The Cunning of Uncertainty
The Cunning of Uncertainty
Preface: It Could be Otherwise
This book is about uncertainty, but not only about uncertainty. Uncertainty is inextricably enmeshed with human existence. Even death, our only certainty, is mitigated by the uncertainty of when it will occur. The arrow of time continues to advance the tenuous balance between the punctuated, incomplete and biased knowledge of the past and the uncertainty of what the future will bring.
The future is the ultimate inexhaustible reservoir of uncertainty for the inhabitants of this planet. Notions and imaginaries of the future continue to change. Currently, it appears as fragile and fragmented, as a plural and contradictory mixture of desired and feared imaginations. Ever since modern societies manifested an unprecedented preference for generating novelty, the future became an open horizon with science and technology at the forefront, pushing further into the unknown. Yet what is exciting for some feels threatening to others. Innovation, to use this ubiquitous term, remains a double-edged sword.
Uncertainty is also a powerful incentive in the striving for more knowledge. This includes more effective ways for predicting the future. From the consultation of oracles to the latest charts and graphs as the visualization of the enormous amount of data analytics available today, humans are eager to anticipate what lies ahead. But widening and deepening the knowledge base means more. It enables greater certainty in orientation and practical intervention when confronted with numerous uncertainties. The rise of modern science and technology has led to the vast improvements of material living conditions that provide the potential to lift the remaining parts of the world population out of poverty. Our scientific-technological civilization has developed enormous capabilities to anticipate risks and to focus on uncertainties. But the more we know, the more we also realize what we do not know as yet.
Uncertainty is an inherent component of the process of research. It resides in the multiple ways of searching for and generating new knowledge. Discovery is open-ended and fundamental research cannot predict what it will find or when. Research is the basis of a powerful and systematic process that seeks to transform uncertainties into certainties, only to be confronted with new uncertainties again. Scientific certainties are carefully couched in the precise terms of the conditions under which they hold. Moreover, they are always preliminary. They can and most likely will be replaced by new knowledge, sidestepped by new certainties. Together with curiosity, the lure of uncertainty and of discovering what was not known before is the driving force in this domain of creative human endeavour. If the belief in progress of science and technology and the possibilities for intervention it opens has never waned in the scientific community, this is not always the case in society. The challenge for science to share the sense of intimate involvement in embracing uncertainty with society of which it is a part, so goes my argument, increases together with the capability of science of confronting uncertainty.
At present, the fissure of how to deal, let alone cope, with uncertainty marks the relationship between science and society. While 'society', this volatile and hard to grasp assemblage of alternating publics, organized groups in civil society, engaged and dissatisfied citizens and the media, may share some knowledge with experts in making technical judgements, significant differences remain. The line between the prerogative of experts in making technical judgements, including those pertaining to the respective degree of certainty, and the prerogative of non-experts to assess the consequences of those judgements is a fine one to tread (Collins 2014). Between these positions lies the vast range of unintended consequences of human action. It takes us into the realm of com