Varieties of Experimentalism
Posted: 5 Aug 2014 Last revised: 19 Jul 2016
Date Written: October 6, 2016
Across a range of disciplines and issues, experimentalism has emerged as a prominent approach for addressing environmental problems. Yet the meaning of “experiment” varies markedly across these domains. We survey the diversity of experimentation, identifying three distinct experimental logics — controlled, Darwinian, and generative. Building on Pragmatist philosophy, we argue that each of these logics has different strengths and weaknesses, but taken together they offer a valuable experimentalist approach to environmental problem-solving. However, from a transdisciplinary perspective, it is important to recognize the different values, purposes, and stances toward knowledge that they entail. Controlled experiments primarily aim to isolate causality, while Darwinian experimentation endeavors to enhance systemic innovation and generative experimentation seeks to generate new solution concepts. Appreciating these differences allows us to be more reflexive about an experimentalist agenda, illuminating the appropriate role of these logics and suggesting possibilities for fruitfully combining them. To advance this reflexive agenda, we also distinguish between epistemic and political learning and argue that experimental approaches to environmental problem-solving may benefit from being more sensitive to this distinction.
Keywords: Experimentalism, Pragmatism, Randomized Control Trials, Environmental Policy, Adaptive Management, Democratic Experimentalism, Experimentalist Governance
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