Conservation research under conditions of social conflict and scientific uncertainty: Investigating the value of a post-normal science approach

David Nathan Wiley (2001)

Conservation problems occur under conditions of social conflict and scientific uncertainty. Under such conditions, a lack of agreed upon information can lead to intractable debates that stymie conservation action. This dissertation analyzed how people involved in a contentious conservation issue viewed information, and what attributes promoted its acceptance or rejection. Results indicated that a participatory, post-normal science (P-NS) approach could produce information that was better accepted than that provided by the traditional positivist approach. However, the ability of P-NS derived information to solve conservation problems was not ascertained. The issue involved a federal initiative to resolve the death of endangered right whales ( Eubalaena glacialis ) entangled in fishing gear. Problem-solving involved a deliberative approach that engaged decision-makers from fishing, conservation, science, and management interests. Interviews, written documents, and personal observations were used to qualitatively investigate the willingness of these decision-makers to accept information and use it as a basis for problem-solving. Information was characterized as informal (non-scientific) or formal (scientific). Informal information . Results indicated that information's source played an important role in its acceptance, and that personal experience was the major evaluative tool used by decision-makers. Informal information was rarely persuasive because decision-makers did not trust its source or it was contradicted by their own experience. However, affirmative personal experience with information or the individuals providing it could allow the acceptance of informal information, and such acceptance could cross interest group boundaries. Formal information . Results indicated that source also played a strong role in the acceptance of scientific information. Research conducted in isolation from stakeholders and reported to them (the traditional positivist/techno-rational approach) had low acceptance, as decision-makers found multiple reasons to reject it. Research that was inclusive of interest groups (the P-NS approach) had higher levels of acceptance. In addition, among inclusive research groupings, research that included a greater diversity of interests had higher acceptance levels than those with fewer interests. A final finding was that the social power generated through inclusive research could compensate for results of low scientific power. Therefore the P-NS approach might be particularly useful in situations where problems are not amenable to positivist techniques.