Science is about the systematic, objective and structured acquisition of knowledge. Scientific knowledge is a great thing, because it enhances the understanding of the world and is the foundation of innovation. However science does not always have a ready answer. Sometimes there are too many variables or there is insufficient reliable data available to make founded statements. A certain amount of ‘common sense’ can help out. Please meet post-normal science.
Policymakers really value scientific research. This is logical, because that is how they can justify decisions. But there is a downside too: if scientific consensus on a subject is absent, there is a risk that policymakers do not take decisions. This phenomenon is referred to as paralysis by analysis. Quickly a call for more research is heard, but waiting too long can have dramatic consequences.
A glaring example of paralysis by analysis was the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986. Caused by human error ánd flaws in the design of the nuclear power plant. There was not enough scientific knowledge available to properly assess the security risks. In response Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz introduced post-normal science, precisely to avoid this kind of disaster.
Post-normal science kicks in when mainstream science cannot provide absolute certainty, because there are too many variables. An example is the study into climate change where the many uncertainties, visions and assumptions regularly lead to conflicting scientific conclusions. Post-normal science aims to help policymakers to take decisions anyway.
Post-normal science provides a number of useful tools, such NUSAP: a way to ask questions systematically: do we have enough knowledge? How will we measure our performance? With what, when and why? These are in fact logical questions, which connect to common sense. The trick is to do it systematically, because that way you do not leave any stone unturned. Without a system, common sense provides much less value.
A good system is important, but there is more than that: with post-normal science different scientific disciplines ánd non-scientists are involved; also citizens can bring a unique perspective forward with their common sense. By combining different sources of knowledge, various scenarios can be created to map potential risks.
Post-normal science is more than just a nice theory: the European Food Safety Authority, the European Environment Agency and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency use it, among others. Also, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations is increasing the use of post-normal principles in their reporting.
Of course there are detractors, particularly where commercial interests are involved. Industry tends to cast doubts, because that slows down decision-making. Sometimes even ‘scientific research firms’ are used, for example to downplay the harmful effects of a particular type of pesticide. Also here post-normal science can be valuable. Not only for science itself, but also for every individual citizen: use your common sense, because after all, that generally contains a lot of wisdom.
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