• No results found

Chapter 2 – The political sociology of science and undone research

2.8 Ignorance - a deficit of knowledge

Ignorance is particularly relevant when scientific research is conducted into new and emerging diseases, such as AIDS or SARS, because then it is operating within narrow boundaries of knowledge. In science, ignorance is the umbrella term for the general field that includes nescience and non-knowledge. There are only two main branches of

46 Scammell M, (collator), 2004, Environmental Problems Georges Bay, Tasmania. Available at http://www.tfic.com.au/domino/tfic/tficweb.nsf/vwTitle/07.04%20Scammell%20Report last accessed 13 May 2007

ignorance: the deep ignorance of nescience, in which we are not even aware of what we do not know, and the knowable forms of ignorance, represented by the concept of “non-knowledge”. Nescience and non-knowledge are more fully described in the following sections. It is also the production of knowledge, which brings about a paradox – the more we know the more we realize how much we don’t know. Wolfgang Krohn describes it as ‘every state of knowledge opens up even more notions of what is not known’.47 This dilemma of knowledge has existed since Socrates who insisted that his

‘wisdom’ lay in knowing that he did not know.

For Matthias Gross ignorance is ‘[k]nowledge about the limits of knowledge in a certain area…’.48 Ignorance therefore necessarily constitutes a known gap in existing knowledge. From a different perspective, Robert Merton saw that unanticipated consequences of ignorance can have desirable effects, which he termed ‘serendipity’, an anomalous finding that gives rise to a new theory.49 Merton made ignorance a central theme in his deliberations and defined two types - unrecognised and specified ignorance.

In a comparison between knowledge and ignorance he stated ‘yesterday’s uncommon knowledge becomes today’s common knowledge and yesterday’s unrecognized ignorance becomes today’s specified ignorance’.50 Merton further recognised that new knowledge brought an awareness of more specified as well as unspecified ignorance.

An example of current scientific ignorance is in the area of environmental pathways and modes of action of endocrine disrupters, synthetic chemicals that mimic natural

47 Krohn W, 2001, ‘Knowledge Societies’, pp 8139-43 in NJ Smelser & P Baltes, eds, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Blackwell, Oxford, p 8141

48 Gross M, 2007, The Unknown in Process: dynamic Connections of Ignorance, Non-Knowledge and Related Concepts, Current Sociology Vol 55(5), pp 742-759, p 751

49 Merton R, 1968 (Enlarged Edition), Social Theory and Social Structure, Collier Macmillan Publishers, London

50 Merton R, 1987, Three Fragments from a Sociologist’s Notebooks: Establishing the Phenomenon, Specified Ignorance, and Strategic Research Materials, Annual Review of Sociology Vol 13, pp 1-28, p 10

hormones in living organisms.51 The various forms of ignorance are shown in Figure 2:1 below. The figure expands non-knowledge to include undone science. These categories are further described in the following sections.

Figure 2:1 Categories of Ignorance

2.8.1 Nescience

Gross categorises nescience as ‘lack of any knowledge: prerequisite for a total surprise beyond any type of anticipation…’.52 It is the complete lack of knowable ignorance of the existence of potential knowledge. It is what Ann Kerwin has termed ‘unknown

51 Myers JP, Krimsky S & Zoeller RT, 2001, Endocrine Disruptors – A Controversy in Science and Policy: Session III Summary and Research Needs, NeuroToxiciology, Vol 22, pp 557-558

52 Gross M, 2007, The Unknown in Process: dynamic Connections of Ignorance, Non-Knowledge and Related Concepts, Current Sociology Vol 55(5), pp 742-759, p 751

Ignorance  

nescience (deep   ignorance)  

Undoable   science  

non-­‐knowledge  (knowable   ignorance)awareness  of  a  

lack  of  knowledge  

negative  non-­‐

knowledge  (some  want   to  avoid  doing  the  

research)  

Undone   science  

Practical    

reasons   Political   reasons  

positive  non-­‐knowledge (  add  to  knowledge  if  

undertaken)    

unknowns’.53 It is similar to Brian Wynne’s definition of indeterminacy when applied to environmental policy.54 Wynne views indeterminacy as ‘the open-endedness in the processes of environmental damage due to human interventions’.55 Peter Wehling describes nescience as a complete unawareness of non-knowledge, which can only be made visible in sociological analysis, when, like knowledge, its utterances, constructions or negotiations can be registered.56 According to Gross it ‘belongs to a fundamentally different epistemic class from non-knowledge or ignorance’ since it can only be detected in retrospect.57 He elaborates further ‘[n]o one can refer to their own current nescience because it is not part of their consciousness… At most, people can refer to someone else’s or their own earlier nescience’.58 The unanticipated and surprisingly detrimental outcome of the use of DDT is an example of nescience. It was only in retrospect that scientists identified a lack of knowledge of the unforeseen harmful effects of the widespread use of the chemical.

2.8.2 Non-knowledge (knowable ignorance)

Non-knowledge, according to Gross who groups ignorance and non-knowledge as connected, is defined as knowledge about what is not known.59 Gross further categorises it as ‘knowledge about what is not known but taking it into account for

53 Kerwin A, 1993, None too Solid: Medical Ignorance, Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization Vol 15(2), pp 166-185

54 Wynne B, 1992, Uncertainty and Environmental Learning: Reconceiving Science and Policy in the Preventive Paradigm, Global Environmental Change Vol 2(2), pp 111-127

55 Wynne B, 1992, Uncertainty and Environmental Learning: Reconceiving Science and Policy in the Preventive Paradigm, Global Environmental Change Vol 2(2), pp 111-127, p 119

56 Wehling P, 2001, Jenseits des Wissens? Wissenschaftliches Nichtwissen aus soziologischer

Perspektive, Zeitschrift fur Soziologie, Vol 30(6), pp 465-484 cited in M Gross, 2007, The Unknown in Process: dynamic Connections of Ignorance, Non-Knowledge and Related Concepts, Current Sociology Vol 55(5), pp 742-759

57 Gross M, 2007, The Unknown in Process: dynamic Connections of Ignorance, Non-Knowledge and Related Concepts, Current Sociology Vol 55(5), pp 742-759, p 746

58 ibid.

59 Gross M, 2007, The Unknown in Process: dynamic Connections of Ignorance, Non-Knowledge and Related Concepts, Current Sociology Vol 55(5), pp 742-759

future planning’.60 In a general crisis of knowledge there has been an increased acceptance that ignorance and uncertainty in science exist, subsequently there is a necessity to know about what is unknown. As an example of non-knowledge Gross describes the state of knowledge in relation to the flooding of an abandoned brown coal strip mine in Germany. The engineers decided to flood the mine aware of their lack of knowledge as to the rate of ground water and runoff it would take to fill the mine. They decided to go ahead with the flooding with totally unexpected results. 61

2.8.3 Undoable science

Science can be ‘undoable’ due to constraints from existing methods or technology.

However, according to Frickel et al science that appears to be ‘undoable’ can in fact be thwarted by insufficient resources and technical ability.62 This is particularly evident when scientists are faced with chemicals that act as endocrine disrupters. These chemicals are dispersed from non-point sources throughout the environment. They are broken down into metabolites that add to the parent chemicals and mix with other chemicals used in the environment. These chemicals then often work in synergy to enter organisms in ways often unknown and to finally interact with hormonal and other systems at the molecular level. Endocrine disrupting chemicals challenge the boundaries of scientific knowledge and it is often only the harm they cause that is truly evident.

60 ibid, p 749

61 Gross M, 2007, The Unknown in Process: dynamic Connections of Ignorance, Non-Knowledge and Related Concepts, Current Sociology Vol 55(5), pp 742-759, pp 751-752

62 Frickel S, Gibbon S, Howard J, Kempner J, Ottinger G & Hess D, 2010, Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting, Science Technology, &

Human Values Vol 35(4), pp 444-473

2.8.4 Undone Science as negative or positive non-knowledge

In all scientific endeavours there will exist scientific questions and problems, which are, according to Kuhn, not followed because they are simply not seen.63 It is also beyond the scope of most research projects to pursue all avenues of enquiry. Consequently, a quantity of potential scientific research is left undone. This undone science is classified as non-knowledge, known ignorance. It can also be further categorised into either, negative or positive non-knowledge when viewed from different perspectives. Negative non-knowledge is that which is stifled or avoided when viewed from the perspective of those who would think or feel intuitively that the findings of studies might produce results damaging to their interests. On the other hand, those interested in addressing environmental problems would perceive the undone science as positive non-knowledge, because these findings could add empirical data to support their contention that industry or human activities are responsible for a perceived harm.