Getting Your Head Around Post-Normal Science

Something of a long read on the blog today. I first came across Jerome Ravetz’s work in his 2011 piece on feral futures co-written with Rafael Ramírez in the journal Futures. In that piece, the authors argue that complex, uncertain issues such as environmental disasters can be made worse by conventional risk-based thinking. I think through some of the ways in which this is important for us to consider in 2020 in this blog, “Our feral future: working on the crises you did(n’t) see coming.

I find Ravetz’s approach thought-provoking, pragmatic, and deeply relevant to the present moment. It attends to questions of uncertainty and emphasises that science itself is situated within complex social, political, cultural, and economic contexts. Especially when we find ourselves being told that, for example, decisions on quarantine and lockdown measures are being “guided by the science” under contested circumstances, it’s worth getting your head around the idea of “post-normal science.”

Today, I want to go through some of the key points articulated in Ravetz’s 2006 No-Nonsense Guide to Science and the updated 2020 version of his landmark 1993 essay with Silvio O. Funtowicz, “Science for the Post-Normal Age“. Check those texts out, if you want to go deeper.

Defenders of the Truth
Climate Marchers, by Wikipedia user Mark Dixon CC BY-SA 2.0

Post-normal science is a way of rethinking science for situations – and eras – in which facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, and decisions are urgent. It recognises that the social and political dimensions of science cannot be sidelined, isolated, or ignored.

The increasingly complex systems of today’s world are threatened by environmental catastrophe, pollution, and other incidents, like the COVID-19 outbreak, which are exacerbated by the technologies sustaining our way of life.

Science must therefore find new ways to cope with contradiction, uncertainty, and an ever-wider political conversation featuring a wide range of perspectives. It must now address the problems of a global system which itself was based on science.

Why “post-normal”?

The term “post-normal” science is developed from Thomas Kuhn’s concept of “normal science”. Normal science occurs in the laboratory, behaves sensibly within relatively comfortable parameters, and doesn’t have to worry too much about the complexities of the wider world which it inhabits.

However, Ravetz and Funtowicz argue that as science deals with increasingly complex and uncertain systems, and with decisions whose costs, benefits, and value commitments are increasingly high across a range of stakeholders, we move from applied science, through professional consultancy, to the post-normal realm. Post-normal science applies when there is a great deal of uncertainty and the stakes are high.

By Wikipedia user Francois DM CC BY-SA 3.0

The first step away from “normal science” in the lab is applied science.

In applied science, research is conducted on behalf of a sponsor such as a corporation or government entity. Standard routines and procedures for the research instruments and data will be sufficient to manage any uncertainties. The decision stakes will be simple as well as small; the research is being conducted in order to meet some straightforward goal, and how its results are used is not a matter of concern to the researcher.

Beyond applied science, professional consultancy – conducted by surgeons, architects, engineers, and other professionals who take scientific methods and techniques into the field – deals with problems that can’t be managed at the routine, technical level. There will be greater uncertainty outside of the controlled environment of the lab; personal judgments will be required. The consultant’s client may have a goal which is less perfectly defined than that of a lab experiment, with complex motivations and conditions for success. Outcomes may not be reproducible or predictable in the way that would be expected of an experiment in the lab.

If I am hired to design and build a bridge, it must be built to span two specific points on the face of the earth, and however similar this is to other projects in design and execution, my bridge must work for the two unique and specific points in the real world which I’ve been hired to span.

Once we are dealing with unique situations, my personal judgment as a professional becomes increasingly important. For example, we call for a doctor’s second opinion to check the judgment of the first, without this impugning the competence and integrity of the first physician. And would we expect two safety engineers assessing the hazards of an industrial installation to produce exactly identical reports, cranked out by rote?

Ravetz and Funtowicz remind us that these difference and disagreements between professionals who are applying scientific techniques are inevitable, and healthy. While they puncture any myth of scientific infallibility, such discussions over judgement also give us greater clarity and better outcomes.

Through the application of science, and its use in professional consultancy,

“The miracle of modern natural science is that the laboratory experience, the study of an isolated piece of Nature that is kept unnaturally pure, stable and reproducible, can be successfully extended to the understanding and control of Nature in the raw. Our technology and medicine together have made Nature predictable and in part controllable, and they have thereby enabled many people to enjoy a safer, more comfortable and pleasant life than was ever before imagined in our history.”

However, Ravetz and Funtowicz suggest that this achievement has its dark sides. Can these comforts be shared equitably across populations? Is this way of life democratic in terms of who has access to the power and privilege of scientific knowledge? Given its environmental impacts, is the order imposed on the world by this kind of science sustainable even in terms of our survival on the planet?

Way beyond anthrax: big dilemmas for the post-normal age

Once, Louis Pasteur could conquer anthrax from his laboratory, Ravetz and Funtowicz argue, but today, science has led us into policy dilemmas which it cannot itself resolve, such as disturbances of the environment which have arisen from new forms of industry and agriculture. Technologies which once seemed to exemplify humanity’s domination of nature are now recognised as critically dependent on the ecosystem which they inhabit.

Louis Pasteur in his laboratory by Albert Edelfeldt (1885)


Ravetz and Funtowicz point out that scientific policy issues in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have been characterised by a great deal of uncertainty, ignorance, and ethical disagreement. Issues like the current pandemic, climate change, even the impact on society of digital communications technologies, are global in scale and long-term in impact.

The post-normal approach doesn’t replace applied science or professional consultancy, but complements it by addressing those contexts which require recognition of broader uncertainties and increasingly complex systems.

In “Science for the Post-Normal Age”, the authors state that:

“The technical expertise of qualified scientists and professionals in accepted spheres of work is not being contested; what can be questioned is the quality of that work in these new contexts, especially in respect of its environmental, societal and ethical aspects.”

Under present circumstances, these wider contextual issues can no longer be kicked into the long grass; science and its practitioners must engage in new conversations and be willing to listen.

This may also involve an increasing acceptance of the qualitative alongside the quantitative. For some of the post-normal issues which the authors identify, it could be hard to develop baselines and gather data on their effects. They remind us that:

“…what comes out at the end of a program is not necessarily a scientific prediction; and it may not even be a particularly good policy forecast. The numerical data used for inputs may not derive from experimental or field-studies; the best numbers available, as in many studies of industrial risk, may simply be guesses collected from experts.

Instead of theories which give some deeper representation of the natural processes in question, there may simply be standard software packages applied with the best fitting numerical parameters. And instead of experimental, field or historical evidence, as is normally assumed for scientific theories, there may be only the comparison of calculated outputs with those produced by other equally untestable computer models.”

Writing in 1993, the authors could not be aware of “the age of the algorithm” or the buzz phrase “Big Data” – but they did anticipate a world in which authorities would insist that the numbers were telling “us” the right thing to do.

(Elsewhere, in his 2018 essay “Heuristics for sustainability science”, Ravetz critiques Descartes’ preference for geometry over more humanistic ways of knowing, and the long term impact of that preference on the business of management: “Many practitioners who nowadays receive emotional security from the belief that their spreadsheet will tell them precisely what to do with a project or company are living with the consequences of Descartes’ desperate grab for certainty.”)

Against this reliance on modelling and calculation, the exponents of post-normal science insist that “New methods must be developed for making our ignorance usable”, requiring science to evaluate its own quality not solely in terms of its products, but also its processes, persons, and purposes.

They argue that:

“This […] approach to quality assurance of science necessarily involves the participation of people other than the technically qualified researchers; indeed, all the stakeholders in an issue form an ‘extended peer community’ for an effective problem-solving strategy for global environmental risks.

When science affects us all, and is increasingly enmeshed in complex and uncertain global systems, we are all stakeholders and it is this global community which provides the basis for a response to the challenges of a “post-normal” age.”

New ways of solving the most complex policy issues

The ways of solving nature’s puzzles which were so effective as they migrated from the laboratory to the wider world, can no longer serve to resolve the most complex policy issues of our time: major technological hazards, large-scale pollution, the consequences of human modification, the impact of telecommunications technology.

For many of the crises which Ravetz and Funtowicz consider, decisionmakers cannot afford to wait “until all the facts are in”. Leaders must make decisions about, for example, the COVID-19 response before we have mastered all the characteristics of the novel coronavirus in the lab, before we know the epidemiology, and long before there is any prospect of a vaccine.

For environmental issues, plans for mitigation may have long lead-times. For example, protecting coastal communities from rising sea levels doesn’t mean accounting for a slow and steadily predictable rise, but anticipation of increasingly frequent and destructive floods, and their knock-on effects. It also means considering the welfare of stakeholders such as yet-to-be-born generations, nonhuman species, and the wider planetary environment.

Construction of flood defences, Bonnington Bridge Edinburgh, by Wikipedia user Kim Traynor CC BY-SA 3.0

Activists and affected people have a legitimate part to play in this discussion, say Ravetz and Funtowicz: “persons directly affected by an environmental problem will have a keener awareness of its symptoms, and a more pressing concern with the quality of official reassurances, than those in any other role”.

They write,

“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.”

The community themselves must participate in the decision process, because the assessment of risks and the setting of policy are entwined in decisions about what we value and how far we are willing to go in protecting or advancing those values.

Simple rationales are no longer available, and we have to get into the knotty business of adjudicating between different stakeholders and interests. Scientific facts and certainties may be less valuable, under such conditions, than an understanding of what a community values and why.

In “Science for the Post-Normal Age”, the authors argue that we have, since the mid-to-late twentieth century, largely looked to intellectuals with a scientific style – meteorologists, epidemiologists, economists – as authorities and providers of practical knowledge. If those intellectuals only come from certain parts of society, if some are excluded from positions of scientific power owing to racism, sexism, homophobia, or unequal life chances, policymaking itself is damaged.

If you don’t get to train as a scientist – or as the kind of intellectual whose tone is perceived as rational – you don’t get a voice in the policy debate. Why does this matter? Because democracy challenges entrenched powers, profits, and privileges. This is increasingly important when science is being financed on a scale which means it inevitably lies in the hands of big business or the state, and when science’s impacts on the world are increasingly profound and uncertain.

Ravetz and Funtowicz put it like this: “Let us be quite clear on this; we are not arguing for the democratization of science on the basis of a generalized wish for the greatest possible extension of democracy in society.” Rather, they argue that democracy is necessary to avoid the stifling of criticism by vested interests, and consequent harms.

Ravetz and Funtowicz are optimistic that a way forward can be found, arguing that

“the ethical uncertainties should not deter us from searching for solutions; nor can decision makers overlook the political force of those humans who have a passionate concern for those who cannot plead or vote. Only a dialogue between all sides, in which scientific expertise takes its place at the table with local and environmental concerns, can achieve creative solutions to such problems, which can then be implemented and enforced. Otherwise, either crude commercial pressures, inept bureaucratic regulations, or counterproductive protests will dominate, to the eventual detriment of all concerned.”

Their 1993 essay gives the example of the banning of lead in petrol, where consensus around the public health hazards, and the need to intervene, was reached even when fully conclusive environmental and epidemiological information was not available.

They point out that finding a way to such consensus is not always swift or easy. Harmful substances may seem to bear “yo-yo risks”, as experts’ evaluation of the harm they cause goes up and down. In such cases, the authors argue, “effective public policy would be better based on an appreciation of the inherent uncertainties rather than on the illusion that this time applied science has given us the true verdict of safe or dangerous.”

Rather than think that the expert’s word was law, definite, once-and-for-all, with a post-normal approach we would make our decisions based on an honest recognition that the issue remained uncertain, and a value judgment as to whether we were willing to live with that uncertainty.

“When problems lack neat solutions, when environmental and ethical aspects of the issues are prominent, when the phenomena themselves are ambiguous, and when all research techniques are open to methodological criticism, then the debates on quality are not enhanced by the exclusion of all but the specialist researchers and official experts. The extension of the peer community is then not merely an ethical or political act; it can positively enrich the processes of scientific investigation. Knowledge of local conditions may determine which data are strong and relevant, and can also help to define the policy problems.”

In 1993, Ravetz and Funtowicz drew on AIDS as an example of research being conducted in the context of a wider ecosystem including sufferers, carers, journalists, activists, as well as public and private institutions with regulatory and commercial interests. Every choice and dispute was brought into the public arena, and the option to test subjects in a “double-blind” procedure, where some would get no treatment, became problematic. But, the authors state,

“unless we believe it right that the sufferers from this dread disease should depend entirely on the zeal and dedication of researchers, manufacturers and regulators, they should be included in the dialogue, however fractious it may sometimes become.”

“Science for the Post-Normal Age” foresaw some of the challenges we face in the season of COVID-19, heavily mediatised, conditioned by globalisation, occurring at a time of political polarisation and increasing distrust in traditional institutions.

How do policymakers balance the mitigation of COVID-19 related death rates with the more uncertain injurious effects of quarantine or lockdown? What part are the pharmaceutical industry, and other commercialised elements of healthcare, playing in the response to the pandemic, and are their interests wholly altruistic? What is to be done with recommendations to ingest bleach or put sunlight into the body to combat the virus, or those who believe that 5G technologies must be destroyed to combat the coronavirus outbreak?

The thinkers behind “post-normal science” are unwilling to exclude or silence voices from the fringes. In 1993, they acknowledged alternative or complementary medicine as a “type-case for post-normal science”; individuals exercise preferences about their healthcare a lot more clearly than they do, say, environmental issues, and the choices they make are not solely based on “what the science says”.

Ravetz and Funtowicz recognise the dangers in this transition to a new way of thinking and doing science, identifying “seeds of destruction as well as renewal”. Some participants in debates will resist arguments and evidence that contradict their prejudices; some will desire that researchers provide only data that is useful to their argument and suppress the rest. The ability to revise one’s beliefs in the face of evidence will require consensus over how evidence is produced, analysed, and communicated as well as a conversation built on strong enough relationships to let participants successfully and openly change their minds.

(Reading this, I was reminded of Tim Harford’s 2017 Financial Times article “The Problem with Facts“, which suggested that being more curious – rather than being better informed on a topic – enabled people to resist misinformation or disinformation, and revise their beliefs on fraught scientific issues such as climate change).

Traditionally, science has maintained the quality of its work through institutional procedures and an implicit commitment to integrity. Now, as scientific discussions must increasingly take place outside of the institutional context, new ways of having this conversation, and determining the quality and value of science, must be found.

Where to now in a post-normal age?

In their 1993 essay, Ravetz and Funtowicz acknowledged that the “post-normal” age of high stakes decisions under conditions of high systemic complexity had precedents. Scientific problems had already, in the past, transcended the boundaries of normal and applied science. Where scientific issues involved struggles over political power, where citizens asserted their right to know concerning environmental or technological hazards, the peer community was extended beyond scientific institutions and those who conducted, sponsored, or directly used research. This already demanded more complex problem-solving strategies than could be found in a lab or the professional environment of the consultant.

A photograph of Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron, from 1868

The great historical celebrities of the scientific method had also experienced something like “post-normal” conditions. Ravetz and Funtowicz give the example of Galileo’s astronomical research, which was extreme in both its uncertainties and its decision stakes, involving as it did everything from questions of scientific method to religious orthodoxy; Darwin’s Origin of Species offers a similar example from another period. “In this respect,” Ravetz and Funtowicz argue, “there is a continuity between the classic ‘philosophy of nature’ and the post-normal science that is now emerging.”

They identify a number of options for us in the present day. The first is simply despair! The second is an attempt to reassert the old institutional order through a renewed faith in science and the suppression of uncertainty. (For Ravetz and Funtowicz, this has parallels to religious fundamentalism).

However, the post-normal approach is to recognise the challenge, “with all its dangers and promise”, and begin the work of finding a new approach which accepts uncertainty and welcomes diversity as it convenes a wider global conversation, where non-specialists are welcomed into discussion as the peers of accredited experts.

In the pandemic of 2020, Ravetz and Funtowicz suggest we can see a version of this emerging. They write that “the populace is refusing to be characterised merely as actual or potential ‘patients’; rather they mobilise themselves as active and autonomous participants in the struggle, willingly enduring prolonged discomfort and danger, developing new practices, and creating new forms of solidarity, on behalf of the common good.”

COVID-19, they argue, makes societies keenly aware of their dependence on the vulnerable and almost invisible workers in the care and service sectors – those who might normally be disdained or barely tolerated, the low-paid, supposedly “low-skilled”, the migrants and those whose labour is considered menial.

Against the biomedical industry, continuing what the authors describe as its “chase” for “blockbuster drugs (along with the related ‘killer apps’)”, there exists a collaborative effort across geographical and sectoral boundaries to act for the common good. Options around surveillance and contact tracing are being subject to healthy democratic debate. Many voices are raised in discussion of cures, treatments, and vaccines.

For Ravetz and Funtowicz, “These extended peer communities, by introducing politics and ethics, are co-creating new facts, and are resisting a war-inspired narrative where a reductionist understanding of ‘disease’ is to be vanquished by techno-scientific silver-bullets.”

The COVID-19 outbreak has underlined that we live in the “post-normal” age described twenty-seven years ago, in which facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, and decisions are urgent. Rather than aspire to the pre-COVID normality, Ravetz and Funtowicz argue that we continue to expand the scope of our scientific concerns and our sense of obligation: to future generations, to other species, to the global environment.

“We are living in the midst of this rapid and deep transition, so we cannot predict its outcome,” they write, “But we can help to create the conditions and the intellectual tools whereby the process of change can be managed for the best benefit of the global environment and humanity.”

If you’ve enjoyed getting your head around “post-normal science”, and want to find out more, I recommend the updated 2020 version of Ravetz and Funtowicz’s “Science for the Post-Normal Age“.

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