Behold the power of post-normal science

Sophistpundit has a recent post on the subject of “The Scholar’s Ethic.”  His point is that an honest scholar must throw open his documentation to the reader.  To proclaim a mighty theory about the world then play peek-a-boo with the factual elements of this theory is dishonesty and worse:  authoritarianism on the intellectual plane.

To Sophistpundit’s notion I would add a corollary:  the scholar owes a debt to his own scholarship, no less than to readers and critics.  And by “scholar” I might as well say “scientist.”

A scientist’s unwavering dedication to the reality that his particular field describes, above and beyond personal success or fame or partisan advantage, represents a moral imperative which is the true scientific method.  Despite the best hopes of the poets, truth is rarely beauty, and often unsettles our comfort and our faith.  The scientist’s pursuit of it requires tremendous humility and moral courage.

On this debt to scholarship, owed by the scholar himself, rests the demand by the reader for open documentation — for full disclosure of the supporting data.  The documents point to a reality that all can validate.

Of course, there is another way.  Melanie Phillip’s blog draws attention to a Guardian article by Mike Hulme, a professor of environmental science in Britain.  The subject, as one might guess, is climate change.  Professor Hulme acknowledges the debt to scholarship owed by practitioners of science — he calls it “normal” science.  In Professor Hulme’s mind, however, the rigors of scholarship become a problem and a peril:  “The danger of a ‘normal’ reading of science is that it assumes science can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow.”

Why a danger?  Because “self-evidently dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth seeking.”  Since Professor Hulme takes it for granted that the verdict (self-evidently dangerous climate change) must precede the trial (normal scientific truth-seeking), a different process is called for.

Enter “post-normal science.”  What this is, exactly, the good professor doesn’t quite say, though we are told that it is “contingent,” and that it occurs “where the stakes are high, uncertainties large and decisions urgent, and where values are embedded in the way science is done and spoken.”  Values — decisions — high stakes — how such terms connect with science under any definition is hard to explain.

The professor’s ardent desires, on the other hand, are all too easy to figure out:  he wants action on climate change, and he wants it now, without undue debate or criticism or any of that “normal” stuff.  Post-normal science means doing what you crave.  Facts must yield to political will.

“If scientists want to remain listened to, to bear influence on policy, they must recognise the social limits of their truth seeking and reveal fully the values and beliefs they bring to their scientific activity,” Hulme writes, adding:  “Climate change is too important to be left to scientists – least of all the normal ones.”

That was of course the way of Lysenko during Stalin’s reign, and of the grisly experiments in Nazi death camps.  Normal scientists were pushed aside.  Far less normal ones took over.  It’s not a process I would recommend:  the consequences lead away from truth, human dignity, and freedom.  The scholar’s ethic, as Karl Popper once observed, requires that we respect the other fellow’s argument, because he may be right and we may be wrong; and once we respect the argument, we must, implicitly, respect the person.


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