Reconciling Post-Positivist and Post-Modern Worldviews in Climate Research and Services

Climate change has evolved into an almost all-encompassing issue of this generation. What had begun in the realm of the physical sciences has now proved more complex than initially anticipated, and to be inherently tied to human lifestyles and decision-making. Thus, a holistic approach to climate science requires rigorous interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research and practice toward implementing responsive actions on the ground.

Post-modernism has emerged in the last few years as a potential interdisciplinary research paradigm for issues such as climate change because of its inclusiveness. However, it has been criticized by researchers in general because of its apparent relativism, as well as its lack of concrete metrics for evaluating the validity of findings. Scientists still mainly appeal to the traditional post-positivist approach in which there is one “truth” that is objective and can be known through careful experimentation. Post-positivism holds scientific knowledge and reputation in high regard, while often dismissing the views of non-scientists as being uninformed or lacking in depth of technical understanding.

However, the complexity of the climate change issue cannot be contested; and the diversity of stakeholder voices make an already complex issue more challenging to comprehend, much less address. A variety of terms such as “resilience,” “risk,” “safety,” and “vulnerability” are used with no clear consensus about what these terms mean. Because these terms are tied to societal values, different contexts result in different meanings and, hence, implications for adaptation goals.

These issues become all the more crucial given the current initiatives toward conceptualizing, developing, and implementing frameworks and infrastructures for the delivery of climate services, that is climate information tailored for the use of stakeholders in vulnerability, impact and adaptation assessments, and subsequent decision-making on policies and interventions. Our understanding of the climate problem drives our definition of goals, our formulation and implementation of sound policies, and our articulation and measurement of progress indicators. The diversity of stakeholders means a potential diversity in the understanding of what needs to be done in face of climate change and in de ning the indicators to monitor the actual progress and success of implementation. 

How then, do we move forward given the limitations in both current post-positivistic and post-modern approaches, and the dif culty in reconciling the two? Can we integrate the strengths of these worldviews in order to conduct rigorous research toward delivering relevant and effective services? Can the discourse be broadened to introduce both philosophical and sociological perspectives in order to navigating the nexus between science and society? We argue herein for a reconciliation, which we hope will contribute to building the foundations of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methodologies in climate change research and response. 

A review of worldviews

A worldview is a lens through which a person might view, study, and attempt to understand the world. It consists of several elements, including assumptions about the nature of knowledge (epistemology); the nature of reality (ontology); the nature of valid ways of knowing and understanding the world (methodology); and the relationship of the world to its component parts. 

Post-positivism asserts that there is an objective reality but claims that such reality can be measured and understood only approximately. This is due to a limited ability to be completely objective, and due to human errors and limits in instrumentation. In post-positivism, objectivity is distributed among scientists; that is, results are validated by triangulation of ndings by many different scientists. Re ective of this tradition are the processes of peer review and consensus-building in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Reports.

Post-modernism is a radical departure from post- positivism. It is often set alongside the modern world’s growing skepticism of science as well as the acknowl- edgment that our problems are far more complex than previously anticipated. Post-modernism makes no claims about the nature of reality. In post-modernism, a person’s context (e.g. as de ned by their culture, upbringing, religion, society and other external factors) creates a unique but limited lens through which s/ he perceives the world. Hence, no person can be completely objective. There are no facts or grand narratives, only interpretations of facts which will vary across individuals, but which should be recognized and regarded equally. No person is better or worse than another, so “expertise” must be rede ned.Now, the differences in approaches to research between the two worldviews become clearer: Post-positivism is strong in terms of setting rules for valid research methodology. However, it also assumes that knowledge is limited to certain groups (e.g. the scientists). This assumption is inconsistent with the eld of policy, which considers the perspectives of various stakeholders. It is also inadequate given the broad cross-sectoral scope of the climate problem. Post-modernism is strong in considering the needs and perspectives of multiple stakeholders. However, it lacks rigor in terms of systematic research that can produce the generalities needed by elds such as policy and communication.

This clash in worldviews has implications that reach beyond the philosophy classroom. Researchers have explored this clash in interdisciplinary research groups and have found differing epistemological beliefs to be at the root of many research group quarrels. Research has also found that misinterpretations of the epistemological and methodological assumptions of scienti c research can muddle environmental controversies further. The participation of lay experts in research groups has also been questioned, even if they sometimes have the knowledge and experience of real-world situations that the designated experts might not (but should) have.

Given the multi-dimensionality of the challenges posed by climate change in our daily lives, reductionist science has clearly become inadequate to deal with complex multi-dimensional issues such as climate change but post-modern approaches, by themselves, are not yet up to the task either. Therefore, both worldviews merit re-examination with a view toward a potential recon- ciliation to produce a more responsive and ef cient approach to the challenges posed by climate change research and the delivery of climate services. Such reconciliation of the two worldviews might combine the systematic approach of post-positivism with the inclusiveness of post-modernism. 

Reconciliation and recommendations

A reconciliation between post-positivism and post-modernism is attainable not merely as an abstraction, if the current trend in research and practice is any indication. Recent global initiatives show steps in the direction of closer collaboration between climate research producers and users (it is important to note that these groups are in no way mutually exclusive), so as to develop services that are relevant and tailor-fit to the many different realities that we face.

The Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS), for example, is founded on pillars that include not just “Research, Modeling and Prediction” and “Observations and Monitoring,” which are traditionally considered within the purview of physical/natural science research programs, but also a “User Interface Platform,” “Climate Services Information System” and “Capacity-building.” These latter three will require more input from the social sciences and humanities and, more importantly, will require more involvement of the stakeholders themselves. Furthermore, the framework for interaction among the pillars allows for stakeholder feedback into the research and observation components. Another new international and cross-cutting program in environmental change is the Future Earth: Research for Global Sustainability Initiative, which is transitioning from the Earth System Sciences Partnership (ESSP). The Future Earth draft research framework explicitly espouses co-design and co-production between researchers and diverse stakeholders.

Such initiatives are promising in that they demonstrate how to integrate the post-modern recognition of the heterogeneity of actors and contexts with the rigorous research standards of post-positivism. Nevertheless, there are challenges from both practical and theoretical standpoints. Of grave concern is a possible “crisis by analysis”, where researchers are hampered from moving forward because of the questions and quandaries posed by post-modern thought. It can be a challenge to provide climate services without second guessing whether the service fits within the theoretical framework of post-modernism.

As such, we propose a reconciled worldview, which unites post-positivism and post-modernism. This worldview can be used as a guide by climate change researchers and practitioners, whether they are studying the decision-making behavior of various stakeholders or conducting physical science research for the purpose of informing actions on the ground. This worldview can then guide the choice of conceptual and theoretical frameworks that will set the boundaries of future research, so that all research is internally consistent and therefore externally valid.
In this reconciled worldview, we propose the ontology of an objective reality, over which any person has limited control, and which can only be approximately measured. While some post-modernist schools might balk at such a proposition, it should also be remembered that there are some environmental indicators that cannot be judged as “relative.” For instance, our store of fossil fuels will indeed run out at some point, and a new reservoir cannot simply be imagined into being by stakeholders invested in a fossil fuel-based reality. Hence, the task of developing renewable sources can be said to have an objective basis.We also propose an epistemology that is limited by one’s expertise. Post-positivism limits valid knowledge claims to those that have undergone training as specialists, while post-modernism sets no limits and considers all perceptions as valid. In either case, research can be hampered, especially with as cross-sectoral an issue as climate change. Post-positivism can reduce the climate change issue, such that studies represent only a specific group’s experience of the problem and become divorced from the diverse interactions on the ground. On the other hand, post-modernism might fail to distinguish informed perception from opinion in the caucus of stakeholder voices, and therefore lead to actions built on less-than-robust premises. One’s perception about an issue can be rooted in one’s expertise, and it is this understanding that is of value to future research. On the other hand, a personal opinion might not be rooted in expertise, and can simply be indicative of the effects of external factors such as the mass media. Practically, what this means for climate change research is inclusiveness and respect for different transdisciplinary actors, but also careful articulation of the roles of these actors, as appropriate to their given specialization and experience.

We also propose that a valid methodology is one that considers researchers as both participants and instruments of research. Researchers should be aware that while there is an objective reality, their training, personal bias, and even the language that they use (1) prevent them from measuring or perceiving the world with complete objectivity and (2) can also make them change the world that they measure, particularly if the study involves human dimensions. Consequently, researchers cannot be considered isolated from the communities they study.

Furthermore, the role of the community should not be limited to providing information about the study area at the beginning, then receiving the finished research product at the end, with neither substantial interaction with researchers in between nor long-term improvements after. Community-members can be both active users of climate information as well as active producers of knowledge of their own sectors that may prove relevant to climate research and services. They should therefore be involved in meaningful partnerships from the research design stage and throughout the implementation process. Given that different data and information have different meanings and uses across contexts, the determination of research outcomes and climate services has to be rooted in the context these will be applied in in order to translate to sustainable actions on the ground.

Therefore, research that is targeted toward providing climate services must consider the unique environments and cultures to which different groups belong. Researchers should agree that a global assessment of climate change effects and implications is valuable, but the global study may not be as relevant on the ground as regional-level, non-governmental assessments developed to suit local, cultural conditions. This regional-level assessment needs the cooperation of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, all of which must meet as equals. In such a set-up, science does not simply hand over knowledge to the humanities for translation; this post-positivist throwback cannot exist in a complex, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary world, where science is not the only source of knowledge. No single field has a monopoly on valid knowledge, and disciplinary boundaries are crossed constantly in acknowledgement of the diversity and complexity of the climate problems that we all face.

Research, therefore, should consider both quantitative and qualitative data to address the complexity of climate change issues; however, research should not always seek to derive grand narratives. While this may be possible in some cases, it could be equally if not more useful to embrace the diversity amongst stakeholder groups, understand what climate means for a particular group, and carry out analysis in a systematic, rigorous, and thorough manner in that context, regardless of whether the data comprises numbers or words. Moreover, research should consider non-laboratory, “non-scholarly” sources of knowledge. This might include local and indigenous knowledge on fish harvests, weather patterns, wildlife, and agriculture. The decentralization of expertise should be recognized and respected.

Furthermore, the traditional model of science repacking knowledge for an ignorant lay public should be replaced with a model that does not assume that provision of scientific information equals behavioral change, or that a lack of change indicates “stubbornness” and “irrationality.” Stakeholders will perhaps have equally valid criteria outside of the technical input on which to base decision-making.

The rationale behind providing climate services is to create impact on the ground; but because each “ground” is culturally and socially different, there should be no single template for designing and delivering climate services in a manner that will complement other factors influencing policy. Even the language used cannot be taken for granted. There are no universal definitions for terms like “resilient,” “vulnerable” or “safe,” and there are no uniform thresholds for coping and adaptation. Rather, definitions and meanings are developed, discussed, and negotiated within each context and application. In general, there is no one formula for designing the process of scientist-user dialogue and engagement. Our perception of and discourse on climate are shaped by both culture and nature.

A new look at climate science today

Science is a powerful tool, which is all the more reason to articulate the foundational principles for how we conduct scientific research. However, there should be more and stronger partnerships among science, other disciplines, and actors. The climate problem cannot be addressed effectively if science alone, or even if technology or social values alone, is put in control.

Future research should explore the climate science and society nexus, with the aim of developing a climate science that is both externally and internally consistent. With a reconciled worldview, future research can include all relevant stakeholder perceptions without losing itself in a mire of analysis and opinions. Climate science should practice this inclusiveness in all its activities, from the bench to the social sciences; and in all stages of its activities, from the initial scoping and research design, to results dissemination and capacity-building. This organized inclusiveness can perhaps allow some stakeholders to lose their indifference to environmental problems, which might then lead to stronger policy and cooperation within and amongst nations regarding the issue of climate change. Acknowledging the diversity of experience and decentralization of expertise will not only serve to enrich climate research and services, but also enable us to more completely and effectively address the issue of climate change where it matters the most: on the ground, in communities.


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