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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

Nexus governance – not so unique after all?

Nexus governance – not so unique after all?

Chelsea Jones and Jan Sindt

In theory, governing the water-energy-food nexus is not so different from governing any other issue area characterized by complexity, conflicting interests over scarce resources and questions around their fair distribution. For instance, nexus-type governance is at the heart of any budget decision about the distribution of public funding to line ministries. Those decisions are facilitated by simplification, measuring the importance of an entire segment of society in terms of a budget share. The main difference, then, is that the water-energy-food nexus is mostly concerned with aspects that either don’t have a price, or have a price which may reflect a narrow view, as it cannot take into account the diverse set of values they may hold for different actors. This includes: “externalities”, “commons” like rainwater, biodiversity, intact ecosystems, a safe climate, but also undervalued resources like groundwater, food, and land. One commonly used solution is to attach a price to these common goods, to “internalize” them into the economy.

One example of using price-based valuation is the use of a carbon tax as a means of signaling a preference for low-carbon solutions in the economy, while leaving the selection of optimal solutions to the private sector. A carbon tax does not technically turn a safe climate into a commodity for the market to work with, as the resulting carbon price is fixed and does not react to scarcity the way the other fixed carbon price scheme - permits in an emissions trading scheme - would. Pricing through either instrument introduces economic incentives to reduce emissions up to the point where it is cheaper to pay or trade than to avoid paying and leaves it to the market to determine that point. Capping through permits further defines that point as the amount of permits issued for trading, offering no incentive for further emission reductions beyond that point and sending a wrong signal that emissions up to that point are not problematic. In both cases, governance requires a defined benchmark for either the national price of carbon emissions or size of the national carbon budget.

Determining the value of a carbon price or the size of a budget is in itself a subjective decision taken through a process of political deliberation, considering a number of economic trade-offs involved like the impact on profitability of existing business operations and repercussions on the job market and social inequalities, in addition to scientific deliberation about the safe limits for global emissions and political-philosophical deliberation about the just distribution of a hypothetical global carbon budget among nation states. Many political decisions involve a similar level of complexity (e.g. trade policy, humanitarian interventions). However, the pricing of impacts related to climate change is unique among such political decisions as it heavily relies on benchmarks and targets that are defined outside the political system and, to a large extent, through the development and application of highly complex scientific models. Scientists cannot be held accountable in the same way policy makers can be, insofar as they are not elected to govern the community and their work is also rarely scrutinized by a wider public. Policy makers end up being responsible for the impacts of decisions they base on scientific advice regarding the costs of emissions or the global carbon budget. Adding to that, the impacts of decisions around climate change, and more broadly sustainable management, often only materialize in the long term, and hence those constituencies who would hold politicians accountable for their decisions can only do so in the more distant future. With respect to nexus-governance, there is not so much of a complexity problem as there is an accountability problem.

Part of the benefit in using a methodology such as Quantitative Storytelling lies in its ability to examine the underlying narratives of decision-making and policy recommendations. The use of carbon prices and the prioritization of decisions based on economic parameters is just one example of these policy narratives: the narrative that natural resources and environmental goods can be valued economically and that the trade-offs among them can be managed via monetary means. By using the QST framework of evaluating not only the feasibility of options, but also their viability and social desirability, narratives can be evaluated against a policy-relevant range of indicators which better captures the more intangible components of their value. By examining the underlying narratives surrounding a policy, more information is also made available regarding its inherent assumptions on what should be valued how much, thereby helping to hold policy-makers accountable for what they choose to value in their decisions and why.