January 9th, 2010


Post-normal Science

Hat tip to Katabasis. And I do wear a hat.  I was reading this a couple of days back:

The function of climate change I suggest, is not as a lower-case environmental phenomenon to be solved…It really is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change – the matrix of ecological functions, power relationships, cultural discourses and materials flows that climate change reveals – to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come.

Fascinated, I read on.

The idea of climate change should be seen as an intellectual resource around which our collective and personal identifies and projects can form and take shape. We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but to ask what climate change can do for us…Because the idea of climate change is so plastic, it can be deployed across many of our human projects and can serve many of our psychological, ethical, and spiritual needs...

Rather than asking “how do we solve climate change?” we need to turn the question around and ask: “how does the idea of climate change alter the way we arrive at and achieve our personal aspirations…?”

So, as you screw in another wan low energy lightbulb to replace the last one, and as snow brings the UK to a standstill on its under-gritted roads, you can take heart that it's all serving your spiritual needs, and helping you achieve your personal aspirations.

As a resource of the imagination, the idea of climate change can be deployed around our geographical, social and virtual worlds in creative ways…it can inspire new artistic creations in visual, written and dramatised media.

We'll have climate-change-inspired ballet and TV quizz shows.

So who wrote that garbage, you ask? Some sort of bearded Indian guru? A hippy-trippy flower child? George Monbiot?

None of them. It was written by Mike Hulme, founding director of the Tyndall Centre, and Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and co-ordinating Lead Author for the chapter on ‘Climate scenario development’ for the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC.

Worried? Visit Buy The Truth and read Climate Change and the Death of Science. where Hulme is associated with Jerome Ravetz, doyen of post-normal science, who wrote:

…the puzzle-solving approach of ‘normal science’ is obsolete. This is a drastic cultural change for science, which many scientists will find difficult to accept. But there is no turning back; we can understand post-normal science as the extension of democracy appropriate to the conditions of our age.

For us, quality is a replacement for truth in our methodology. We argue that this is quite enough for doing science, and that truth is a category with symbolic importance, which itself is historically and culturally conditioned.

Doing your job or searching for the truth is old hat. Science, and particularly climate science, is now all about providing people with 'narratives'. Climate simulation models are 'metaphors'. Science has been 'democratised' or, to put it slightly differently, politicised.

Much the same applies to tobacco and smoking. The research isn't trying to discover truth. It's trying to provide smokers with a 'narrative', and 'serve their spiritual needs', and 'take forward their projects' (of giving up smoking?). It's about painting a picture of a smokefree world. The new science is a new kind of art. It's art plus numbers, art plus graphs, art plus equations. It's no more about 'truth' than Van Gogh's Sunflowers is about truth. It's something to experience as cultural discourse.

And so when the garbage collectors come along one day and strew the contents of your bins all over the road, don't be too surprised if they tell you that they're 'providing a key narrative' or 'resituating culture'. And you can say,

"You mean, you're just reflecting back truths about the human condition?"

And they'll say, "Yeah, that's right, guv. Trading truth for influence. Summat like that."