Uncomfortable Knowledge for Science


Because natural science in the Western tradition has been cast in impersonal terms, it has been plausible as well as convenient to imagine that its knowledge is uncontaminated by its context. Awareness of its connections has been ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ in Steve Rayner’s sense. But now that these connections are becoming crucial, particularly the negative ones, the ‘socially constructed ignorance’ about them is becoming dangerous for science itself. Here I show that uncomfortable knowledge about science goes back to its beginnings, and I discuss the significance of the recent eruption of awareness. My examples range from Adam & Eve to last year’s March for Science.

Part of the InSIS Seminar Series Hilary Term 2018

Presented by Jerome Ravetz

Jerry Ravetz came to England as a Fulbright Scholar, and did a PhD in mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. He wrote the seminal book Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems (1971, 1996). He was Reader in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds before taking early retirement to found The Research Methods Consultancy. He has studied scientific uncertainty and its management, co-authoring (with S.O. Funtowicz) Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy (1991). With S.O. Funtowicz he has developed the theory of 'post-normal science', which applies when facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.

His book, A No-Nonsense Guide to Science,has been published by New Internationalist magazine.

Jerry's current research focus is twofold:

Governance of the sciences of ‘the unknown unknowns’. As the new sciences of matter and life increase in their power and scope, their enhanced understanding is complemented by the growth of possible ‘unanticipated consequences’. These new ‘unknown unknowns’, always a by-product of progress, could well become salient more rapidly than can be managed by our existing institutions. What new forms of governance of science will be required for the protection of society, of the environment and of science itself?

Science and sustainability: problem or solution? To the extent that our present unsustainable material culture is a product of the ongoing industrial and technological revolution, science as it has developed is part of the problem. What would be required for science to become an integral part of the solution? What new institutions and attitudes will need to be created? This task calls for a collective effort from all those concerned with science and its future.

List of site pages