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”?
Read more

Truth, lies, fake news, futures, Brexit

So, after the UK election, it looks like Brexit will be happening, barring a truly wild turn of events.

It hasn’t mattered to the electorate that politicians have lied to them; they haven’t been put off by misleading videos, the rebranding of a party’s social media account as a “fact checking” service, or the failure of politicians to submit to debates, interviews, and media scrutiny.

In fact, perhaps voters wanted to be misled – to be told that one can simply “get Brexit done”, after years of wrangling.

For information professionals, this moment returns us to the idea that policing facts will not solve the various issues of trust in information which have been bundled as “fake news”. People might accept being misled if they believe the political system is stacked against them; it seems people will also accept being misled if they are tired and frustrated by politicians’ failure to thread the needle of Brexit’s self-inflicted crisis.

Brits voted to leave the European Union in 2016 without a clear definition of what that meant, or what future relationship with Europe was being mandated. Politicians struggled to parse the meaning of that vote and, when Theresa May returned to the polls in 2017, the renewed “will of the people” was clearly and legitimately expressed in the form of a divided parliament. Nobody had a clear sense of how to deal with the outcome of that referendum.

Now, it seems the voters of the United Kingdom have chosen to slice the Gordian knot, irrespective of whether or not Alexander has lied to them, or what other cherished ties might be undone in that stroke.

What does all this mean for information professionals? Read more