Over at Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. blog, there’s a great post up today by Steven Mosher comparing normal science (the hunt for the Higgs Boson) with post-normal climate science.
Mosher points out that in normal science, scientists can acknowledge uncertainty, they’re not under any particular deadline, values aren’t a factor, and other than the usual need to get published and funded, there’s not a lot at stake in any given experiment or research paper. Mosher offers up the recent Higgs Boson findings as an example of normal science.
The difference between Kuhnian normal science, or the behavior of those doing science under normal conditions, and post normal science is best illustrated by example. We can use the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson as an example. Facts were uncertain–they always are to a degree; no values were in conflict; the stakes were not high; and, immediate action was not required. What we see in that situation is those doing science acting as we expect them to, according to our vague ideal of science. Because facts are uncertain, they listen to various conflicting theories. They try to put those theories to a test. They face a shared uncertainty and in good faith accept the questions and doubts of others interested in the same field. Their participation in politics is limited to asking for money. Because values are not in conflict no theorist takes the time to investigate his opponent’s views on evolution or smoking or taxation. Because the field of personal values is never in play, personal attacks are minimized. Personal pride may be at stake, but values rarely are. The stakes for humanity in the discovery of the Higgs are low: at least no one argues that our future depends upon the outcome. No scientist straps himself to the collider and demands that it be shut down. And finally, immediate action is not required; under no theory is the settling of the uncertainty so important as to rush the result.
I think he could have equally used the “faster than light neutrino” thing from last year as well. In both situations, you had scientists behaving in a wonderfully open, honest, humble way, inviting others to please, please, test their findings. Heck, in the case of the CERN situation, as I recall, the scientists who released the findings were in doubt about them, and were practically apologizing for asking the rest of the world to figure out what was wrong with their research protocols. When the faster-than-light neutrinos were found not to move faster-than-light, the scientists who first proposed the idea didn’t call the ones who disproved it “fast-neutrino-deniers.”
This is not the case in climate science, Mosher observes:
Because values are in conflict the behavior of those doing science changes. In normal science no one would care if Higgs was a Christian or an atheist. No one would care if he voted liberal or conservative; but because two different value systems are in conflict in climate science, the behavior of those doing science changes. They investigate each other. They question motives. They form tribes. And because the stakes are high the behavior of those doing science changes as well. They protest; they take money from lobby groups on both sides and worst of all they perform horrendous raps on YouTube. In short, they become human; while those around them canonize them or demonize them and their findings become iconized or branded as hoaxes.
This brings us to the last aspect of a PNS [Post-Normal Science] situation: immediate action is required. This perhaps is the most contentious aspect of PNS, in fact I would argue it is the defining characteristic. In all PNS situations it is almost always the case the one side sees the need for action, given the truth of their theory, while the doubters must of necessity see no need for immediate action. They must see no need for immediate action because their values are at risk and because the stakes are high.
I think Mosher hits this one on the head:
One of the clearest signs that you are in PNS is the change in behavior around deadlines. Normal science has no deadline. In normal science, the puzzle is solved when it is solved. In normal science there may be a deadline to shut down the collider for maintenance. Nobody rushes the report to keep the collider running longer than it should. And if a good result is found, the schedules can be changed to accommodate the science. Broadly speaking, science drives the schedule; the schedule doesn’t drive the science.
Mosher illustrates the differences between normal science and post-normal science with reference to things like the climategate emails, which show considerable emphasis on a shared belief that the stakes are high, action needs to be taken immediately, and science must follow the political time-table of climate negotiations and United Nations publications, rather than following its own schedule. Well worth reading the whole thing.