23 Oct

The Cunning Of Uncertainty

Posted By Politybooks


Uncertainty is deeply interwoven into human existence. It also provides a powerful incentive in the striving for more knowledge. Human attempts to predict the future reach back into the dawn of humanity and have greatly been expanded with the rise of modern science and technology. We have developed unprecedented 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.

Scientific discovery is an inherently uncertain and open-ended process as the outcome of fundamental research cannot be predicted. Much of this holds also for innovation. At present, a fissure of how to deal, let alone cope with uncertainty marks the relationship between science and society. One of the biggest challenges ahead that comes with the ability to push further into the territory of the unknown are the limits we face in anticipating the unintended consequences of human action.

The book puts uncertainty – and the craving for certainty that humans continue to manifest – into context. Paradoxically, the lure of predicting a future yet to come is stronger under conditions when people experience uncertainty, but equally when (over)confidence reigns that the optimistic upswing will continue. Today, with big data offering new and powerful ways of tapping into future behaviour and to turn prediction into performance, it is important to realize the limitations. The continuing impact of the financial crisis is a forceful reminder that risk must not be confused with genuine uncertainty and that the algorithms driving the models are devised by humans.

The return of the unexpected is only one of the many ingenious ways in which the cunning of uncertainty is at work. It can be a powerful ally, a subversive force, and it thrives on ambiguity. Promises, especially scientific and technological promises, offer an example of how it makes room for the new. Our attempts to cope with uncertainty reach from the experience of daily life to managing uncertainty within organizations and to confronting uncertainty generated in complex adaptive systems.

The reader is invited to consider what it might mean to embrace uncertainty. It acknowledges randomness and the thriving of science on the cusp of uncertainty. It reminds us that timing, the art of choosing the right moment, is mainly a response to uncertainty that emerges from interactions in the social world and their unintended as well as not anticipated consequences. In this respect uncertainty is very familiar. The cunning of uncertainty nudges us to see that whatever is the situation we face, it could be otherwise. Embracing it remains an open-ended process that aligns us with a genuinely open future.

Helga Nowotny is former President of the European Research Council (2010-2013) and Professor Emeritus of Social Studies of Science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.

Her book The Cunning of Uncertainty is available now, published by Polity.