Nobody Knows Anything

Review of

The Cunning of Uncertainty

Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2016, 220 pp.

In a memoir, the screenwriter William Goldman reflected on his moviemaking career, wondering why some films caught the public imagination and soared, while others flopped. His depressing conclusion was that “nobody knows anything.” Although Hollywood projects an image of brash self-confidence, behind the scenes the actors, producers, and writers are in perpetual panic over the uncertain future—blockbuster or bomb?—of their fragile experiments.


Strictly speaking, some people do know some things. Experience, expertise, and data can, of course, help us when faced with difficult decisions. But it’s important to remember that uncertainty remains our default state and that it drives the scientific enterprise. The search for scientific certainty resembles the trial of the Danaids of Greek myth, whose fate in the Underworld was to spend eternity pouring water into an unfillable vessel. If we believe we have found an inviolable scientific certainty, or demand such certainty before acting, we are only kidding ourselves.

Science, Helga Nowotny tells us, “thrives on the cusp of uncertainty,” using what is known to probe what is not. Her brilliant new book, The Cunning of Uncertainty, argues that we should not just understand what it means to be uncertain, we—scientists, society, politicians, and all—should learn to embrace uncertainty. Nowotny provides dispatches from the frontiers of current research, taking in psychology, history of science, digital humanities, genomics, planetary science, and much more. She resists the temptation to report the latest surprising finding or pop fact; her aim is, instead, to ask about the nature of scientific exploration. In doing so, the book constructs a compelling case for free academic inquiry and the value of serendipity.

In some respects, her argument should come as no surprise. Nowotny was, until recently, president of the European Research Council, a funding institution set up to allow Europe’s leading scientists to conduct their research free from bureaucratic pressures. But, having read and enjoyed much of her previous work, I couldn’t shake the sense that, here, I didn’t know quite where she stood. Over the last three decades, Nowotny has done as much as anyone to add color to the often black-and-white depictions of the relationship between science and society. In this book, some of that color has drained away. Perhaps this is a result of the book trying to do too much. Nowotny wants to be philosophically consistent while also sociologically nuanced, historically accurate while also relevant for policy making. Inevitably, this produces unresolved tensions.

In the 1990s, Nowotny was part of a group of scholars in Science and Technology Studies (STS) who influentially described the changing relationship between science and society. “Mode 1” science, as they described it, was characterized by a social contract in which society gave science autonomy and funding in exchange for its downstream social benefits, whatever those might end up being. These STS scholars idealized contemporary science as “Mode 2,” in which the social contract is in flux; science is no longer done for its own sake; scientists are expected to imagine new economic possibilities, work with colleagues in other disciplines, and deal with public scrutiny. Nowotny and her colleagues made an argument that was at once descriptive and prescriptive: Mode 2 is the way science is going and the way it should go.

It is ironic, therefore, that Nowotny ended up running the European Research Council, a resolutely Mode 1 organization, a bulwark against the “impact” agenda that is creeping through other science funders. The sole criterion for funding research is “excellence,” which is code for scientists deciding what counts as worthwhile science. Nowotny cites education reformer Abraham Flexner’s 1930s call for an appreciation of the “usefulness of useless knowledge.” Her case for excellence is far more coherent and robust than most of what passes for contemporary science policy. But, in reading her book, I kept wanting to know whether its Mode 1-oriented conclusions had emerged from a lifetime of scholarship or a sequence of compromises. Is this Nowotny the STS scholar or Nowotny the policy maker?

She is certainly critical of some recent and powerful trends in science. For example, she draws attention to the tendency, through the collusion of policy makers and researchers, to hype the impact of research. As a funder, she knows all too well that “grant applications tend to be replete with over-promising rhetoric.”

One of the fields steeped in this kind of rhetoric is the emerging science of big data. Nowotny describes well, without resorting to algorithm alarmism, how the quest for big data leads to unintended consequences. “Data,” she points out, is the great misnomer. Despite the term’s Latin roots, data is (or are, if you insist) made, not given, and we should keep track of its (okay, their) social roots. Nowotny describes big data’s potential for moving from a science that is driven by “why” to one driven by “what,” in which surprising findings are allowed to emerge from data. But she would be as critical as anyone of overblown talk such as appeared on the cover of Wired magazine, which declared the “end of theory” in 2008. Excitement about “what” must not be allowed to occlude the discussion of “what for.”

Big data is one of many areas where research is intimately implicated in the creation of future worlds. The world of big data is not just a world as understood by big data, but a world created from big data. As Nowotny puts it, “when Google sought to gauge what people were thinking, it became what people were thinking. When Facebook sought to map the social graph it became the social graph.” Knowledge cannot be so neatly split from action.

In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld (then US Secretary of Defense) was much mocked for an obfuscatory attempt to justify an invasion of Iraq despite the lack of evidence that the country possessed weapons of mass destructions. He said: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (Nowotny uses the neatened-up version that appeared in Rumsfeld’s memoir, which he titled Known and Unknown). Those of us who are interested in the interplay of knowledge and politics were embarrassed to admit that he was right. When imagining uncertain futures, it is comfortable to think in terms of calculable risks. But there are areas of uncertainty or ignorance in which we cannot calculate probabilities and we cannot predict consequences.

The attempt to exert total control over uncertainty (Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”) by domesticating it as risk (the “known unknowns”) may be part of the problem. One need only look at financial services and the crisis of 2007-8 to see how an industry that claims control over risk creates and fails to understand its own systemic risks, with the result that, when surprises hit, they are felt harder. Nowotny argues that “the vast majority of economists failed to foresee the 2008 financial crisis,” but this is to overlook the economic Cassandras who were ignored because it was in nobody’s interests to worry about the big uncertainties. More thoughtful economists are now realizing their mistakes. In The End of Alchemy, Mervin King’s recent book-length attack on financial chicanery, the ex-governor of the Bank of England draws attention to what he calls “radical uncertainty,” by which he means uncertainty that can’t be put into numbers.

When Nowotny writes, regarding the financial crisis, that the “cunning of uncertainty transforms promises into probabilities,” we are left wondering who is claiming they have control over our futures—who is generating these probabilities?—and why. It is no accident that governments portray uncertainties in finance as under control while those from terrorism are presented as sufficiently troubling to justify our current security apparatus. Reading Nowotny’s book, I was left wondering where is the democracy in uncertainty? What would a genuinely radical approach to uncertainty look like?

The possibility of using under-scrutinized uncertainties for particular ends has not gone unnoticed. If uncertainty has politics that affect decision making, the question, as Nowotny’s STS colleague Erik Millstone has posed it, is “who gets the benefit of the doubt?” Rumsfeld’s speech reminds us that uncertainty is not simply a certainty deficit. It can be defined, manufactured, ignored, or exaggerated for political or economic ends. Naomi Oreskes, whose work examines corporate attempts to inflate uncertainties in the sciences of climate change and public health, uses a term coined by the historian of science Robert Proctor to describe the study of culturally induced uncertainty: agnotology. Agnotologists seek answers to Millstone’s question.

In a lecture to the London School of Economics about this book, Nowotny asked “if science can thrive at the cusp of uncertainty, why can’t society?” Her rhetorical question doesn’t want a response, but, if we were to force one upon it, it would be that, as with earlier calls for an “experimental society,” we need to be extremely careful about who controls the experiment. Yes, we need to get used to trying and erring rather than planning and predicting; but we also need to connect our academics to the real world rather than trying to free them from it.

Cite this Article

Stilgoe, Jack. “Nobody Knows Anything.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 4 (Summer 2016): 91–93.

Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Summer 2016