The focus of my endeavours is science.  This is partly an accident, in that I never had the opportunity to cultivate my skills and sensitivities in other academic directions or cultural forms. But from my earliest years I combined my concerns for science with an awareness and commitment to politics, which on various occasions was realised as activism, but for most of the time in reflection.

As I became aware of science as an intellectual and social phenomenon, I was impressed by certain similarities to what I had been told about dogmatic religion. In that other case, truth was proclaimed as an exclusive possession by each established authority, in spite of the evidence of permanent and re-occurring splits and debates within each group. Also, religion claimed exclusive access to the good in personal and social life, in spite of the historic evidence of great evils perpetrated in the name of God. But I discovered that in science, teaching was (and mainly still is) dogmatic, and individual initiative is stifled up to the very highest levels of learning.  Also, the progress of science reminds us that yesterday's examination truths are today's outmoded opinions. And while science has, through its applications, been responsible for great benefits, during my lifetime, starting with The Bomb and then environmental degradation, the applications of science have been shown to be double-edged.

I was far from alone in sensing such contradictions; but I was unusual in my approach to their resolution. I combined a variety of elements of my own experience, among them: the craft character of scholarly work; the possibility of science (including published research) of having all degrees of quality down to the vacuous; the very exceptional character, in world cultural history, of our reductionist scientific metaphysics; the narrow-mindedness of many teachers and researchers; the deployment of science in an amoral or immoral way; and my own political campaigning on science-related issues (first nuclear weapons, and then the supersonic transport Concorde). Also, in my philosophical formation I had developed an instinctive sense both for history and for dialectics; and this is the way that I have always tried to explain things.

Through the 1960's I attempted to integrate all these elements. The outcomes included an introductory course in the history of science which did have some influence outside Leeds, some theoretical writings about the essential insanity of nuclear warfare, and eventually the big book, "Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems". The title was deliberately paradoxical at that time; and since the whole idea of science having social problems was strange and repellent, the book found its audience outside the academic mainstream. Indeed, given how little the various relevant academic communities noticed it, it was remarkable that it went through two hardback and also three paperback editions, and was finally republished just a quarter-century after its first appearance.

In the 'seventies I found myself engaged in non-academic activities, which I found enriching but which did tend to isolate me from scholars and scholarship.  For three years I was the 'executive secretary' of the Council for Science and Society, an organisation dedicated to identifying problems as they came 'over the horizon' and warning society.  It was just about thirty years ahead of its time.  We did some really interesting work, as evidenced by the titles of its early reports, 'The Acceptability of Risks', 'Superstar Technologies', 'Harmless Weapons', 'Life and Death before Birth', and 'Scholarly Freedoms and Human Rights'.  As a result of my work there, I spent two years on the pioneering 'Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group', regulating the research in the UK.  Both of these experiences broadened my horizons considerably, but did make me more impatient with the pace and focus of academic work.

I returned to systematic philosophical study when I met Silvio Funtowicz in 1981, and we embarked on a project that combined practical application with a fundamental analysis of mathematics. This culminated in our joint book "Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy". There we developed a notational scheme which encompasses the different sorts of uncertainties, social determinations and implicit value-loadings in quantitative expressions. Of course, a statement like the above might seem outlandish to many readers, who have never had occasion to question the faith that numbers are not merely necessary for scientific truth, but also sufficient. Silvio and I share the conviction that so long as people are deluded about the information conveyed in numbers, there can never be an effective management of the the scientific and practical problems where uncertainty and value-loading are significant.  We are pleased that, largely through the inspired efforts of Jeroen van der Sluijs, a system of quality-assurance for scientific information has recently been adopted by the Dutch Environment Agency.

As we were developing our 'NUSAP' notational system in the 1980's, a more general critique of scientific practice began to emerge. For in the major science-related problems of our day, the traditional faith in the essential objectivity and value-neutrality of science has become a mockery. Wherever we turn, be it in global climate change, new-variant CJD, weakening of male sperm in many species, or the rising incidence of asthma, we find serious, perhaps very threatening problems, for which science provides no easy answers. The situation might be summed up in two epigrams. One, from Robert Sinsheimer, is that formerly we asked what science is doing for us, while now we ask what science is doing to us. The other, from myself and Silvio, is that formerly science was considered as having 'hard facts' in contrast to the soft, subjective humanities, while now we confront hard policy issues for which the scientific inputs are frequently irremediably soft.

Out of such insights we developed the scheme of Post-Normal Science, with its characteristic quadrant-rainbow diagram. This has been developing and maturing for nearly two decades; the community of adherents is still small but is growing satisfactorily. We find that for many people it functions as an illumination and a liberation. It shows scientists that their private concerns, however different from the official public discourse of their field, are quite real and valid. And non-scientists are given confidence to join in the debate on matters which until recently had been the exclusive domain of accredited experts. The basis we chose for Post-Normal Science is in methodology.  We argue that the quality-assurance of scientific inputs into policy processes requires an 'extended peer community', including all the stakeholders in an issue. This new peer community can also deploy 'extended facts', including local and personal experience, as well as investigative journalism and leaked sources. So Post-Normal Science is inevitably political, and involves a new extension of legitimacy and power; but we felt it appropriate to launch it on this philosophical foundation.

In parallel to such studies, I have continued my special enquiries into the social and ethical aspects of science and technology. With Zia Sardar I have engaged in studies of the future, either in connection with particular technologies (as in 'Cyberfutures') or in general (in my occasional pieces for Futures magazine).  Now that science is so obviously influenced, and in some cases deformed, by the agendas of power and profit, even the concepts of Post-Normal Science need to be enriched if they are to continue to offer useful critical insights.

All these developments can be considered as the opening of scientific methodology to criticism on a societal basis.  There is an analogous development, in the sudden emergence of criticism of the world-view of modern science.  This had been a suppressed tendency for many generations in Western Europe (outside Germany).  Now, with the great impetus deriving from the "counter-culture" of the 1960's, it is firmly established.  I sometimes call it "the aromatherapy counter-revolution", since it found a strong base in that particular commercial niche of beauty therapy, protected from the strictures of the scientific-medical establishment.  Integrating this tendency with the basically political critique of Post-Normal Science will not be an easy task; but I believe that it is the way of the future for science.  Some thoughts in that direction are provided in my forthcoming book "A No-Nonsense Guide to Science".

I have recently had the good fortune to apply my thoughts to practical issues, through a Fellowship at the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization at the University of Oxford.  This has become one of the constituent institutes of the James Martin School of the Twenty-First Century, the result of a benefaction of one hundred million dollars.  It is hard to imagine more exciting prospect of the deployment of committed academics to the solution of the world's great challenges.

My own story would not  be complete without a mention of my personal explorations in inward awareness, which becomes stronger and more meaningful all the time.  It started with an experience of Hindu spirituality that was bizarre and meaningful in equal measures, and which has stimulated me to reflection for the decades ever seince.  I now find 'complementary and alternative medicine' a fascinating phenomenon in many ways.  First, there is the growing interaction with conventional medicine, with the full spectrum of tactics from repression through to co-optation and subversion.  There is also a political dimension to this, of the struggles between the 'insiders' and their less-qualified rivals.  Then there is the contrast between the apparent consensus that rules in most areas of conventional medicine, with a veritable jungle of alternative treatments and therapies.  The hazards and pitfalls of exploration in this new area are severe; it is not for those with faint hearts or weak heads.  But through all the confusion, there is clearly a different sort of knowing and of practice going on here.  It may well be related to a different sense of embodied self.  This difference may be most clearly displayed in Healing, where there are no things or doctrines to shape (or conceal) the story that is being played out.  The simple experiment of holding one's hands parallel and then gradually bringing them together until there is some sort of 'feeling' may come to function for our time as Galileo's telescope did for his.  Where it will all take us is a story yet to be written; I hope to see it and to play my part.

This is how I see things in June 2005.

Jerry Ravetz
Philosopher at large
My Work