Books : reviews

Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, Martin Trow.
The New Production of Knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies.
SAGE. 1994

In this provocative and broad-ranging work, a distinguished team of authors argues that we are now seeing fundamental changes in the ways in which scientific, social and cultural knowledge is produced. They show how this trend marks a distinct shift towards a new mode of knowledge production which is replacing or reforming established institutions, disciplines, practices and policies.

Identifying a range of features associated with this new mode – reflexivity, transdisciplinarity, heterogeneity – the authors illustrate the connections between these features and the changing role of knowledge in social relations. While the main focus is on research and development in science and technology, the book outlines the changing dimensions of social scientific and humanities knowledge. The relations between the production of knowledge and its dissemination through education are also examined.

The New Production of Knowledge places science policy and scientific knowledge in its broader context within contemporary societies. It will be essential reading for all those concerned with the changing nature of knowledge, the social study of science, educational systems, and with the relations between R&D and social, economic and technological development.

Helga Nowotny.
The Cunning of Uncertainty.
Polity. 2016

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 30 December 2021

Uncertainty is interwoven into human existence. It is a powerful incentive in the search for knowledge and an inherent component of scientific research. We have developed many ways of coping with uncertainty – we make promises, manage risks and make predictions. But the future is inherently uncertain, and the mist that shrouds our path is an inherent part of our journey. The key question for us today is whether our societies can face up to uncertainty, learn to embrace it and become more open towards a constantly evolving future.

Helga Nowotny shows how research can thrive on the cusp of uncertainty. Science continues to transform uncertainties into certainties but this certainty always remains provisional. Uncertainty is never completely static – it is constantly evolving. It encompasses geological timescales and, at the level of human experience, split-second changes as cells divide. It appears at unexpected moments, it shuns the straight line, takes the oblique route and sometimes the unexpected shortcut – such is the cunning of uncertainty. The more we acknowledge the cunning of uncertainty, the less threatened we feel by it. We accept that any scientific inquiry must produce results that are provisional and uncertai. This message is vital for politicians and policy makers: do not be tempted by small, short-term, controllable gains to the exclusion of uncertain, high-gain opportunities.

The Cunning of Uncertainty is a must-read for students and scholars in all disciplines, politicians, policy makers and anyone concerned with the fundamental role of knowledge and science in our societies today.

The world is a complex and difficult place, and getting ever more so. Given all the uncertainty, how can we plan for the future, live flourishing lives, and not simply melt into a puddle of helpless anxiety?

Nowotny discusses many forms of uncertainty – ecological issues, sociology, the rapid changes in technology, and more – and discusses how we might cope with, and even embrace the opportunities afforded by, uncertainty.

One approach is to reduce uncertainty. And one way to do that is through promises, a way of “bringing the future into the present”, nailing it down, and increasing what we can predict and rely on. Another way to reduce uncertainty is to constrain the future, through rules and regulations that reduce options.

Uncertainty can be embraced, however, because it demonstrates that the future isn’t fixed: we have an opportunity to influence it through our actions, and there is room for change, potentially for the better. Uncertainty can be a creative resource.

[p.98] The term [revolution] points to events by overthrowing the old order and ushering in a new order with the promise of a better life for the hitherto disadvantaged. In science, revolution usually means a new scientific way of seeing the world, undermining certainties that are taken for granted and opening exciting paths for more and better understanding that comes from manipulation and intervention.

Uncertainty leads to worry. Nowotny argues that worrying can be a useful response to complexity, and to over-confidence:

[p.143] Should we worry at all? Yes, we should. Worrying is not the luxurious privilege of the global elites or some intellectuals, nor is it reserved for scientists working at the cutting edge. It is yet another cunning move of uncertainty to nudge us into pondering what might happen if warning signals continue to be disregarded and latent, largely invisible and subterranean processes are ignored. Science can help detect the warning signals, but so can the sensors of the life world. Together, they tell us about the processes that are the gradual carriers of risks. They warn us not to let complacency win the day. And not to mistake what looks seductive and beautiful for goodness just because it can be seen and heard, even if it is presented to us as a gift – if not by the gods, then by those who want us to believe that they can master complexity.

One thing she worries about is in fact the ever increasing range and scope of possibilities opening up to us, making our choices seem ever more arbitrary and meaningless:

[p.165] the possible, this vast potential of promises laced with visionary fantasies and a knack for new business opportunities, begins to crowd out the actual. The reach of social networks has extended beyond imagination, yet imagined connections also continue to expand. Instant delivery and the seemingly effortless achievable abundance of technological gadgets privilege immediacy […]. When the sheer abundance of choices promotes arbitrariness as a default mode, the sense of timing is lost. When decisions are taken on a whim, kairos turns into a lottery. When anything seems possible, the actual becomes residual.

In the end, Nowotny suggests that the process of “muddling through”, an incremental and adaptive response to the current situation, may be the best we can do. This is a wide-ranging and important book, thought-provoking reading for anyone living in a complex uncertain world.