Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Technologies of Humility

In a recent issue of Nature, Sheila Jasanoff (professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University) published an important essay that in effect calls for an integral approach to ecology. Her essay, "Technologies of Humility," calls for policy makers to recognize that for real-world problems, such as climate change, "science offers only part of the picture." In the face of the incredible complexity involved in understanding and forecasting climate change, science cannot achieve certainty. Hence, Jasanoff maintains that policy makers "need to focus on when it is best to look beyond science for ethical solutions. [....] Capacity building in the face of uncertainty has to be a multidisciplinary exercise, engaging history, moral philosophy, political theory and social studies of science, in addition to the sciences themselves." Jasanoff offers a prescription "to supplement science with the analysis of those aspects of the human condition that science cannot easily illuminate."

Jasanoff is a member of the conversation about "post-normal science," which contrasts with normal science conducted under controlled conditions. Post-normal science investigates inherently complex systems outside of laboratory settings, and often faces competing political and ethical agendas of stakeholders. As Tainter, Allen, and Hoekstra put it in their essay, "Energy transformations and post-normal science": "In post-normal science […] data are insufficient, time is short, and because the stakes are high there is keen public interest and conflicting values. The findings of post-normal sciences are embedded in a larger social [and cultural] framework, in which the audiences consists of contending interest groups, and in which issues more have more than one plausible solution."

Integral ecology is one way of theorizing what post-normal science is pointing at in regard to inherently complex, politically charged environmental problems.

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