5 item(s) found.

Complexity and Scientific Advice

Complexity and Scientific Advice

Why do we need a complexity revolution when dealing with the production and use of scientific information for and by a process of decision making? This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and two video lectures illustrating the need for that revolution. The first video addresses the epistemological predicament of the use of scientific information (especially quantitative scientific information) to inform policy, from a conceptual angle. The second video presents the lessons learned in a four-year project—the EU MAGIC project—in relation to the actual problems experienced in the EU with the use of scientific information to inform sustainability policies.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.


Complexity in sustainability​ (1 min 55 sec)

What are the implications of complexity in quantifying sustainability challenges, and what do they mean in terms of scientific advice to policy? When we deal with problems that require a complex perception and representation—i.e. the simultaneous adoption of non-equivalent descriptive domains across dimensions and scales—the adoption of reductionism translates into the adoption of simplistic models.

Complexity and the problem with scientific evidence​ (19 min 53 sec)

This video illustrates with practical examples the implications of four epistemological challenges faced when trying to check the quality of scientific advice: (i) social incommensurability—the coexistence of difference priorities over concerns found in society; (ii) technical incommensurability—the coexistence of non-equivalent descriptive domains useful to represent a given situation; (iii) the need of situating the policy deliberation—the definition of the best thing to do changes depending on the context; and (iv) the unavoidable generation of hypocognition—hypocognition (the missing of relevant aspects of the issue) is determined by the definition of an epistemic box (the formalization of the problem structuring).

Post-normal science: Lessons from the MAGIC project (27 min 40 sec)

This video is based on the lessons learned in the activities of the MAGIC project, which in turn are based on an understanding of the insights of Post-Normal Science grounded on complexity. Three sets of results are illustrated: (i) the first sustainability predicament to be overcome is not determined by biophysical constraints, but by the refusal to acknowledge the implications of uncomfortable knowledge, existing in society; (ii) it is possible to avoid the hypocognition determined by the adoption of simplistic narratives by using analytical frameworks based on complexity. However, the creation of new and better analytical tools by themselves is insufficient; we also need (iii) to use the Post-Normal Science perspective to improve the quality of governance. This entails acknowledging that: (i) when dealing with sustainability analysis, it is impossible to decouple passion from reason; (ii) quality control, in sustainability science, requires an extended peer community; and (iii) sustainability is about learning how to update the identity of the society while remaining operational—i.e. how to deal with the “tragedy of change”.


Teams Involved

Post-Normal MAGIC: Editorial

18 September 2020

Post-Normal MAGIC: Editorial


September 2020 marks the end of the MAGIC project. This last issue of The Nexus Times is devoted to the overarching question: “What is the contribution of MAGIC to Post-Normal Science?" In this issue, project members reflect on the project’s research and engagement activities, its strengths and challenges, as well as its contributions and accomplishments, particularly related to post-normal science (PNS). Policy narratives, “wu wei”, mixed science-policy teams, transdisciplinarity, and uncomfortable knowledge are among the topics that are elaborated and reflected on in this issue.

In the first article, Sandra shares her experiences of managing a Horizon 2020 project and reflects on the tensions that arise when applying a post-normal science approach while at the same time aiming to adhere to the requirements of a European Commission Grant Agreement. How to best bring together the necessary openness that comes with PNS with ideals of rigid project-plans, (quantitatively visible) impact and easily applicable solutions?

In our second article, Angela and Thomas use the case of a workshop on the water-energy-food-ecosystem nexus co-organized by MAGIC and the EC’s Joint Research Centre to discuss what it means to work with extended peer communities in the European Commission. Is there a politics of extension?

In their contribution, Kirsty, Kerry and Keith focus on engagements with actors from the EC policy DGs and identify a number of key paradoxes that arise when working in “mixed science-policy teams”. They raise important questions regarding the most relevant groups to engage and how to make a selection, the problems to focus on, and the kinds of relationships to aim for.

In their reflection on the MAGIC project, Mario and Silvio discuss how conceptual aspects of MAGIC have complemented an understanding of post-normal science. They address three types of narratives in EU policy-making - justification, normative and explanation narratives - and point to the importance of quality control of these narratives through extended peer communities. In this sense their contribution is a call for democratizing evidence.

Finally, Roger weaves together the different parts and endeavours of MAGIC and provides some insights into what it meant to live with this project for four years. Starting from a short history of post-normal science, he asks for the particular contribution of this project to the philosophy of PNS. Adding to this, Roger draws on Eastern philosophy to develop one possible avenue for the future journey of PNS.



The MAGIC-Post-Normal Science Nexus

The MAGIC-Post-Normal Science Nexus

Mario Giampietro & Silvio Funtowicz

Insights of PNS in MAGIC

Innovative conceptual aspects of MAGIC have complemented an understanding of Post-Normal Science (PNS) grounded on complexity [1–3] that proved useful to achieve practical results during the four years of the MAGIC research journey.

The impossibility of decoupling passion from reason in sustainability analysis

MAGIC has developed a set of narratives found in policy discussions offering a new interpretation of the PNS insights: (1) justification narratives (about concerns to be addressed, resulting from the political management of feelings and emotions); (2) normative narratives (about actions to be taken, based on power relations and knowledge claims); and (3) explanation narratives (about scientific evidence for the selection of the first two narratives) [4].

The three types of narratives, as will be illustrated below, are not independent, interacting in an impredicative loop.

Quality control, in sustainability science, requires an extended peer community

Fig. 1 shows why rigor is not a robust quality criterion in governance-related research for the scientific analysis generating the evidence.  Before arriving to a specific framing of the problem at hand (in the center of Fig. 1), priorities about relevant concerns must be addressed to select narratives to be used as justification narratives. 


Figure 1: The sources of concern for the quality of knowledge inputs for governance


At the same time, information from existing knowledge claims is used to provide relevant insights about “the best” framing of the relevant problem.  Therefore, the interaction of these two different inputs, and their impredicative relation, implies that in sustainability science, “optimal solutions” based only on a scientific evidence are a mirage. 

Thus, Fig. 1 is a conceptual interpretation of the PNS insight about the need to integrate the scientific and value inputs in the problem-solving practice, which was confirmed by research in MAGIC when assessing the quality of EU policies in different policy domains and innovations.  The consistency among justification, normative and explanation narratives, in the MAGIC case studies clearly indicated the need for extended peer communities [5, 6].  An additional result has been the identification of five sources of concern about quality in the steps needed to use and produce scientific evidence for policy.  These five are represented in the horizontal strip in the middle of Fig. 1.

Sustainability is about learning how to deal with the tragedy of change (update the identity of the society while remaining functional) something requiring managing passion and feelings

The definition of the identity of a society can be related to two sets of constraints: (1) the expression of social practices must match what is expected by the rules, institutions and validated knowledge claims endorsed by society (to be verified at the level of the society), and (2) the affective interactions, when expressing societal practices, must be compatible with the fears, hopes, feelings and emotions of individual.  This implies that, as suggested by Luhmann [7], we could assume the existence of a psychic structure of the society in which, the aggregated effect of personal emotions, when scaled-up to the level of the whole society, affect and are affected by the expression of social practices. This process of definition of the identity of social systems, is at the core of issues addressed by PNS.

Main messages of MAGIC

In relation to the quality of the narratives used for deliberating sustainability:

* MAGIC has illustrated that the main institutional narratives used to address the sustainability crises are based on legends, a strategy that is unlike to provide sound policies to face the challenges [8].

The claims that with the green deal, moving to a circular bio-economy, in the next 30 years, the EU will be able to substitute fossil fuel with biofuels, decarbonize the electricity sector, make its agriculture competitive, environmentally friendly, and capable of guaranteeing food security no longer depending on imports, show a remarkable lack of scientific and political understanding of these issues. Implausible narratives are impossible to implement, risking of delegitimating the institutions proposing them. It is becoming ostensibly clear that the current pattern of economic growth is incapable to solve growing concerns about inequity, environmental protection, dangerous dependence on disappearing resources and on the exploitation of less powerful social-ecological systems. To avoid the risk of a collapse in the credibility of the EU system, it is the right time to move from the present class of “yes we can” narratives to the class of narratives “Houston we have a problem”. A growing proportion of EU citizens can feel the seriousness of the sustainability crises, opting, however, not to acknowledge its deep implications, including the loss of their urban privileged lifestyles. But for how long can this situation last? For how long can we keep abusing natural processes and disrupting social-ecological systems?

* MAGIC has illustrated that it is possible (and urgent) to abandon the illusion of simplistic economic narratives to explain the sustainability predicament [9].

The existing reliance on received economic narratives led to a simple problem structuring – i.e. decisions can be taken using only scientific evidence. However, it is obvious that the assumptions that we will always have prices – i.e. that we will never experience absolute scarcity - entails the impossibility of unsustainability.  Obviously, narratives that cannot see the possibility of experiencing absolute scarcity cannot be useful to study the sustainability predicament. It is time to move to alternative methods of analysis and alternative methods of decision making based on the acknowledgment of complexity and the need of reflexivity. Sustainability research must avoid the silo-governance attractor by integrating in a coherent way different inputs of relevant information referring to different levels and dimensions of analysis. This is essential in order to be able to reflect the existence of a variety of legitimate but non-equivalent concerns found in society. This cannot be done by relying on “Frankenstein models” (e.g. Integrated Assessment Models) in which a basic framework of analysis developed within economic narratives is fed with simplistic “ad hoc” models studying “water”, “energy”, “food”, “emissions” linked to a variety of non-equivalent descriptive domains impossible to integrate.  In the era of big data, we still use quantitative analysis based on differential equations: an inferential system that requires the adoption of a scale and a dimension at the time.

* The COVID-19 has clearly shown the possibility that large-scale perturbations can impose sudden radical changes in society, and the futility of searching for a Laplacian demon that will restore prediction and control. We do not have (or we do not recognize) the quality evidence required for a fair and robust deliberation about radical re-adjustments of social practices.

History tells us that the legitimacy (and stability) of the institutions of a society depends on their ability of reducing the stress (associated with the fears and hopes experienced daily) of its population. We are now living in a “full” and over-connected world in which it is becoming more and more likely to experience large scale perturbations coming either from nature, political turmoil, or financial collapses. A discussion over the possibility of quick adjustments of society to forced change should start from a share understanding of actual societal practices and their relation to feelings. The COVID-19 has shown that we can change our social practices overnight, something that cannot be done by technological silver-bullets. So rather than working on more and more complicated technological fixes (that would require decades to become operational) we should explore the remarkable capability of adaptation of human societies.

Why are we using resources? To do what? How are resources used? Which resources are more essential? How are they affecting the quality of social practices? These are some of the questions needed to explore and deliberate over a transition to alternative lifestyles institutions, and ways of developing and deploying technology.

This is the information that MAGIC has generated, and that is systematically ignored by convention. Unfortunately, rather than understanding the deep challenges in order to be prepared for changes, we bet that technocratic promises, based on shallow innovations and new business models, will be capable of preserving the existing institutions and life styles forever.

In relation to epistemological reflections:

* MAGIC has illustrated the complexity of the Nexus. We have to accept that error and failure are inevitable parts of the policy-making ecosystem; it is urgent to develop a culture of experimentation and resilience in a context in which the mainstream narrative has always been one of efficiency and control.

* MAGIC has shown that there is untapped useful knowledge beyond accredited expertise and institutional boundaries. Some of these types of knowledge are not utilized because of bureaucratic and disciplinary constraints, and other types of relevant knowledge becomes invisible because it can perturb a perceive fragile status-quo. It is urgent to develop democratic processes for the seamless deployment of uncomfortable knowledge.

* MAGIC has shown that many institutional goals reflect a nostalgic view of the past, including the privileged role of expert evidence as an input to policy-making. What constitutes quality evidence is not sculpted in stone but modulated by power, tradition, culture and other contextual and contingent considerations. It is urgent to democratize evidence, developing or enhancing robustness by inclusion, diversity, and plurality.



[1] Funtowicz, S. O., & Ravetz, J. R. 1993. Science for the post-normal age. Futures, 25(7), 739–755. https://doi.org/10.1016/0016-3287(93)90022-L

[2] Funtowicz, S. O. and Ravetz, J. R., 1994 Emergent Complex Systems Futures 26(6): 568-582

[3] Funtowicz, S. O. and Ravetz, J. R., 1997.The Poetry of Thermodynamics, Energy, Entropy, Exergy and quality Futures 29(9):791-810.

[4] Giampietro, M., 2018. Perception and representation of the resource nexus at the interface between society and the natural environment. Sustain. 10, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10072545

[5] Renner, A., Giampietro, M., 2020. Socio-technical discourses of European electricity decarbonization: Contesting narrative credibility and legitimacy with quantitative story-telling. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 59, 101279. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2019.101279

[6] Cadillo-Benalcazar, J.J., Bukkens, S.G.F., Ripa, M., Giampietro, M., 2020a. Why does the European Union produce biofuels? Examining consistency and plausibility in prevailing narratives with quantitative storytelling. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. under revi.

[7] Luhmann, N. 1995 Social Systems Stanford University Press

[8] Giampietro, M., Funtowicz, S.O., 2020. From elite folk science to the policy legend of the circular economy. Environ. Sci. Policy 109, 64–72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2020.04.012

[9] Giampietro, M., 2019. On the Circular Bioeconomy and Decoupling: Implications for Sustainable Growth. Ecol. Econ. 162, 143–156. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.05.001

MAGIC: a Journey with Uncomfortable Knowledge and Values

MAGIC: a Journey with Uncomfortable Knowledge and Values

Roger Strand

30 September 2020 is our last day as researchers in the Horizon 2020-funded Research and Innovation action “MAGIC: Moving towards Adaptive Governance in Complexity: Informing Nexus Security”. For me personally, MAGIC has been an enormously enriching experience. As the project in its formal sense is coming to an end, I will try to put into words some lessons from it.

In this last issue of the Nexus Times, we ask: “What is the contribution of MAGIC to Post-Normal Science?" Part of the answer follows from the sheer size and institutional positioning of the project. With a budget of 7 million euros and with formal connections with European Commission departments and agencies, MAGIC was able to go massively into ongoing policy issues and analyse them from the post-normal science perspective. In our studies, we have combined number crunching integrated environmental assessments, theoretically grounded social science and real-life engagement with policy-makers at what I believe is a hitherto unprecedented depth and scope in the post-normal community. I have also argued elsewhere that MAGIC developed into a truly inter- and in some respects transdisciplinary journey in which researchers coming from different fields and different epistemological postures learned, developed and changed on the way (Strand 2019).

Working inside of and living with this huge project has given opportunities to further develop the philosophy of post-normal science. What follows, are some early reflections.

Post-Normal Science

What is post-normal science (PNS)? In order to answer the question, it is useful to distinguish between the diagnosis and the proposed therapy, to borrow from medical jargon (Strand 2018). In the very first statement of the diagnosis, five years before the term “post-normal science” was invented, Funtowicz and Ravetz (1985) explained how there is a class of decision problems where stakes and/or systems uncertainties are very high. Indeed, uncertainties are not only high but irreducible because technical and scientific attempts to reduce them end up being contested, and instead of consensus on knowledge and action there is only more controversy. Reducing uncertainty in a decision problem by means of scientific and technical expertise implies reducing the scope. One has to define a problem that is tractable for science or engineering, meaning that the borders of the system have to be defined, the model of causal networks considered has to be closed (Wynne 1992), the time frame has to be limited, and ultimately cut-offs have to be made with respect to what are the legitimate stakes and who are the affected parties by the decision. Scientific choices accordingly have consequences for what is seen as legitimate stakes. Conversely, choices on who are the legitimate stakeholders and what are their stakes, have bearings on the definition of the scientific and technical problems to be pursued.

While PNS literature tends to say “high stakes or high uncertainties”, this may lead readers to believe that stakes and uncertainties are two separate and independent criteria. They are not, and this was made crystal clear already in the original treatment of the subject (Funtowicz & Ravetz 1985). Stakes and uncertainties are deeply entangled, and more generally, so are knowledge and values. The latter entanglement is perhaps the only significant insight that grew out of the many theoretical debates in philosophy of science in the 20th century and that led to the culmination and decline of logical positivism and logical empiricism.

When are stakes and uncertainties high? They are high when the controversy does not go away. In principle, anyone with the required skill and effort can find uncertainty and complexity. Already the ancient rabbis knew that he who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world, and in addition, there are innumerous connections between that single soul and its surroundings. The “therapy” proposed by Funtowicz and Ravetz in 1985 to governmental actors in charge of public decision-making processes was to accept the state of affairs in cases of seemingly never-ending controversies instead of trying to enforce consensus by imposing scientific and technical reduction of uncertainty. The post-normal answer to the decision problem was to admit that it was a hybrid political and technical one, in which both facts and values have to be deliberated upon – a “total-environmental assessment” in their words:

“This evolution, towards rationality and dialogue, may indeed take years to accomplish: in its early stages a “total-environmental assessment” may really seem to be a clash between incommensurable world-view. But such debates tend to stimulate the production of knowledge, of relevant facts and of value commitments, which eventually enable such problems to be resolved by political debate rather than by civil war.” (Funtowicz & Ravetz 1985, p. 844)

We might add: rather than by civil war or by unilateral violence or other forms of hegemonic power to silence others.

Since the 1990s, a PNS community of scholars and practitioners emerged and the focus on practical implementation and progress increased. Techniques developed for characterising and managing uncertainty, as well as participatory approaches to producing and appraising knowledge claims (“extending the peer community”). Along the way, the original argumentative link between the diagnostic and therapeutic part of PNS has in my opinion been somewhat lost or deflated. Funtowicz and Ravetz did not sell or offer techniques in order to make decision-making easier or more efficient; PNS was not proposed as a “quick fix”. It was a matter of accepting that the usual strategies in the modern state and in modern bureaucracies (of relegating knowledge questions to science) sometimes do not work; of accepting that sometimes there can be no quick fix. In particular, controversies tend not to go away by using the quick fix of imposing narrow notions of rationality which exclude every type of reason that does not pretend to be value-neutral. “Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point,” Pascal (1670) said. Besides of that, there is no deduction from the diagnosis to the one “right” therapy. Indeed, Funtowicz and Ravetz always welcomed new approaches to PNS and never policed against them as long as they shared the fundamental value commitment to deliberation and conviviality rather than violence (Ravetz & Funtowicz 1999).

Uncomfortable knowledge

Since 1985, never-ending public controversies about almost any kind of decision in our sociotechnical systems have become ubiquitous. The concept of post-normal science is widely cited and used, and so are more or less similar concepts such as “wicked problems”, “Mode 2”, “socially robust” and many others. The creation of the internet and the information society made it easier for billions of people to retrieve, produce and disseminate facts, values and worldviews. In this sense, the world has become post-normal and possibly also post-modern in the sense that the monopoly on Grand Narratives is weaker.

Nexus issues, which arise at the interface between different sectors and areas of governance, each with their specific scientific, technical and legal expertise, are almost by definition post-normal in the sense of high stakes and system uncertainties. All the issues that MAGIC analysed and engaged with, were definitely post-normal, and the MAGIC research approach was tailored to deal with that by studying the relationship between value commitments (in the form of preanalytical policy narratives) and facts (in the form knowledge claims about decision options and consequences).

At the same time, the knowledge production inside MAGIC, in particular that related to MuSIASEM, the multiscale, multi-level type of integrated environmental assessment developed by the project coordinator Mario Giampietro and his colleagues, comes with its own value commitment. It is committed to respect the value of sustainability of the biosphere. Accordingly, perhaps the singularly most important concept in MAGIC was that of biophysical feasibility: of whether a given course of action allows or undermines the regeneration of the biophysical funds upon which it depends. For instance, agriculture is not feasible in the long run if performed in such a way that the soil is eroded or destroyed. Again and again, MAGIC case studies indicated the biophysical unfeasibility of policies that are very real and very much alive and endorsed by the EU and its member states. Current energy policies, agricultural policies and policies for the circular economy were found to be unfeasible.

MAGIC was of course not the first research effort to make this discovery. Colleagues within and outside of the MAGIC consortium have been making similar claims for years if not decades, in particular within the field of ecological economics. The special circumstance of MAGIC was, however, that we had an institutional anchoring to engage with policy-makers in the European Commission and its agencies to discuss the results with them. Recalling the 1985 Funtowicz and Ravetz classic, we were placed – or rather placed ourselves – within a total-environmental assessment in which we sometimes even played two roles simultaneously, as dissidents that created and upheld a controversy around the policies, and as creators and custodians of that deliberative space in which the controversy played out.

Unsurprisingly, our contributions were not always so welcome. This observation is reflected upon elsewhere in the Nexus Times and in our project deliverables (from WP5 and WP6) and it was even endorsed as an empirical finding by our project reviewers. In order to make sense of that finding, we found Steve Rayner’s (2012) concepts of “uncomfortable knowledge” and “socially constructed ignorance” to be particularly useful. Any actor (be it an institution or an individual) has to simplify complexity in order to be able to act at all. One cannot wait for complete understanding of everything from every point of view. This is even more so for bureaucracies, which have a value commitment to legal certainty and predictability and work by applying an institutional logic (in terms of rules, regulations and practices). That institutional logic, in Rayner’s analysis, is in need of legitimization, which it gets from a (largely implicit) model of the world with which it interacts. This model has to be a simplified view of reality that justifies action in the absence of full information about the parts of reality that lie outside of the scope of the model. Otherwise the institution cannot act. In this sense, the institutional logic is justified by socially constructed ignorance outside of its subject domain. A simple word for this is “silo”. Now, the problem occurs when the institution is presented with knowledge that undermines the credibility of that simplified view of reality and accordingly, the legitimacy of the institutional logic and its practices. Such knowledge is what Rayner called uncomfortable.

In the course of its four years, MAGIC produced nothing but uncomfortable knowledge from the perspective of European policies. Almost all our findings could be taken to undermine the credibility of the more or less implicit assumptions of the nexus policies we investigated. In part, this discrepancy (or whatever we should call it) probably reflects back on us as scientists/scholars and our own academic identities, value commitments and idiosyncrasies. More fundamentally, however, we believe the discrepancy to be part of a collective, civilisational discrepancy that produces dangerous forms of socially constructed ignorance in our institutions, and a dangerous form of cognitive dissonance in individuals. Kjetil Rommetveit described this as a tension between two meta-narratives of our time (Rommetveit et al. 2013). The first narrative is “GEOS”, the narrative that builds on the systems sciences (ecology, climate science, ecological economics and others) to say that things are not going well, there are limits to growth and that sustainability calls for radical changes in society and the economy. The second narrative is “BIOS”, the narrative building on neo-classical economics and the optimism surrounding biotechnology and ICT that says that things are going very well, and that we should continue with business-as-usual, innovation and growth within some form of capitalism.

In Kovacic et al. (2019) we discussed how both BIOS and GEOS concerns are present in the policies and the bureaucracies (though quite unevenly distributed across directorates and agencies). However, BIOS is the more powerful narrative, deeply embedded in the European institutions, which means that GEOS concerns (sustainability, biodiversity, climate change etc) often are dealt with in policy-making by devising a BIOS solution attempt (emission trading, circular economy, technological innovation etc). Most MAGIC results, however, indicated that these translations from GEOS concerns to BIOS solutions fail to be biophysically viable.

For many policy-makers, MAGIC findings were accordingly not useful because they could not be translated into action within the existing institutional logic. Worse, the findings delegitimized existing policy and action.

Uncomfortable values

Rayner’s vision for how to escape the lock-in of uncomfortable knowledge and socially constructed ignorance is simply institutional change. If there is valid knowledge around that discredits the model of reality upon which an institution is built, the model should be revised, and the institutional logic and practice should change. Rayner warned about sources of inertia that impede necessary change.

In the case of the tension between BIOS and GEOS, the roots of the inertia seem to run deep and far beyond the organisational culture of the governmental organisations. The European Green Deal appears to acutely express this depth. While it describes the unsustainability of our societies and the severity of the various environmental crises more clearly than perhaps any such high-level policy did before, it proceeds directly into promises of continued growth and increased wealth for everybody, “ensuring that no one is left behind” (EC 2019). Europe is to become a society “where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use” (EC 2019).

Now, one does not need a big research project to know that these statements, indeed the fundamental assumption on which the entire narrative of the European Green Deal is built, simply are contrary to existing knowledge. Decoupling has not taken place and there are decades of research that strongly indicate that it cannot take place to any significant degree (Parrique et al. 2019). When a one-trillion euro policy is built around a knowledge claim that would not survive introductory exams in sustainability science, this cannot be accounted for by rigid institutional structure. Rather, it stands out as an expression of affect, of combined hope, fear and despair. It emanates the emotional necessity of material wealth and prosperity. Economic decline is too painful to endure. If reality tells the Europeans that their level of prosperity and affluence has to decrease in order that society become sustainable, then reality must cede.

A similar analysis was made with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals, seeing them as expressions of fantasy in the psychoanalytic sense (Fletcher & Rammelt 2017).

The MAGIC project has also been a venue to discuss such ideas. Mario Giampietro has moved his multi-level, multi-scale style of thought also into the relationship between societies, communities and individual human psyche. In his perspective, the conspicuous lack of feasibility of dominant narratives on food, energy and the environment can be interpreted as a form of collective delirium of affluent urban elites (Giampietro 2018), as a wilful loss of cognitive function in order to escape the cognitive dissonance between BIOS and GEOS, and the unbearable pain of fear for becoming poor.

To recall Pascal, also the policy-makers’ hearts have reasons that reason does not know. Parallel to Rayner’s analysis, one could postulate that reality offers too much complexity also in the affective dimension, and that actors both at the collective and individual level have to shield themselves from being overwhelmed and paralysed by conflicting values and desires. In this case, the dissonance arises from the fact/value-complex that the citizens of the urban elite (1) want and need to consume at unsustainable levels now and for the rest of their lives but they also (2) want that future generations enjoy the same affluence, and (3) you cannot have both in reality. Of these three elements one can only choose two; or perhaps one and two halves, sacrificing a bit of cognitive function and a bit of the concern for future generations. In this sense it appears to be a hybrid of socially constructed ignorance and socially constructed intemperance. This could also explain the occasional outbursts of affect when MAGIC researchers have engaged with policy-makers. It may not have been just a case of uncomfortable knowledge; it may also have been a matter of uncomfortable values that discredited the intemperance as we stated the concern of (real) sustainability with such clarity. At least my personal experience fits with this explanation: The angrier the response, the more knowledgeable was the responder. And the anger was perhaps mixed with self-anger.

The Ego, wuwei and the TAO

What some might think is a dry topic – nexus issues in European policy-making – was accordingly also a journey into the deep existential issues of citizens of the 21st century, of hopes and desires, of fear and denial, of conviviality and co-existence with the biosphere on which we depend for long-term survival.

The final and unfinished part of that journey, which at least to me was helpful for my understanding of post-normal science, is the one that asked about our own role in society, as post-normal thinkers in a big research project of this type. What we already largely knew at the onset of the project, was that we as researchers do not speak Truth to Power but that we too have a view from somewhere, from our own epistemic and value commitments. This is an insight that calls for reflexivity and modesty (Strand & Cañellas-Boltà 2006). As researchers-citizens-activists we care for some issues, which means that there are other issues that we do not care equally much for; care is not morally innocent (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011).

In our efforts to engage with nexus policy-making, we tried to combine the care for sustainability (understood in terms of biophysical feasibility and societal viability) with a posture of care for the individuals and institutions with which we engaged. While it is far too early to know what we may have achieved, I would not be too surprised if it turns out that little traceable impact in the direction of institutional change can be attributed to our efforts.

The question is, however, if one should aim for impact, or if this is another of these metaphors that reduce complexity in unfortunate ways. “Impact” connotes a mechanical relationship between interlocutors, in this case us researchers and them, the policy-makers, as if we run into them at high speed and the collision sets them in motion.

Towards the end of the project, some of us – as witnessed on Zora Kovacic’ blog[1] and in the final chapter of Kovacic et al. (2019) – consulted the history of philosophy to reflect around these issues, and found gems in ancient Taoist writings, notably Laozi’s Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi’s writings. In Zhuangzi’s stories “In the World of Men”, there is indeed a profound discussion about how to give advice to the ruler who is not impressed by the advisor. As always in Taoism, the answer lies in wuwei – “non-action”, which does not mean passivity but to abstain from trying to enforce change, from pushing and trying to control. This motif is already present in Laozi,’ Tao Te Ching:

Trying to control the world?

I see you won’t succeed.

The world is a spiritual vessel

And cannot be controlled.

Those who control, fail.

Those who grasp, lose.

-and has been utilized in the writings of Mario Giampietro and Kozo Mayumi as a way to explain how to govern in complexity (see e.g. Giampietro et al. 2012). If we think of the biosphere as the TAO, we realize that we, through our very partial understanding of it, will fail if we try to control it. Rather, wuwei means to act in accordance with the workings of the biosphere, and do as little as we can to oppose it. If we try to force it, we risk destroying subtle workings that we do not understand.

Zhuangzi took the analysis further by also recognising that humans and human individuals, including the ruler, are also TAO. We do not fully understand their minds and we should not try to push them; wuwei would mean to act in accordance with their workings.

Interpretations of this relatively vague insight abound. It can be seen as a pedagogical point – that nudging is better than screaming, perhaps, still within a logic of “impact” and manipulation, quite alien to the ethos of post-normal science of deliberation and conviviality. Or it can be seen as an ethical point, akin to yogic thought where one would say that one should try to meet one’s fellow human being at a higher chakra. To confront the urban elite for being ignorant, selfish and deluded would perhaps be to meet them at the lowest of chakras, kicking them in the belly or below. If so, it would not be surprising that the response is defensive or hostile. A posture of care would at least have to rise to the heart chakra to empathise.

Zhuangzi, however, makes a much taller order, all the way up to what the yogis would call the highest chakra, and asks for a posture of “fasting the mind”, that is, emptying and bracketing one’s ego and one’s own sense of urgency and desire to push and achieve. Our own actions should not be caused by the prospect of “impact”. Rather, they should be grounded in our own TAO, in who we are, who we choose to be and what we choose to care for.

In modern language, the line of argument from post-normal science via reflexivity seems to flow towards virtue ethics (to which the ethics of care belongs). A similar argument was developed by Funtowicz and Strand (2011), going towards the philosophy of Hannah Arendt rather than Zhuangzi. I see this rediscovery as a MAGIC contribution to post-normal science that emphasizes even more strongly that PNS is not and should not be a set of techniques and promises of quick fix, and that the currently ubiquitous sense of urgency is part of our troubles. I call it a rediscovery because in its spirit, these trains of thought seem to return to the very first articulation of total-environmental assessment (Funtowicz & Ravetz 1985): that in some instances, there is no simple solution and the attempt to enforce it will simply make things worse. The challenge we are confronted with is to accept that the world is what it is and maintain a spirit of respectful engagement and conviviality, while staying true to our desire to change the things for the better and strive for sustainability. In less prosaic terms, what is called for is a reconciliation of our minds, hearts and bodies. While certainly not offering any quick fix, MAGIC developed knowledge, tools and approaches to pursue that path, the first steps to try to integrate the wuwei of governing within the complexity within the biosphere and within society and its complex institutions and individuals, without losing ourselves on the way.



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Fletcher R. & C. Rammelt (2017)  Decoupling: A Key Fantasy of the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, Globalizations, 14:3, 450-467, https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2016.1263077

Funtowicz, S. & J. Ravetz (1985) Three types of risk assessment: a methodological analysis, in: C. Whipple & V. T. Covello (eds): Risk Analysis in the Private Sector (pp. 217-231), New York and London: Plenum Press.

Funtowicz, S., & Strand, R. (2011). Change and commitment: Beyond risk and responsibility. Journal of Risk Research, 14(8), 995–1003. https://doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2011.571784

Giampietro, M. (2018). Anticipation in Agriculture. In: R. Poli (Ed.): Handbook of Anticipation, Springer: Cham, Switzerland, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31737-3_23-1

Giampietro, M., Mayumi, K., & Sorman, A. H. (2012). The metabolic pattern of societies: Where economists fall short. London and New York: Routledge.

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Image credit: Michael Hofmann

Opinion: The Awakening from the Cartesian Dream?

Opinion: The Awakening from the Cartesian Dream?

Mario Giampietro

The current coronavirus crisis has succeeded where climate change has failed: it has made us aware of the shortcomings of the Cartesian Dream of prediction and control. The idea that our society is able to control events by using science and technology has suddenly lost its credibility. In the Church of the Carmine in Naples the Crucifix of Miracles, used in 1600 to protect the city against the black plague, has reappeared on the main altar. For some, the crucifix has become a more effective means to combat the stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic than the scientific advice given by experts. As the virus directly threatens our own life, the implausibility of the claim that ‘everything is under control’ has become evident. The coronavirus has shown us just how fragile our society is. We have now come to realise that everything that is dear to us, like visiting family or having a coffee with a friend, can suddenly change or disappear.

However, an important lesson we can take away from the COVID-19 pandemic is that, if need arises, it is possible to make changes to our lifestyle and, more importantly so, in a very short period of time. At present, society is enduring the restrictions imposed by governments in the hope of controlling the virus and returning to normality. But what if there will be no return to normality? What if this crisis will bring about lasting societal changes (another “black swan”—Taleb, 2007); changes that will not be determined by the grand narratives and plans about how to fix the world (e.g., the European Green Deal) but by a forced need to adapt to new circumstances? This looming possibility adds to the current feelings of unease and fear.

The Cartesian Dream of prediction and control is exactly what has prevented us from making changes to our social practices in response to the threat of climate change. In fact, it is currently unthinkable for us to adopt new solutions without assuring ourselves that we will be able to control them. But what happens if society is faced with the realisation that ‘total control’ is simply impossible? Are we condemned to do ‘more of the same’—technological fix after technological fix—until our system collapses and we will be forced to accept alternative solutions? 

The fragility of our identity

Our contemporary identity—I like to call it the ‘cyborg identity’—is imposed on us by our capitalist economy, as well as by media and influencers (hyper-cycles of self-referential messages). It no longer reflects the culture and traditions passed down through generations. As a consequence, our identity has become increasingly shallow and vulnerable to perturbations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. We are becoming less and less capable of handling ‘the tragedy of change.’ In order to fight, resist and adapt to change, we must have a clear and shared understanding of who we are and where we want to go. A fragile identity hinders decisions about what we are willing to lose in order to preserve what we would like to retain. We are increasingly unable to see, let alone thread the difficult path through change.

Technology is no match for nature

In the 1953 movie The War of the Worlds, Earth is attacked by spaceships from Mars. The US army employs its best weapons but cannot compete against Martian technology. After several defeats, the US army decides to drop the best they have—an atomic bomb—but, unfortunately, also this last resort fails. When humans are resigned to their fate a miracle occurs.  The Martian ships start crashing to the ground, their occupants having succumbed to a viral infection. The narrator concludes the movie by saying: “[…] the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth…”; a virus! The morale is that technology is no match for nature. Descartes’ vision of humankind as ‘masters and possessors of nature’ must be modified by Bacon’s maxim: ‘nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed’[1]. Friend or foe, viruses are part of nature and we need to accept to live with them.  

Can we avoid the collapse of complex societies?

The inability of our health care systems to handle the COVID-19 crisis in a ‘prediction and control’ mode confirms Joseph Tainter’s (1988) concern regarding the risk of over-complicating the functional structure of society. It is impossible for societies to guarantee absolute prediction and control over all potential future perturbations. As a consequence, allocating resources under such assumption may not be a wise choice. It may be more useful to govern society using strategies based on: (i) monitoring and anticipating by considering non-equivalent perceptions of our interaction with nature based on feelings and concerns held by the extended peer community (not only based on data generated by scientific experts); (ii) preserving the diversity of social practices in society to boost adaptability.

The role of science in governance

Apart from satisfying our curiosity, science is expected to provide society with useful information to guide decision-making processes and in this way to reduce stress for its citizens. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown that science not always lives up to this expectation. It can provide us with essential information on the mechanisms of the epidemic outbreak, but it does not provide us, for example, with a solution on how to deal with the shortage of ventilators needed for treating COVID-19 patients. Science cannot help us decide whose concerns, fears, and needs to prioritise. In the Cartesian Dream, science is purported to reduce stress by controlling the world and calculating risk. It does not acknowledge that danger (e.g., death) is an unavoidable part of life (Saltelli and Boulanger, 2020). To date, science has been predominantly used to selectively improve the quality of life of some social groups, providing them with an edge on the competition, and replacing religion as the source of legitimization of their power. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the expectations about science are losing their credibility, even for the selected few. As a result, the more reflexive citizens have begun to re-think the validity of the Cartesian Dream, while others have stocked up on toilet paper.

Further reading:

Waltner-Toews D, Biggeri A, De Marchi B, Funtowicz S, Giampietro M, O’Connor M, Ravetz JR, Saltelli A & van der Sluijs JP (2020). Post-Normal Pandemics: Why Covid-19 Requires a New Approach to Science.

Saltelli A & Boulanger PM (2020), 'Technoscience, policy and the new media. Nexus or vortex?', Futures, vol. 115, 102491, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102491.

Tainter JA (1988), The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press.

Taleb NN (2007), The Black Swan, Random House Publishing Group.

[1] Quote from Jerome Ravetz, personal communication.