First I must apologise for the long delay in my making a contribution to WUWT. I confess that I was overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the comments on my first posting; and then I was discouraged by the hostile response to my second posting. By then I was in serious arrears with other work, and so I had to give WUWT a rest. A lot has happened since then, and I am very pleased and encouraged that a spirit of dialogue has taken hold.
Now, many thanks to Willis for reminding me of the challenge to give an example of uncertain facts and high stakes. Let me try. In early 2001 there was evidence of an incipient epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease in England. It was not at all certain, how infectious it would be, or what sorts of containment measures would suffice. There were conflicting values, although these were not made clear to the public at the time. These reflected the interests of the different stakeholders, including beef exporters, other farmers, non-farm users of the countryside, and politicians.
For each of them the stakes were high. The best-known stake at risk was the status of British beef exports, as certified FMD-free; this was worth some hundreds of millions of pounds in the increased price for such beef on the world market. But there were other stakes at risk, including the pedigree herds of cattle and sheep built up by farmers, and (largest of all, as it was later realised) the possible harm to all the non-farm activities in the countryside. And what was eventually realised to be the overriding stake was the political fortunes of Tony Blair, with an impending General Election which he didn’t want to have in the midst of an epidemic.
Coming back to ‘the facts’, these were to be determined by experts; but there were two opposed groups of experts. One was the government scientists, who generally had a conservative approach to the risks and to the science. The other was a group of academics, who had developed an expertise in epidemiological modelling. They made ‘pessimistic’ assumptions about the infectivity of the disease, and so their recommendations were on the side of a very aggressive approach. This suited Tony Blair’s political agenda, and so there was a severe quarantine and very extensive slaughtering. However one might criticise the government’s actions, the decision was indeed urgent, and there was a situation of high stakes, disputed values and uncertain facts.
I believe that epidemics of any sort provide examples of PNS. The uncertainty of the facts does not prevent the stakes from being high; there are always historical precedents to go on. Perhaps it would help if we distinguished between the ‘facts’ about causes, and the ‘stakes’ about effects. Only if both causes and effects are so poorly known as to be speculative, does an apparently PNS situation collapse. Even then it is not ‘normal’ science but something else.
There is another lesson for PNS in the ‘foot and mouth’ episode. It was presented to the public as ‘normal science’: “here’s an epidemic, let’s apply the science and stop it”. The uncertainties and value-conflicts were suppressed. More to the point, the ‘extended peer community’ was nonexistent. Divisions among the scientists were kept under wraps. Damage to the rural communities was revealed piecemeal, and then as incidental to the noble effort of quarantine. Only the investigative journal Private Eye published the gory details of the exterminations.
Again, after it was all over, Private Eye published an analysis. However rough and violent debates might be on the blogosphere (as we have seen!) still that is much better than the sort of blanket of silence that has been thrown over scientific scandals in the past.
Having cleared that point to my own satisfaction, let me now engage further with the debate. One reason for my long silence is that (amidst other obligations) I have been reflecting on what all this means for my doctrines of Post-Normal Science. I believe that I already said that this was developed rather in isolation, and did not enjoy the criticism that can come from students or colleagues. So inevitably, some issues were not raised and addressed. I am now grappling with them. Here they are.
Possible corruptions of PNS. These are inevitable. After all, what prophetic message ever escaped being converted into a battleground between priests and demagogues? But I should be more clear about which corruptions are most likely to emerge in PNS, and then to analyse and warn against them. It will painful, since I will be criticising colleagues who have been well-intentioned and loyal.
Quality. On this I find myself reduced to arm-waving, that ‘we all know what Quality is’. But I can say that I am well aware that Quality is not a simple attribute, but is complex, influenced by history and context, recursive (who guards the guardians?), fundamentally a matter of morality (if the people at the top are crooked, the whole edifice of quality-assurance collapses), and of course fallible. This may seem a very insecure foundation for the sort of knowledge that we need, but it’s the best we have. And if one looks for better guarantees of truth even in Pure Science, one will be disappointed.
I should report on a problem that took some decades to solve, relating to quality-assurance. In my old book, I made the point that quality in science depends on the ethical commitments of its leaders, for there is no effective external system for assessing quality. (I spoke from my experience as a researcher in pure mathematics – perhaps a half-dozen people would be competent to assess my work). A student pointed out that this seems to contradict my calls for greater participation in science (I then called it ‘critical science’). I thought I had covered my tracks on that one, observing that in the antagonistic debating context of that sort of science, noone would be allowed to get away with shoddy work. I even gave the example of Dr. Stockman of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (incidentally exposing how Political Correctness led Arthur Miller to make a crucial modification of the text). But the student observed that I had assumed that the antagonistic debate would itself be of high quality! Eventually I got to some sort of resolution of the problem, admitting that the quality in PNS might indeed be very low, but giving a principle for testing its procedures. This would be ‘negotiating in good faith’, which I remembered from New Deal labor legislation, and which is now a standard criterion for negotiation. This certainly doesn’t ensure quality in PNS, but it provides a criterion. And, incidentally, it could be used to characterise the sorts of discussions that are now emerging on WUWT.
There is another unsolved problem, Truth. I realise that I have a case of what I might call ‘Dawkins-itis’ in relation to Truth. Just as Prof. Dawkins, however learned and sophisticated on all other issues, comes out in spots at the mere mention of the word ‘God’, I have a similar reaction about ‘Truth’. I must work on this. It might relate to my revulsion at the dogmatic and anti-critical teaching of science that I experienced as a student, where anyone with original ideas or questions was scorned and humiliated. I happily use the terms for other Absolutes, like ‘beauty’, ‘justice’ and ‘holy’; so clearly there is something wrong in my head. Watch this space, if you are interested.
Finally, for this phase of the dialogue, I would like to defend myself against a charge that has been made by various critics. This is, that I personally and intentionally laid the foundations for the corrupted science of the CRU, by providing the justification for Steve Schneider’s perversion of scientific integrity. First, there is no record of the guilty scientists ever mentioning, or even being aware, of PNS during the crucial earlier years. Also, shoddy and corrupted science in other fields did not wait for me to come along to justify it. My influence is traced back to a single footnote by Steven Schneider, citing an essay by me in a large, expensive book, Sustainable Development of the Biosphere (ed. W.C. Clarke and R.E. Munn), (Cambridge, University Press, 1986). PNS first came into the climate picture with the quite recent essay by Mike Hulme in 2007. That was a stage in his own evolution from modeller to critic, and came long after the worst excesses at CRU had been committed. I should say that I do not dismiss conspiracy theories out of hand, since some of them are correct! But this one really does seem far-fetched.
Thanks for your patience and good will. I look forward to further exchanges.