Post-Normal Science

In their 2007 book, Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins and Robert Evans reiterated their contention that “science, if it can deliver truth, cannot deliver it at the speed of politics.” This is the enduring tension of the mercury project in general. Since the Commoner book, I’ve been drawn to some older work by Jerome Ravetz, where he introduces the notion of post-normal science, which is a reflection of science occurring in conjunction with social, political, and economic values weighing in on the results. The project of this post-normal science—a derivative of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm-based normal science—is not to collect and present definitive knowledge, but rather to function within a highly complex network of policymaking interests, best described by Latour’s notion of “co-production,” which marries the production of knowledge with the production of social order.

In effect, Ravetz is especially interested in public participation in science and subsequent political decision-making. He sees it as a positive and viable—indeed necessary—direction for contemporary science. Post-normal science reflects the new nature of scientific inputs to policy processes. According to Ravetz, “only through post-normal science can scientific endeavor recover from the loss of morale and commitment that started with the Bomb … and is now rampant under the capture of science by globalization.” Similarly, in a 1992 article in Theory, Culture, & Society, Ulrich Beck also raised another potential boon for scientific democracy. “The exposure of scientific uncertainty,” he wrote, “is the liberation of politics, law, and the public sphere from their patronization by technocracy.”[1] (I’ll need to devote another post to uncertainty; this is also especially fertile ground).

Public science has and will continue to foster greater scientific literacy and a more informed public. That was certainly my interpretation of post-normal science in the Commoner book. Commoner was a scientist-activist, who devoted an incredible amount of time and energy to ensuring that the public was informed and had the necessary tools with which to participate in public debate (I wrote about this kind of vernacular science the other day). In my book, I stressed the importance of Commoner’s activist apparatus, which consisted of science, dissent, and information. In many respects, Commoner was a model of what Ravetz had in mind, both in terms of praxis, but also as a means of restoring scientific integrity.

I still regard Commoner as a central and positive figure in twentieth-century history (I don’t feel at all uncomfortable with the more hagiographic elements of the book—Commoner’s story is essential to the environmental history of the twentieth century and one of the most important players in American environmentalism), but the mercury project has me changing gears a little bit on the idea of post-normal science. Return to the relationship between science and politics: science moves less quickly. In a complex network of competing interests, science can be relegated to participant at a diverse table, equal with economic interests or local knowledge or political imperatives. All well and good, perhaps, but it seems to me that science—while I would question its capacity to deliver unmitigated truths—is about the best and most reliable source of knowledge-gathering we have at our disposal. And sometimes expertise and democracy are at odds. The mercury project shows this in multiple case studies and iterations. So while I adhere to the democratic principle of post-normal science, I wonder, sometimes, about its universal validity.

My interest here is to make less of a judgment on the moral nature of post-normal science, but rather to recognize its mechanisms as a prevalent feature of the scientific landscape after World War II. Too, I’m fascinated by the intricate dance involving science, policy, publics, expertise, and uncertainty.

[1] Ulrich Beck, “From Industrial Society to the Risk Society: Questions of Survival, Social Structure, and Ecological Enlightenment,” Theory, Culture & Society 9 (1992), 97-123.

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