Mike Hulme on Avery and Singer

January 29th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Over at Post-Normal Times the Tyndall Centre’s Mike Hulme has a thought-provoking review of a recent book by Dennis Avery and Fred Singer. Here is an excerpt:

Too often the reasons we disagree about what to do about climate change are framed in this way, as disputes about the truth claims of some aspect of biogeophysical science – is the world warming; are greenhouse gases responsible; will this ice-sheet collapse? This reflects one view of science, the conventional Enlightenment view of science as an objective, disinterested endeavour incrementally leading us closer and closer to a universal and immutable view of reality … past, present and future. This is ‘normal’ science.

But for many years now, around 25 at least, philosophers and practitioners of science have identified a different mode of scientific activity, a mode where stakes are high, uncertainties large and decisions urgent, and where values are embedded in the way science is done and spoken. This is what Silvio Funtowicz labelled in 1993 ‘post-normal’ science. Disputes in post-normal science focus as often on the process of science – who gets funded, who evaluates quality, who has the ear of policy – as on the facts of science. The IPCC is a classic example of a post-normal scientific activity. The IPCC is a large procedural assessment activity involving first of all scientists, but then later entraining a broad range of other experts from government, business, civil society to evaluate the quality of the assessment, before the modified text is presented to government representatives for their amendment and approval.

But there is also a third way of interpreting contemporary science, which is yet one further step removed from the binary truth-falsehood view of Singer and Avery. This third way of seeing science pays more attention to the social and cultural context in which science works and speaks than to the phenomena being studied. Who are the scientists, what are their values, motives and preferences, why are they being asked to study this particular problem rather than some other problem, and who funds them? This understanding of science is what sociologists have termed its social construction.

Read the whole thing.

15 Responses to “Mike Hulme on Avery and Singer”

  1. coby Says:

    Interesting read.

    “The unfortunate thing is that many people still hold onto a ‘normal’ faith in science such that it can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow.”

    I am not quite sure I agree with this, do people really expect the second and third things from science? I only expect the first. The second two are all about political structures and values.

    I also get the impression from this article and often from the writings on Prometheus that either there is no scientific truth or that it does not matter. Is that your view Roger?

    Does it matter to climate change policy if Singer and Avery are correct that GW is simply another 1500yr cycle? I really can’t tell if the author of that essay thinks it does or not.

    Roger, do you think it is important whether or not there is a 1500 year solar cycle and GHG’s actually have little effect on the climate?

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  3. D. F. Linton Says:

    It is an interesting article, but I’m not sure I would call it a review of the book. It seems more like a musing prompted by the book or by hearing a radio show about the book.

    It is quite normal to think our enemies shot through with human failings and that we and our comrades are pure of heart and deed, but it is rarely so.

    Dr. Pielke, you have made many of the same points. Appeals to science as an apodictic guide to action are as vain as those to the words of the gods or the mystic urgings of Gaia. They only sound convincing to the already converted.

    BTW: I read the book and found it interesting and persuasive.

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  5. bob koepp Says:

    Embed scientific practice as deeply as you want in a socio-culutural-political context. That won’t change the fact that truth is a distinctive value — the value to which the construct we call science is supposed to pay homage. Other values are just as important as truth, and certainly ought to influence what we do with the putative truths we occasionally grasp, but they are irrelevant to the question of whether what we have grasped is indeed a part of the truth.

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  7. Hans von Storch Says:

    Post-normal science. Climate science is clearly post-normal. That is unavoidable. We as scientists have to adjust to that fact.

    How? By reflecting upon the social and cultural processes which may influence our way of asking, of accepting answers. Upon our way of relating our new knowledge claims to political or ethical utility.

    We should accept that a significant chunk of our newest knowledge claims will turn out „false“, incomplete, irrelevant in some future. How much of the sensational stuff in „science“ and “nature“ survives the next half year, the next ten years? How much needs significant revision? I this rate for “nature” higher than for GRL? (I guess it is.)

    In view of this situation we have to bring into the process people who have an understanding of the social processes impacting science, and of the social dynamics within science (and within the journal “science”), and which effects these processes and dynamics have on the output of science in its knowledge construction. We need more of the sort of Roger Pielke, Peter Weingart, or Nico Stehr to make climate science functioning better in the post-normal set-up.

    On the other hand, we should also make the public understand that climate science is not just another scientific feast (normal science) of building micro-chips or deciphering old-Egypt characters. It is a field of key relevance for the public, where independent enlightenment-type advise is very strongly needed but is in principle unavailable because of just that need and the (scientifically exciting) interaction of socially and culturally constructed knowledge on the one side, and scientifically constructed knowledge, on the other side, can not deliver this ideal. Post-normal science. Society has to adjust to that fact (it mostly has, tacitly).

    Roger Pielke has a very useful analysis of all this in his forthcoming book, on the Honest Broker.

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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks for your participation. But do we really have to go back to the “are you a climate skeptic?” routine?

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  11. coby Says:

    Sorry, Roger, you’ve misread me completely. I did not ask if you believe the 1500 year cycle or not, I asked if you think it is important or not whether it is true, as well as other questions and musings on the topic of the post.

    No routine here for my part, I don’t know why you are anticipating a trap.

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  13. TokyoTom Says:

    “The unfortunate thing is that many people still hold onto a ‘normal’ faith in science such that it can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow. Fred Singer has this view of science; so does Mark Lynas. That is why they reduce their exchange to one about scientific truth rather than about values, perspectives and political preferences.”

    Hulme has identified a problem, and his diagnosis and prescriptions are useful, though limited. Clearly, scientific knowledge does not dictate either individual or community action; rather, decisions are typically based on views as to self-interest and values. Nevertheless, changes in our understanding of science and facts can play an important role in motivating changes in the decisions we make, so debates over science are important even where there is accord over applicable values and interests.

    Further, while one might hope that scientists who speak publicly as to science will try to distinquish between their understanding of science and their value-based preferences for action, it is surely both an overstatement and an unreasonable expection to state that “If scientists want to remain listened to, to bear influence on policy, they must recognise the social limits of their truth-seeking and reveal honestly and fully the values and beliefs they bring into their scientific activity.” Let the scientists be scientists and let the rest of us pay greater attention to the underlying arguments over values and interests, and forget the gobbledy gook about post-normal and third-type science.

    The underlying debate is analytically quite simple to understand. It relates to the use of coerce governmental force to allocate resources, or costs, benefits and risks, in cases where there is no clear and accepted or enforceable system of property rights. Interest groups use science as a proxy in their respective efforts to win a favorable allocation of such resources, the “general public”’s interests suffer from want of articulation, and policy makers and bureacrats also act accornding to their own self-interests as they perceive them.

    The fight over climate change thus resembles struggles over other assets owned by government or subject to legislative/administrative fiat. While private investors and groups such as Nature Conservance can buy and protect what they consider to be valuable land, in the case of public land it is impossible to express personal preferences and values in private market transactions. The result is that the disputes over resource use become battles over proper government action.

    This is very much the case for climate and the atmosphere, which remains in key respects an open global commons. There are many interest groups involved across the globe, each favoring policies that advance its own values and interests. To name a few, clearly fossil fuel producers and major users have favored their continued free use of the commons; some propose policies that would provide greater markets for and financial returns on technology that they possess, others look for market opportunities in acting as go-betweens, others have a wide-scale social-engineering objective, and still others wish to minimize the role of government generally and to avoid infringements on national prerogatives.

    In my view, since it is physically impossible to “homestead” and privatize the atmosphere – and thus to remove the problems from the public domain – clearly some type of government action will be required to avoid over-exploitation of the atmospheric commons. The primary questions thus center on questions of cost and benefit, efficiency and how to secure international consensus and compliance.

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  15. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks for the clarification.

    1. I haven’t read the book, almost certainly won’t.
    2. I assume that the work is not true, as least that is what I read at RealClimate and they are qualified to judge far better than me.
    3. There is scientific truth.
    4. Sometimes scientific truth matters, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes good policy making depends on knowing the difference, sometimes it doesn’t. This is just Pragmatism 101.

    More explication will have to wait;-)


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  17. Paul Biggs Says:

    A possible sequel?

    Unstoppable global cooling – every 2400 years:


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  19. Mark Bahner Says:

    Oops. Forgot to sign in. This is what I wrote…

    Hans Van Storch writes, “Post-normal science. Climate science is clearly post-normal. That is unavoidable.”

    No, I disagree completely. Climate science is post-normal because there is no incentive for the IPCC…or Mark Lynas…or Dennis Avery and Fred Singer…or Mike Hulme, for that matter…to make accurate predictions about the distant future.

    I have a remedy, which I’ve posted on my own blog. It’s copy/pasted below.

    Mark Bahner (who wants to be one of the select 100, if Exxon-Mobil or other company does as I suggest)

    P.S. From my blog:


    I’ve written (repeatedly) that the “projections” in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report are pseudoscientific nonsense. I haven’t seen the Fourth Assessment Report, but I’m so confident (or would that be depressed?) that they will be nonsense too, that I propose a better way.

    The fundamental problem is that the IPCC has no incentive to tell the truth in its projections. But they do have an incentive to lie…to exaggerate the amount of warming that’s likely to occur. So that’s what they do…they lie. I propose the following solution:

    The U.S. government should set up a prize fund totaling $400 million, payable in 2031. The prize fund would be open to any U.S. university with accredited science or engineering programs. The fund would be awarded as $200 million for first place, $100 million for second, $50 million for third, $25 million for fourth, $12 million for fifth, $6 million for sixth, $3 million for seventh…and $1 million until we run out of money.

    Prizes would be awarded for most closely predicting the following parameters:

    1) globally averaged surface temperature anomaly for 2029-2031, relative to 1990;
    2) globally averaged lower tropospheric temperature anomaly for 2029-2031, relative to 1990;
    3) Atlantic hurricane basin sea surface temperature anomaly for 2029-2031, relative to 1990;
    4) average insured U.S. hurricane losses for 2029-2031,
    5) global sea level rise for 2029-2031, relative to 1990;
    6) CO2 atmospheric concentration;
    7) anthropogenic (industrial) CO2 emissions; 8) methane atmospheric concentration,
    9) anthropogenic methane emissions,
    10) anthropogenic black carbon emissions,

    The ten parameters listed above would be weighted such that the first 5 parameters are twice as important as the bottom 5. Let’s say 100 universities enter the contest, with #1 given to the best prediction for each parameter, and #100 given to the worst prediction for each parameter.

    Let’s take hypothetical University X (not Xavier!).: Suppose its rankings on the first 5 predictions are: #3, #4, #10, #20, #60. Since all those are multiplied by 2, its score would be: (3+4+10+20+60)*2 = 194. Suppose its rankings for the bottom 5 predictions are #20, #6, #70, #10, #8. Its score on the second 5 would be 114. So the total score would be 194 + 114 = 308. The university with the LOWEST score would get the $200 million first prize, the university with the next lowest score would get $100 million, and so on.

    For a total investment of $400 million, the U.S. government would get far better predictions than it currently gets from the IPCC. (In fact, it’s not possible to get poorer predictions than from the IPCC…but that’s another story.)

    In fact, Exxon-Mobil (to choose just one company at random ;-) ) could get a similarly good deal by offering a prize fund of only $4 million (i.e. the proposed U.S. government prize to universities, divided by 100). But this would be payable to INDIVIDUALS (or their heirs). Exxon could restrict the prize fund to 100 scientists and engineers of its choosing. The top prize of $2 million in 2031 would certainly be enough incentive to make truthful predictions!

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  21. Michael Hughes Says:

    Googling ‘Fred Singer’ brings up a number of interesting links from Widipedia and a number of other sources that question his reliability.

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  23. Richard Tol Says:

    Normal science was defined by Thomas Kuhn. In the introduction to that book, Kuhn says very very explicitly that he was talking about the natural sciences only.

    Then there are Funtowicz and Ravetz. They have trouble reading. They “discover” that the environmental sciences are a mix of natural and social science. They “discover” that Kuhn’s description of normal science does not apply to the social sciences — forgetting that Kuhn never said that. So, they invent a new term “post-normal science”.

    The semantics apart, over the years, “post-normal science” has become an excuse for natural scientists to moonlight in the social sciences, for an “anything goes” approach to research, and for scientists to freely mix facts and values.

    Funtowicz and Ravetz never meant that to happen, but it sure did. Post-normal science is best buried along with miasma, ether, and physiocracy.

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  25. Steve Bloom Says:

    And let’s not forget scientization!

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  27. Mark Bahner Says:

    Richard Tol writes, “Post-normal science is best buried along with miasma, ether, and physiocracy.”

    I agree. It seems to me that “post-normal science” is essentially buying into the logical fallacies of argument by authority or ad hominem attack.

    It doesn’t matter to science why a scientist says something. All that matters is whether he or she is right or wrong.

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  29. Sylvia S Tognetti Says:

    Roger – I commented previously, neglecting to sign in, so if it hasn’t gotten lost you can delete it.

    To answer Richard Tol’s remark – every natural scientist who ventures into policy or economics or other related social sciences is “moonlighting.” Given the structure of academia, so is any scientist or scholar of any sort who dares to take a problem-oriented or place-based approach towards resolving any kind of complex issue. At least Post-Normal Science offers some guidance for addressing issues of quality in this kind of a situation. I don’t know what Richard Tol has actually read but, referring to this as an “anything goes” approach is a gross caricaturization of it. If he thinks someone is doing this and calling it PNS, he should be more specific. In the meantime, anyone who wants to actually read something about PNS, is welcome to visit The Post-Normal Times, and some of the links therein.