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National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Uncertainty is Political!Monday, January 27

About Our Speakers

Daniel Sarewitz Daniel Sarewitz is co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, and Professor of Science and Society, at Arizona State University.  His work focuses on revealing the connections between policy decisions, knowledge creation and innovation, and social outcomes.  His most recent book is, The Techno-Human Condition (MIT Press, 2011, co-authored with Braden Allenby).  He is also a regular columnist for Nature and the author of Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology and the Politics of Progress
Mahmud Farooque Mahmud Farooque is associate director, DC Office, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. His work focuses on the research, design and implementation of new and creative opportunities to change the way science and innovation policy is learned and practiced to improve decision-making and societal outcomes. Mahmud co-leads CSPO’s long-term efforts to build a community of practice among innovative R&D program managers in the government—aimed at enhancing the social value of publicly funded science.

About This Talk

Daniel Sarewitz and Mahmud Farooque invite us to rethink uncertainty and science communication in complex and urgent problems using smart politics and public engagement. Sarewitz suggests that “a lot of the ways we think about how to deal with uncertainty don’t come to terms with the political essence of the concept.” To help us address this challenge, he leads us through three examples that point to political dynamics as the source of uncertainty: predicting the behavior of the San Andreas Fault, selecting Yucca Mountain as a repository for nuclear waste, and the struggle to effectively regulate potentially toxic chemicals. All these cases are situations described as belonging to “post-normal science” and not meant to be addressed by normal science; that is: non-deterministic, complex and open systems with highly contested values, need for urgent decisions, contested political high-stakes, and difficulty of the science itself. The solution resides, according to Sarewitz, in innovative approaches that look towards the politics first and that are designed to increase trust, transparency, process time, and alternatives, in order to increase the acceptability of “good enough” science.

With this in mind, Farooque then asks us to consider how to bring people together to create a different political dynamic. He suggests that the current model of science communication diminishes the complexity implicit in most situations. Is there really a deficit of knowledge? Should science communication focus on popularizing or “dumbing-down” science? Do scientists really know what the public wants answered? Farooque leads us through a series of options for accessing a disengaged public and builds the case for using engagement platforms that build reflective capacity, as well as context driven thinking, and allow for the co-creation of different plausible futures and alternatives.


Uncertainty is Political! [PDF]


[view directly on YouTube]

This talk was held at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on January 27, 2014, as part of the Carbon Monitoring System Applications Policy Speaker and NASA Public Outreach Colloquium Series.

For upcoming events, check out CMS Applications Policy Speaker Series.

Your suggestions for future speakers or feedback about our series are welcomed. 
Contact the Applications Team.