Post Normal Science: Deadlines (Climate Etc.)

Posted on August 3, 2012

by Steven Mosher

Science has changed. More precisely, in post normal conditions the behavior of people doing science has changed.

Ravetz describes a post normal situation by the following criteria:

  1. Facts are uncertain
  2. Values are in conflict
  3. Stakes are high
  4. Immediate action is required

The difference between Kuhnian normal science, or the behavior of those doing science under normal conditions, and post normal science is best illustrated by example. We can use the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson as an example. Facts were uncertain–they always are to a degree; no values were in conflict; the stakes were not high; and, immediate action was not required. What we see in that situation is those doing science acting as we expect them to, according to our vague ideal of science. Because facts are uncertain, they listen to various conflicting theories. They try to put those theories to a test. They face a shared uncertainity and in good faith accept the questions and doubts of others interested in the same field. Their participation in politics is limited to asking for money. Because values are not in conflict no theorist takes the time to investigate his opponent’s views on evolution or smoking or taxation. Because the field of personal values is never in play, personal attacks are minimized. Personal pride may be at stake, but values rarely are. The stakes for humanity in the discovery of the Higgs are low: at least no one argues that our future depends upon the outcome. No scientist straps himself to the collider and demands that it be shut down. And finally, immediate action is not required; under no theory is the settling of the uncertainty so important as to rush the result. In normal science, according to Kuhn,  we can view the behavior of those doing science as puzzle solving. The details of a paradigm are filled out slowly and deliberately.

The situation in climate science are close to the polar opposite of this. That does not mean and should not be construed as a criticism of climate science or its claims. The simple point is this: in a PNS situation, the behavior of those doing science changes. To be sure much of their behavior remains the same. They formulate theories; they collect data, and they test their theories against the data. They don’t stop doing what we notional  describe as science. But, as foreshadowed above in the description of how high energy particle physicists behave, one can see how that behavior changes in a PNS situation. There is uncertainty, but the good faith that exists in normal science, the faith that other people are asking questions because they actually want the answer is gone. Asking questions, raising doubts, asking to see proof becomes suspect in and of itself. And those doing science are faced with a question that science cannot answer: Does this person really want the answer or are they amerchant of doubt? Such a question never gets asked in normal science. Normal science doesn’t ask this question because science cannot answer it.

Because values are in conflict the behavior of those doing science changes. In normal science no one would care if Higgs was a Christian or an atheist. No one would care if he voted liberal or conservative; but because two different value systems are in conflict in climate science, the behavior of those doing science changes. They investigate each other. They question motives. They form tribes.  And because the stakes are high the behavior of those doing science changes as well. They protest; they take money from lobby groups on both sides and worse of all they perform horrendous raps on youTube. In short, they become human; while those around them canonize them or demonize them and their findings become iconized or branded as hoaxes.

This brings us to the last aspect of a PNS situation: immediate action is required. This perhaps is the most contentious aspect of PNS, in fact I would argue it is thedefining characteristic. In all PNS situations it is almost always the case the one side sees the need for action, given the truth of their theory, while the doubtersmust of necessity see no need for immediate action. They must see no need for immediate action because their values are at risk and because the stakes are high. Another way to put this is as follows. When you are in a PNS situation, all sides must deny it. Those demanding immediate action, deny it by claiming more certainty*than is present; those refusing immediate action, do so by increasing demands for certainty. This leads to a centralization and valorization of the topic of uncertainty, and epistemology becomes a topic of discussion for those doing science. That is decidedly not normal science.

The demand for immediate action, however, is broader than simply a demand that society changes. In a PNS situation the behavior of those doing science changes. One of the clearest signs that you are in PNS is the change in behavior around deadlines. Normal science has no deadline. In normal science, the puzzle is solved when it is solved. In normal science there may be a deadline to shut down the collider for maintenance. Nobody rushes the report to keep the collider running longer than it should. And if a good result is found, the schedules can be changed to accommodate the scienceBroadly speaking, science drives the schedule; the schedule doesn’t drive the science.

The climategate mails are instructive here. As one reads through the mails it’s clear that the behavior of those doing science is not what one would call disinterested patient puzzle solving. Human beings acting in a situation where values are in conflict and stakes are high will engage in behavior that they might not otherwise. Those changes are most evident in situations surrounding deadlines. The point here is not to rehash The Crutape Lettersbut rather to relook at one incident ( there are others, notably around congressional hearings ) where deadlines came into play. The deadline in question was the deadline for submitting papers for consideration. As covered in The Crutape Letters and in The Hockeystick Illusion, the actions taken by those doing science around the“Jesus Paper” is instructive. In fact, were I to rewrite the Crutape letters I would do it from the perspective of PNS, focusing on how the behavior of those doing science deviated from the ideals of openness, transparency and letting truth come on its own good time.

Climategate is about FOIA. There were two critical paths for FOIA: one sought data, the other sought the emails of scientists. Not quite normal. Not normal in that data is usually shared; not normal in that we normally respect the privacy of those doing science. But this is PNS, and all bets are off. Values and practices from other fields, such as business and government,  are imported into the culture of science: Data hoarding is defended using IP and confidentiality agreements. Demanding private mail is defended using values imported from performing business for the public. In short, one sign that a science is post normal, is the attempt to import values and procedures from related disciplines. Put another way, PNS poses the question of governance. Who runs science and how should they run it.

The “Jesus paper” in a nutshell can be explained as follows. McIntyre and McKittrick had a paper published in the beginning of 2005. That paper needed to be rebutted in order to make Briffa’s job of writing chapter 6 easier. However, there was a deadline in play. Papers had to be accepted by a date certain. At one point Steven Schneider suggested the creation of a new category, a novelty–  provisionally accepted — so that the “jesus paper” could make the deadline. McIntyre covers the issue here. One need not re-adjudicate whether or not the IPCC rules were broken. And further these rules have nothing whatsoever ever to do with the truth of the claims in that paper. This is not about the truth of the science. What is important is the importation of the concept of a deadline into the search for truth. What is important is that the behavior of those doing science changes. Truth suddenly cares about a date. Immediate action is required. In this case immediate action is taken to see to it that the paper makes it into the chapter. Normal science takes no notice of deadlines. In PNS, deadlines matter.

Last week we saw another example of deadlines and high stakes changing the behavior of those doing science. The backstory here explains .   It appears to me that the behavior of those involved changed from what I have known it to be. It changed because they perceived that immediate action was required. A deadline had to be met. Again, as with the Jesus paper, the facts surrounding the releasedo not go to the truth of the claims. In normal science, a rushed claimed might very well get the same treatment as an unrushed claim: It will be evaluated on its merits. In PNS, either the rush to meet an IPCC deadline– as in the case of the Jesus paper, or the rush to be ready for congress –as in the Watts case, is enoughfor some doubt the science.  What has been testified to in Congress by Christy, a co author, may very well be true. But in this high stakes arena, where facts are uncertain and values are in conflict, the behavior of those doing science can and does change. Not all their behavior changes. They still observe and test and report. But the manner in which they do that changes. Results are rushed and data is held in secret. Deadlines change everything. Normal science doesn’t operate this way; if it does, quality can suffer. And yet, the demand for more certainty than is needed, the bad faith game of delaying action by asking questions, precludes a naïve return to science without deadlines.

The solution that Ravetz suggests is extended peer review and a recognition of the importance of quality. In truth, the way out of a PNS situation is not that simple. The first step out of a PNS situation is the recognition that one is in the situation to begin with. Today, few people embroiled in this debate would admit that the situation has changed how they would normally behave. An admission that this isn’t working is a cultural crisis for science. No one has the standing to describe how one should conduct science in a PNS situation. No one has the standing to chart the path out of a PNS situation. The best we can do is describe what we see. Today, I observe that deadlines change the behavior of those doing science. We see that in climategate; we see that in the events of the past week. That’s doesn’t entail anything about the truth of science performed under pressure. But it should make us pause and consider if truth will be found any faster by rushing the results and hiding the data.

*I circulated a copy of this to Michael Tobis to get his reaction. MT took issue with this characterization. MT, I believe, originated the argument that our uncertainty is a reason for action. It is true that while the certainty about the science  has been a the dominant piece of the rhetoric, there has been a second thread of rhetoric that bases action in the uncertainty about sensitivity. I would call this certainty shifting. While the uncertainty about facts of sensitivity are accepted in this path of argument the certainty is shifted to certainty about values and certainty about impacts. In short, the argument becomes that while we are uncertain about sensitivity the certainty we have about large impacts and trans-generational obligations necessitates action.

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