Keep it complex

It’s been a long time since I have actually written a blog. I have gotten into the habit of re-blogging, or rather have resorted to re-blogging since I have a lot of restrictions on my time (*cough* teaching*cough*).
To get back into the swing of things, I have decided to try to write regular short posts highlighting aspects of articles and books that I have been reading. I hope to pick out some quotes I find helpful and perhaps spark discussion.
To start, I have been re-reading Andy Stirling’s Nature comment “Keep it Complex” (23/30 December 2010 Volume 468 pp 1029-1031) (read it here).
In this paper he identified the challenges of selling complexity and uncertainly to policy makers. He reviewed 63 peer-reviewed studies economic costs arising from health and environmental impacts of different sets of energy technologies and found that while studies offer conclusions with narrow uncertainty ranges, together, the literature offers no clear consensus for policy makers.
He notes that:

The discrepancies between equally authoritative, peer-reviewed studies span many orders of magnitude, and the overlapping uncertainty ranges can support almost any ranking order of technologies, justifying almost any policy decision as science based (Stirling, 2010:1030)

He argues that the narrow focus on risk leaves science vulnerable to the social dynamics of groups and that when intrinsically plural, conditional nature of knowledge is realized, science can become more rigorous, robust and democratically accountable.
Importantly, he also notes that a single definitive representation of science is more vulnerable to manipulation. He acknowledges that plural conditional approaches are not immune to this, but that they can make political pressure more visible.
So rather than supporting policy-makers with conclusive findings, Stirling calls on us to keep it complex because “plural, conditional advice helps enable mature and sophisticated policy debate on broader questions” (Stirling, 2010:1031).

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