Science and technology scholars write and talk a lot about post-normal science, the unique political situation that emerges for issues where there are considerable stakes and high levels of (perceived) uncertainty. I was asked to give a talk on short notice at the World Biodiversity Forum this week, and I used it as an opportunity to think through how people involved in areas of post-normal science and politics try to cope with or escape the situation of post-normality. Can the stakes be reduced while still addressing the problem? Can the perceived uncertainties be lessened without other stakeholders seeing it as dishonest, biased, or unfair? Those are just a few of the thoughts that I explored. Unfortunately, the talk wasn't recorded, but here is a link to the slides.
Biodiversity conservation is riddled with conflict. This is unsurprising, given that people live where we also find important and charismatic animal species. Although there has been a lot of good work looking into how to reconcile the often divergent interests of conservationists and rural peoples, I feel like a lot of it is on the wrong track. No doubt is it well intentioned. There is a long history of treating rural people as conservation "problems," one that goes at least as far back as efforts to remove native peoples from America's newly established national parks. The idea that species can only be protected by creating "pristine" wilderness areas is increasingly recognized as not only ahistorical but also the driving force behind the expropriation of land from rural residents. The future of conservation relies on moving past the historical antagonism between typically urban-dwelling, "science following" conservation advocates and the people who live within the landscapes seen as needing protection.
The response within conservation has paralleled a similar move within Science and Technology Studies, consequently suffering some of the same drawbacks. Researchers in STS have done great work to highlight the existence of "lay expertise," that non-scientists have important knowledge to contribute. Similarly, environmental scientists have uncovered how indigenous and local peoples often have an intricate understanding of their local environment and have developed strategies that allow them to live off the land in ways that sometimes more sustainable or supportive of biodiversity than what so-called modern people do. Work in both these areas try to encourage scientists to be more humble and open to listening to non-scientists.
The risk is romanticizing lay people. Not all indigenous peoples have lived so sustainability. Mesoamerica, for instance, was once dominated by groups who sustained themselves as much by imperialism as by their home grown agricultural practices. More broadly the antithesis of "follow the science", can devolve into a kind of epistemological populism, where it is non-experts whose knowledge becomes sacrosanct or unquestionable. Recall how Newt Gingerich, in the lead up to the 2016 election, argued that American's belief that the country was more dangerous than in the past, despite statistics to the contrary, was all that mattered for the election. Democracy is served by putting different kinds of knowledge in conversation, not by venerating the little guy. The question here is not whether the average American is wrong or if FBI statistics are right, but why Americans would still feel unsafe despite this data. The apparent contradiction uncovers a unresolved problem that policy should address.
I think that part of the problem is that we've confused political problems for knowledge conflicts. Past injustices were often justified by science, such as when pristine (read "human free") protected areas were argued to be the only way to preserve nature. So the appropriate response seems to be that we can prevent those injustices by elevating lay knowledge so as to be equal in value to science. The idea is that the power differential was created by the unequal weight given to different kinds of knowledge, but really the causality worked in the opposite direction: Power legitimates one group's knowledge over that of others. So we focus excessively on developing ways to give diverse forms of knowledge equal weight when the real issue is simply that the way we decide what is a problem and how to solve it is insufficiently democratic. We're treating the symptom rather than the cause.
The way out is both agnostic and agonistic. I think it's better to not get into the morass of deciding which knowledge should have the most influence or whether different ways of knowing are or are not equal. Rather, groups with different ideas about what is important and different ways of knowing about the environment should have more equal say in deciding how to solve collective problems. We settle political conflicts through democracy, not convoluted analytical schemes for realizing epistemological equality. This is also the right way, because rural people should have a say in what conservation measures are deployed where they live and how, full stop. They have this right not because they have special knowledge or because they live in appropriately non-western or native ways, but because they live there and have a stake. No amount of scientific know-how justifies depriving someone else of a say in decisions that affect them, insofar as we want to live in democratic societies.
In any case, if you intrigued by this line of thought, take a peak at a commentary that I recently published in One Earth.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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