Design and the problem of “contradictory certainties”

The always generous John Fleck recently sent me an essay written by Daniel Sarewitz of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes that explains very well the reasons why science alone will never solve California’s water policy debate.

Indeed, the essay asserts that the more science conducted on a particular issue (nuclear waste storage, climate change, environmental protection), the more dysfunctional political processes become. Witness Judge Wanger’s decision if you need an internalized example of Sarewitz’s thesis, and the idea of “contradictory certainties.”

Sarewitz’s writings can be found here.

Two excerpts from Sarewitz, the first, a common myth believed by right and left depending on the context; the second, some historical perspective of late twentieth-century US environmental law.

The underlying theme of the book was that science could guide politics only when it was free from ideology. “The more that political considerations dominate scientific considerations, the greater the potential for policy driven by ideology and less based on strong scientific underpinnings.” The point, of course, is that “policy driven by ideology” is supposed to be undesirable.

From this perspective it is useful to recall that, when comprehensive environmental laws were enacted in the US during the late 1960s and early 1970s, scientific knowledge about the state of the environment was much less comprehensive and sophisticated than it is today, when almost all environmental laws and regulations are under political attack. The implementation of a broad legal framework for environmental protection in the US was a response to a social and political consensus, not authoritative knowledge.

Design, which is my primary mode of operating in the California water context, is quite comfortably not science, quite comfortable with the idea that policy is about ideology. Design is and should be informed by many things, including the social and physical sciences, but it is best thought of as the muse of ideology.

A muse that one hopes serves all manner of useful purposes in the public sphere. But at this point in time, it’s pretty clear that design is a marginal discipline given the predominance of law and science as the determiners of that elusive object, Truth. To my mind that is both unfortunate and dangerous.

See UC Davis’s recent science-based conclusions about nitrates in the Tulare Basin and Salinas Valley aquifers if you need an example of just how useful and at the same time, inconsequential, science can be. To think 1/ that no one knew that nitrates were a problem before this report came out, and 2/ now that is has, big sacrifices will be made for the (by and large very poor, ethnic) victims of the problem, is the height of naivete.

But more to the point of this post, the UC Davis report is a good example of Sarewitz’s thesis. The report is founded on careful scientific work, yet its politically explosive implications have and will continue to lead to counter claims that suggest non-ag contributors are just as much to blame as ag is. Sounds very much like Wanger’s X2 line reasoning or the larger Delta ecosystem counter claim strategy playbook has a new field to play on.

Design as I practice it is not about the representation or presentation of objective truths (often useful but often a politically inoperative pursuit) than it is in synthesis and visualization of contentious, competing claims. As I practice it design is similar to political practice. Design in my opinion should never satisfy the needs of any one interest, but instead should present the predicaments that society faces. Design is closer in spirit to the perhaps extinct notion of public work(s), of valuing and funding acts and artifacts of commonly owned public worth.

As for the way that Sarewitz’s thesis plays out in the context of Caliwater: My money is on a stalemated, status quo Groundhog Day future, until there is a shift in consciousness and consensus (either rightward or leftward) similar to the one that led to the great environmental movement of the late 1960’s. If that consciousness shifts right, then property rights and Randian selfishness ideology will have won out. If the shift is to the left, toward environmental justice and a willing footing of the bill for remediative machines and regimens, then our evolution will have continued.

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Posted by John Bass on 21 Mar 2012 | Comments (0)

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