their best scientists in the field to report on what could be done about it.  Not hearing the danger music of the trap that was waiting for them the scientists did their job, produced the facts and summed it up in the IPCC reports.

The problem is that scientists are no good at politics, and they are not PR experts.  Hulme saw that the opponents of action on pollution and climate change would do anything - including stealing and cherry-picking their private email communications - to impugn the reputation of the scientists, and try to undermine their work.  Maybe Hulme thought that democratizing science would mean that less heat would come on scientists themselves for unpopular conclusions.

This confusing blog article discusses the idea further in classic post-normal science prose, so difficult to follow that its not easy to determine whose viewpoint it supports, who its author is, or what claims it is actually making.  In my view the idea of post-normal science is ridiculous and I can't imagine anyone in their right mind seriously promoting it as a way to better obtain scientific knowledge.

Regardless of what these proponents of PNT are actually saying, the way you actually obtain scientific knowledge is for scientists in research centers and laboratories to do work, collect data, analyse it and present their findings in peer-reviewed journals of high-standing.  Those scientists share their data with their peers, and discuss their methods to allow verification and replication of their results.

Allowing in amateurs, commentators and provocateurs is not democracry.  You don't vote for the truth.  Science is not a committee decision.  Also it allows for the likes of Stephen McIntyre on of who demands scientific data from researchers so that he can go hunting for anything that supports his denialist agenda.  Note that word "audit" - a key idea from the post-normal manifesto.

So is post-normal science good or bad then?

That is like asking are vampires or witches good or bad.  Post-normal science is a fiction.  There are no post-normal scientists.  There are only commentators and philosophers wishing they were post-normal "scientists" - like Stephanie Meyers vampire wannabes; and actors like McIntyre dressing up like it.

On the one hand, it's a name-calling tool of the denialist industry, trying to make out that the IPCC scientists are part of some socialist conspiracy.  On the other hand its a way for people like McIntyre to legitimise his amateur science work.  McIntyre is a retired mining executive and coal-industry consultant who is on the payroll of the Heartland Institute, and is desperate to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

So sleep easy LNP - you don't have to worry about post-normal science taking over.  Its just a piece of bad supernatural fiction.