Charles N. Steele wrote a funny little comment on Hot Coffee Girl's blog a while back, about not defining oneself as a "non-smoker". Recent encounters with various pseudo-intellectual movements defining themselves as post-this or post-that got me to thinking that the prefix "post-" probably deserves similar contempt for defining oneself not in terms of what one is but in terms of what one is not.

There is a debate going on at Charles's site about a strange concept called post-science. Though much of the argument is esoteric, I recommend it to you for the entertainment value of the claims of the post-science spokesman (and of the websites that he points to), and as an illustration of the difficulty of reasoning with people who consciously reject rationality, and of where such a rejection gets you to.

Then there is the similar-sounding but separate (in origin and purpose, if not in mode of "thought") post-normal science. Though post-science looks down on post-normal science, they share the view that truth should be established by means other than rational analysis and (where appropriate) falsification through empirical testing. Instead, they are inclined to accept as equally important to rational analysis other methods of assessing the truth. In particular, it would seem under both systems, if the majority can be persuaded of the truth of something, it becomes true by that virtue, regardless of the merits of the argument. Stephen Colbert has a word for something pretty similar to this: truthiness, and a website (Wikiality) replete with examples.

I came across post-normal science when I was trying to learn about ecological economics, another pseudo-intellectual, irrational philosophy. Ecological economics, which is based on a post-normal scientific approach, is only distantly related to ecology and economics. I will post separately about their philosophical emptiness, but suffice it to say that they exist to find a way to put an intellectual gloss on opposition to the logical conclusions of rational thought to which some people's gut-based rather than head-based (as Colbert would put it) thinking leads them.

Ecological economics has been adopted as a branch of post-autistic economics. This is a reaction to the dominance of the neo-classical model in the teaching of modern economics. But rather than look for a more rigorous alternative (the fault of the neo-classical model, after all, being that it incorporates generalisations and assumptions that do not match the real world), they took the magpie approach of putting together a pluralist philosophy trying to incorporate every shiny new idea they could find, including historicist, ecological, feminist, social, and Islamic economics. The result is a smoke-machine of confusion, spreading fog rather than light on an academic field that could definitely do with more light.

In fact, it is typical of these ideas that they were built on a grain of truth. Post-science rightly rejects the over-reliance on the over-stated certainty of scientific dogma that infects politics and academia nowadays. Post-normal science rightly observes that massively complex systems such as the global ecosystem (or the human mind) may not be amenable to analysis by conventional scientific techniques. Post-autistic economics began with a rebellion by French economics students against the neo-classical orthodoxy that dominates university economics departments (and not just in France), which they rightly observed often has very little relation to the real world.

Sadly, these groups start from a justified criticism of the current direction of travel, but instead of correcting the map, they throw it away and head off in a series of random directions, none of them the right one. With their rejection of the original philosophy, they have also thrown away the tools that would allow them to put together something better. They are classic illustrations of how it is harder to construct than to destroy, harder still to construct something better than what was there before, and hardest to do so without using the foundations of the previous edifice. They have jumped down from the giant's shoulders, and can now see very little at all.

The term post-anything is based on the concept of continual, inevitable improvement — that failed philosophy of history that underlies the fallacies of many of our most influential thinkers, from Smith and Fukuyama (for whom capitalism was the culmination of the progress of history) to Marx (for whom capitalism is just one more step in the inevitable historical progress to socialism). The implication is that what comes after is necessarily better than what came before, and that post-whatever is therefore better than whatever. Life isn't necessarily like that. Post-lunch bloat isn't necessarily as good as lunch or its anticipation. Less flippantly, ideas of the roles of government and society in the Dark Ages were a retrograde step compared to those espoused by the Roman Empire, let alone by the Republic. Progress is not inevitable and continual, and ideas that come later are not necessarily better than those that came before. Only rationality can guarantee progress.

Calling one's ideas post-something is trying to define one's philosophy as the final stage of progression. What comes after post-modernism? Post-post-modernism? To be fair, the modernists probably started it, defining their movement by virtue of its newness, rather than a positive term that encapsulated the philosophy (unless rejectionism and revisionism were all it had to offer). What happens to modernist ideas when they are no longer fresh, new or even credible? Are they old-hat but modern? The truth about the Shock of the New is that mostly it wasn't so much shocking as just daft and uninspiring. It hasn't been superseded, it was never much good. Its principal virtue was to be different, and so it could only be defined by reference to what came before.

Having realised that being post-anything is old hat and without merit, it seemed that we could usefully group these twentieth-century aberrations of thought under a generic umbrella: postism. It turns out that some are there before me, and that the counter-strike of post-postism has already been launched. It is fitting that analysts of postism take themselves rather more seriously than those of post-postism (unbearably, pompously seriously, in fact).

But before we allow ourselves the luxury of sniggering at the absurd constructions and pointless mental gymnastics into which many twentieth-century intellectuals* descended, we ought to remember where such silly thinking can get you: Iraq, an example of the new liberal imperialism of the post-imperial, post-modern state that is Blair's Britain. Sloppy thinking is often funny, but it is always serious.

* I use the term "intellectual" here in the Hayekian sense of someone who spouts about ideas without necessarily understanding them. The term "cultural workers", used by the authors of the insufferably academic paper linked above to imply that people like them are actually doing a hard day's work producing garbage, probably refers to the same group.


I said I would post separately on post-normal science and ecological economics. Here's something I wrote a few months ago:

Once upon a time, not so long ago, we each had our role, and within that role the decisions were ours to make as to how we went about it. Then, around the time that New Labour came to power I think, this notion of stakeholders was introduced, and suddenly there were all sorts of people and bodies who were supposed to be party to the decisions of other bodies, and in whose interests we were supposed to act as well as the interests traditionally defined by our roles. After doing a bit of reading on ecological economics, I think I have a slightly better idea of where it comes from.

Ecological economics (which is not really economics at all, and doesn't have much to do with the science of ecology either) is an excuse for people who think they know what everyone else should be doing but can't justify their views by conventional means to dress their hopeless prescriptions up in pseudo-science and attach a name like economics to it, so that it sounds more academically-credible and relevant to the real world than the mumbo-jumbo it is based on really deserves. One particularly striking and  fundamental piece of this mumbo-jumbo is "post-normal science". You might think that, though there may be different branches of science, there are not different types of science. Science, you would think, is the system of knowledge attained by verifiable, falsifiable means.

But some academics would beg to differ. Apparently, where subjects are so complex that they are not amenable to scientific methods, we should not accept that we are at the current limits of science, but rather come up with a new way of "doing science" that is not so limited by these awkward constraints of empiricism. That is the purpose of post-normal science. Post-normal science modifies the empiricist approach of traditional science in four ways (and here I am going to quote from my Ecological Economics Workbook by Josh Farley, Jon Erickson and Herman Daly, leading lights in their field, as I could not do justice to the absurdity if I tried to paraphrase): 

  1. "Post-normal science challenges us to extend our notion of who speaks with authority in the decision-making process, including representatives who are not scientists or credentialed experts. This approach emphasizes diverse values and expertise of stakeholders who may have intimate contact with a specific system, and observations and gut instincts not limited by disciplinary blinders." So post-normal science is the science of the gut-instinct of Joe Public. These are the people who are the stakeholders, and this is why they are brought into the equation.
  2. "Post-normal science challenges us to ask the question, what kind of information is acceptable for the decision-making process? Acceptable information should reflect the expertise of the decision makers as well as the uncertainty of scientific 'facts' [sic]. Folk wisdom, local knowledge, anecdotal evidence, investigative journalism, and small-scale surveys can have a place alongside expert opinion, scientific evidence and peer-reviews reports." So we don't ask, "is this demonstrable or not", we ask, "what do the general public think", and give that equal weight to empirical studies.
  3. "Post-normal science forces us to ask the question, how much information is required to make a decision?...Forced to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and ignorance, we should rely on the precautionary principle. That is, we should avoid decisions that risk catastrophic and or irreversible outcomes, even when we perceive the risk of such outcomes to be low. Rather than trying to maximize probable net benefits, for example, it may instead be better to minimize maximum regrets." There might be a point to this (though there are technical economic reasons why this is probably not valid), if it were based on rational judgment, logical analysis and empirical evidence. But these judgments are to be made in accordance with the gut-instinct of Joe Public, based on folk wisdom, anecdotal evidence and small-scale surveys. Is there any circumstance in which Joe Public will not, given this latitude, find some risk (which does not have to be rational) and decide that we should minimize maximum regrets by doing nothing?
  4. "Post-normal science rethinks how to assess the quality of a decision. The quality of research in complex ecological-eocnomic systems simply cannot be judged on the basis of 'hard' [sic] scientific criteria such as replicability, analytical rigor, and peer review. Instead, its quality must be determined by an open debate among those interested in the outcome. Verdicts from such a group carry 'moral force and hence political influence.'" So the way to deal with the incredible complexity of climate-change science, for example, is to ask complete amateurs their opinions and weight them as heavily as the experts. The test of validity will be not whether the theories stand up to critical and empirical examination, but whether the ignorant are inclined to believe it.

They summarise: "Thus, a post-normal lens to problem solving emphasizes the central role of stakeholders in decision making, knowledge retention, and extended peer review." That is "knowledge retention" in the sense of "ignorance retention" (relying on gut-instinct and folk wisdom). And "extended peer review" in the sense of testing your theories on the basis of whether the public are inclined to believe you.

Stakeholders are our new scientists. Their opinions are the measure of scientific merit. In this looking-glass world, no wonder so much lip-service is paid to the importance of stakeholders. They are the ultimate arbiters, and their ignorance is the definition of truth.