Sunday, July 19, 2015

Arrationality (1/3): Post-Normal Science

This three-part blog constitutes a foundational essay for o3.  Other foundational essays link from the about page of the website.

option3 strongly advocates the use of mainstream research, linear thought, science, statistics, and rationality.  But option3 also understands rationality has its limitations.  Arrationality and non-expert testimony, discussed herein, originate from the philosophy of science and social theories of risk.  

Arrationality does not register in the domain of rationality and irrationality.  It is a separate matter altogether.  In a math metaphor, arrationality and rational are orthogonal.  The precautionary principle is partially where this idea began.  If you want to jump directly to arrationality, see part 3.

Precautionary Principle...

[is] the precept that an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous[.]

Science has failed our world,
Science has failed our Mother Earth.
        System of a Down, Science #10

During high school and college I read about nonproliferation and climate change.  I saw them as world historic questions - distinguishing this era and our increasingly global culture.  Since them, it has become more clear that our decision-methods - on a fundamental level - have begun to fail us.

The precautionary principle is in its nature imprecise.  But it reflects an acknowledgement among educated people that science itself possessed a degree of dangerous and perhaps even unmanageable risk, which is a significant question for researchers, policy-makers, and scientific decision-makers.  Some practitioners have yet to see this dilemma.

Science has given many of us the impression that we are in control when we are not.  Indeed, science - linear thought, rationality, or whatever you want to call it - has failed us in a few well-delineated situations.  Enter post-normal science...

Post-Normal Science*

We knew the world would not be the same.  Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent.  I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita.  Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
        Oppenheimer, re the Trinity Test

[T]he myth of unlimited accuracy in quantitative sciences has many uses...  With the proliferation of 'models' of all sorts in natural and social science, we must recognize a new sort of pseudo-science...where the uncertainties in the inputs must be suppressed, lest the outputs become indeterminate.  Hence the crisis in statistics is only one manifestation of a general problem of quantitative information, where incompetence and malevolence interact to produce meaningless numbers, deceiving the experts themselves along with the public.
        Funtowicz and Ravetz1990

In 1991, Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz published a paper titled A New Scientific Methodology for Global Environmental Issues.  
They argued that in scientific decision-making and risk evaluation, scientists and policy-makers had failed to understand the impact of indeterminacy and extreme uncertainty; decision-making and modeling was particularly problematic when "facts are uncertain, value in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent".  Elsewhere, they referred to neglected aspects of scientific problem-solving that involve "uncertainty, value loading, and a plurality of legitimate perspectives".**  

Funtowicz and Ravetz proposed the term and concept 'post-normal' science this realm of problematic decision-making and modeling

Many policy dilemmas - especially involving the environment - demonstrate how powerful is the 
post-normal science paradigm.  Climate change is a high-consequence risk we face today.  (Truthfully, climate change is transitioning from risk to realization.  I digress.)  Nuclear power is a high-consequence, low-certainty risk we face today.  In other words, climate change has the potential to impact all our lives enormously.  Nuclear power is more subtle; a meltdown has a huge impact on its surrounding land and people but the event itself exhibits high uncertainty and possibly even indeterminacy.***  High-consequence, low-certainty risk is a classic post-normal science scenario.

Funtowicz and Ravetz proposed at least one response to post-normal science situations: the 'extended peer community'...

* If you want to know more about 'normal' science you can read the Funtowicz and Ravetz's work or see the wiki about post-normal science.

** One component the post-normal science thinking that I do not address here is the manipulation of quantitative findings.  This subject is big and deserves notation.

*** Additionally, c
onsider gun rights.  In the US, gun violence has an enormous impact on people but the values and social science related to this issue exhibit much variability and uncertainty.  Also, consider financial policy is a grand sense.  We have largely acquiesced to massive risk in our financial system.  The savings and loan crisis, the dot-com bubble, and Great Recession all constitute problems of high-consequence, medium-to-high-certainty risk.

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