Post-normal science

Post-normal science

Post-Normal Science is a concept developed by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, attempting to characterise a methodology of inquiry that is appropriate for cases where "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent". It is primarily seen in the context of the debate over global warming and other similar, long-term issues where we possess less information than we would like.

According to its advocates, "post-normal science" is simply an extension of situations routinely faced by experts such as surgeons or senior engineers on unusual projects, where the decisions being made are of great importance but where not all the factors are necessarily knowable. Although their work is based on science, they must always cope with uncertainties, and their mistakes can be costly or lethal. Given the greater importance of climate systems and the fact that we know even less about them, conventional methods of inquiry, based on determining all relevant information before proceeding, are too slow and uncertain to deal with an issue too complex to be fully understood and too important to wait on.

Because of this, advocates of post-normal science suggest that there must be an "extended peer community" consisting of all those affected by an issue who are prepared to enter into dialogue on it. They bring their "extended facts", that will include local knowledge and materials not originally intended for publication such as leaked official information. There is a political case for this extension of the franchise of science; but Funtowicz and Ravetz also argue that this extension is necessary for assuring the quality of the process and of the product.


In 1962 Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, introduced the concept of ‘normal science’ as part of his theory that scientific knowledge progresses through socially constructed paradigm shifts, where normal science is what most scientists do all the time and what all scientists do most of the time. The process of paradigm shifts is "basically" as follows: - from normal science (the rules are agreed upon or disagreed upon in debates that cannot be concluded; science is puzzle solving, but some contradictions in theory cannot be resolved) - to revolutionary science (important rules are called into question; contradictions may be resolved; paradigms shift)

- to new normal science (new rules are accepted, science returns to puzzle solving under new rules).

A clear illustration of the theory in practice is the Copernican revolution where Copernicus’ idea of a solar system was largely ignored (not in the rules) when first introduced, then Galileo was deemed a heretic (rules called into question), and post a revolution in cosmology, the solar system is taken as an obvious and foundational part of scientific knowledge (new rules).

Another good example is the question of whether light is a particle or a wave. For a long time there was a debate on this point, where advocates on both sides of the debate had many valid arguments based on scientific perspectives, but were lacking the theory that would resolve the conflict. And then there was a revolution in thinking wherein they realized it was possible for both theories to be true.

James J. Kay described Post-normal science as a process that recognizes the potential for gaps in knowledge and understanding that cannot be resolved other than through revolutionary science, thereby arguing that (in between revolutions) one should not necessarily attempt to resolve or dismiss contradictory perspectives of the world (whether they are based on science or not), but instead incorporate multiple viewpoints into the same problem-solving process.


Detractors of post-normal science, conversely, see it as a method of trying to argue for a given set of actions despite a lack of evidence for them, and as a method of trying to stifle opposing voices calling for caution by accusing them of hidden biases. Many consider post-normal science an attempt to ignore proper scientific methods in an attempt to substitute inferior methodology in service of political goals. Practitioners advocating post normal science methods defend their methods, suggesting that their methodologies are not to be considered replacements for dealing with those situations in which normal science works sufficiently wellFact|date=January 2008.

Few mainstream scientists advocate the approaches taken by post-normal science, even among those who agree with the goals of Funtowicz and Ravetz, though the idea has gained some publicity in recent times, appearing prominently in an article published in The Guardian in March 2007 [Hulme, Mike. " [ The appliance of science] ", The Guardian, 2007-03-14.] . Some argue that there seems to be little to distinguish post-normal science from the skewed cargo cult science described by Richard Feynman in 1974.



*Ravetz, J. R. 1986. Usable knowledge, usable ignorance: incomplete science with policy implications. In Clark, W. C., and R. C. Munn, ed. "Sustainable development of the biosphere." p. 415-432. New York: Cambridge University Press.
*Funtowicz, S.O. and J.R. Ravetz 1990. "Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy" Kluwer Academic Publishers, the Netherlands.
*Funtowicz, S. O., and J. R. Ravetz 1992. Three types of risk assessment and the emergence of post-normal science. In Krimsky, S., and D. Golding, ed. "Social theories of risk." p. 251-274. Westport, CT: Praeger.
*Funtowicz and Ravetz "Science for the Post-Normal Age", "Futures," 25/7 September 1993, 735-755.

External links

* [ Post-Normal Times]
* []
* [ Introductory lecture to Post Normal Science (requires internet explorer)]
* [,,2032821,00.html Guardian article]

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