Social Science

Climate change is often referred to as a “wicked problem,” one of such vexing complexity that finding solutions to its many impacts often means putting aside old ideas and embracing new ones. At CIRC, we’ve done this by fundamentally changing how we do our science.

The heart and soul of our Community Adaptation effort is what we call the coproduction of knowledge. Through this process our team of climate and social scientists engage with select communities concerned about climate change and, working directly with them, we create climate change adaptation plans tailor made for their landscapes, needs, and concerns.

What’s the secret behind the coproduction of knowledge? It’s simple: we listen. We listen to the concerns, questions, and desires of the communities we work with, and we integrate their local know-how and expertise into the design of the analysis tools that provide the answers they seek. This means we talk with folks outside our disciplines, many of them non-academic experts with a wealth of knowledge about their communities. If you think that it’s just good old common sense to ask people what they need, want, and know, rather than assuming you already know, well, we think so too, and so does a new wave of thinking in the social sciences. Here’s a quick summation.

In 1991, philosophers of science Silcio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz proposed a concept called post-normal science. The normal science Funtowicz and Ravetz hoped to contrast was what we generally picture when we think of science: the scientific method and the peer review process slowly pushing our understanding forward.

Normal science, Funtowicz and Ravetz argued, works well in most situations. For instance, normal science accounts for a large amount of what CIRC researchers do when we employ computer simulations, track climate impacts, and write peer-reviewed papers. However, Funtowicz and Ravetz argued, normal science only goes so far.

The philosophers posited that normal science’s strength—its specialization, its tendency to home in on specific problems and hone its own methods—is also its weakness. The downside to specialization is that it can become insular, making it difficult for practitioners of a given discipline to think outside their discipline’s own theoretical and philosophical boundaries, to learn what others know, and to understand that those outisde the discipline don’t know what they know. Normal science, in other words, is subject to that greatest of cognitive biases, the curse of knowledge.

The refined focus of normal science is actually a blessing in most instances, and its accomplishments speak for themselves. However, Funtowicz and Ravetz argue, when a given problem contains both high stakes and high complexities that exceed a discipline’s range of understanding, researchers need to reach out to the larger community to find their answers. At CIRC, we believe that climate change is just such a problem.

Climate change’s stakes are high. Here in the Pacific Northwest, climate change impacts are expected to affect everyone from farmers to fishers. What’s more, finding ways to adapt to climate change is indeed a complex process. As we’ve learned time and again, adapting to climate change means much more than just understanding what the computer projections tell us. It means discovering how those projections will affect people and ecosystems, and that means going out, listening to, and working with folks with knowledge different from our own. This is what we’ve done in our Community Adaptation efforts.

Our Community Adaptation teams are made up of researchers and stakeholders. This organization is based on an idea from David W. Cash. Cash was the first to propose these knowledge to action networks, or KTANs, as a way to lift the curse of knowledge. Working through KTANs, researchers and stakeholders produce what’s called actionable science, science that can be applied, put to work, and deliberately refined and improved toward a specific end. For us, that end, of course, is to tackle the wicked problem that is climate change.




Funtowicz, Silvio O., and Jerome R. Ravetz. "A new scientific methodology for global environmental issues." Ecological economics: The science and management of sustainability 10 (1991): 137.

Cash, David W., William C. Clark, Frank Alcock, Nancy M. Dickson, Noelle Eckley, David H. Guston, Jill Jäger, and Ronald B. Mitchell. "Knowledge systems for sustainable development." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100, no. 14 (2003): 8086-8091. doi:10.1073/pnas.1231332100.

Lach, Denise. “An Experiment in Post-Normal Science: Building a Knowledge-to-Action-Network in Idaho.” in Wicked Problems, Science, and Problem Solving: New Strategies for Moving Forward, edited by Weber, Lach, and Steel. Corvallis, OR: OSU Press, Forthcoming.

Inouye, Allison, Denise Lach, John Stevenson, John Bolte, and Jennifer Koch. “Participatory Modeling to Assess Climate Impacts on Water Resources in the Big Wood Basin, Idaho.” In Environmental Modeling: Theory, Methods, and Applications edited by Steven Gray, Michael Paolisso, Rebecca Jordan, and Stefan Gray. Switzerland, Springer Publishing, forthcoming.


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