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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Image credit: Michael Hofmann