Interview & Opinion

“The output of science is uncertain”

Matthias Groß draws attention to all the things researchers do not know. According to the environmental sociologist, ignorance can be of strategic use. Quelle: André Künzelmann/UFZ

FWF: You are the co-editor of the International Handbook of Ignorance Studies. When it came out in 2015 it prompted a great deal of debate. Why is knowing that one doesn’t know, as Socrates put it in his day, a topical issue in the 21st century?

Matthias Groß: In the modern world, the accepted belief is that knowing is better than and indeed superior to not knowing. The credo is that for a decision to be good it has to be based on solid and accepted knowledge. But against the backdrop of unfathomable amounts of data, information overload and new knowledge, the gaps in our knowledge are becoming ever more visible. Because new knowledge invariably reveals new ignorance. This shows very clearly that you can’t always take decisions based on ascertained knowledge. It’s becoming more and more obvious that the one-sided focus on knowledge wasn’t all that smart. This motivated us to publish a handbook about something that actually does not exist, or is hard to pin down empirically, but is still present in our everyday lives and important for our survival.

FWF: Analogous to the right to forget which the “omniscient” Internet has triggered, we also have a right to not knowing. When is ignorance useful?

Groß: Not knowing is prevalent in daily life, and we also strategically consider what others know about us, what perhaps they shouldn’t know, what we are or aren’t allowed to say. This is completely normal and can be a positive thing as long as it is not abused and manipulated, as happened in cases uncovered in the tobacco industry, the finance industry and many other areas in recent decades. Today the right to not know has become particularly relevant in the sphere of medicine. It applies in prenatal gene diagnostics, for instance, in order to protect oneself and the life of the unborn, or in the case of hereditary diseases.

FWF: Departing for the unknown and charting new territories is a primordial instinct of scientists and the prerequisite for innovation. Why do we as a society find it so difficult to accept change?

Groß: In science we are interested in everything that is uncertain or where particularly large gaps of knowledge exist. The output of science is uncertain by definition. Basically it’s about specifying non-knowledge: by stating a hypothesis you try to specify what it is that you don’t know. So, on the one hand we have the joy of not knowing, but on the other hand there are the dangers connected to that – dangers which are not easily accepted in a critical society, and for good reason. These are the two poles between which we oscillate: on the one hand there is no innovation without breaking new ground and without making decisions in a state of ignorance. On the other hand, it’s not accepted and it’s politically sensitive, because it runs counter to the modern-day wish to always be on the safe side.

It is time to challenge this one-sided obsession with certainty.

Matthias Groß

FWF: How can one overcome this dilemma and what is the role of research in this situation?

Groß: The traditional view says: here we have gaps, we need to produce new knowledge in order to make safer decisions in the future. But we know that every new piece of knowledge and every ostensibly superior technology will be accompanied by unintended side effects which one wasn’t able to predict. – That is a vicious circle. Therefore the question must be: is it not time to challenge this one-sided obsession with certainty and the exaggerated expectations we place on science? – It entails becoming aware of the fact that ignorance and non-knowledge are simply part of the equation. But it is hard to change this deeply rooted faith in knowledge, which is part of our culture.

FWF: There are demands for more transparency in science and for public involvement. Could this facilitate the cultural change you seek?

Groß: In a democratic society this is certainly good and the right approach. But we have to stop believing that more transparency and participation will translate into more acceptance, because it will also awaken fears that you cannot foresee.

FWF: More transparency that reveals more uncertainty runs counter to what we have become used to: getting reports about success achieved by science. Do we need a new brand of communication in order to increase the acceptance of science?

Groß: That is a very important point. We have to find a way to speak about all the things that we don’t know. Science is under enormous pressure to churn out new knowledge all the time. This is why scientists communicate to the outside world only what they can sell as a success story. That is the flipside of the great expectations. But perhaps one could start by working out and describing all the things that are not known. Hence our handbook tries to specify all that and to demonstrate that even things we don’t know can be very valuable. Realising what we don’t know and learning how to deal with that is an achievement in itself which should be clearly communicated. If you present new knowledge and things not known about a subject side-by-side in a comparative manner, it will lead to a completely different, more comprehensive picture of current issues and developments in research.

FWF: The way in which ignorance can be put to strategic use is demonstrated by the “real-world experiments” you developed and oversaw in your capacity as an environmental sociologist. What are these experiments?

Groß: About 15 years ago, in a project with a group of young researchers at the University of Bielefeld, we started to transfer the scientific notion of what constitutes an experiment to social processes. Sociological researchers have long been observing how modern society is being increasingly drawn into experimental processes of science. In the 1980s, Chernobyl was an important event that taught us a lot about safety systems, the media or politics. We wanted to use a positive take on such a “large-scale experiment” in order to think about experiments in the public sphere that involve civil society. We then had a look at case studies on a smaller geographical scale, for instance in the area of urban greening together with civil-society stakeholders. This was a step in the right direction, as is shown today by discussions taking place about real-world laboratories which build successfully on some ideas from social real-world experiments.

Trust plays a decisive role in that process.

Matthias Groß

In real-world experiments we were also able to demonstrate that under certain conditions decisions can be taken even where not everything has been ascertained and not everything you need in the way of data, knowledge etc. is already on hand – in order to avoid abandoning a project because of time or funding pressure. Trust plays a decisive role in that process, which is a point that can be demonstrated empirically: wherever people deal successfully with non-knowledge, cultural factors such as mutual trust, experience or the agreement on “stop conditions” for a real-world experiment have resulted in successful projects. I consider it important to try and transfer these insights from sociology to more sensitive issues in order to find out how to reach good decisions. But we are still in the early stages of our research.

FWF: If the unknown is such an important factor, why has it been neglected in research to date?

Groß: Coping with not knowing, although we know it would be high time to do so, is anything but simple, because you can very quickly lose acceptance. But research conducted in organisational psychology and sociology shows that communicating non-knowledge does not necessarily lead to a loss of

The general public does have the capacity to assess non-knowledge.

Matthias Groß

trust. The general public, even if it is critically minded, does have the capacity to assess non-knowledge, provided the information on knowledge gaps is explained well. This can build more trust than using more or less imprecise risk assessment. It goes to show just how difficult it is, in times of fake news and alternative facts with every side in a debate claiming precise knowledge, to elaborate on non-knowledge in a strategic or trust-building way.

FWF: Speaking of alternative facts: many perceive science as undergoing fundamental change and also consider its independence to be in jeopardy. Do you share these concerns?

Groß: We keep hearing about new forms of society, but that is always hard to pin down empirically. Perhaps it’s the same with big data and dark knowledge. I do share the concerns with regard to the independence of research, but these concerns have always existed. What I do not understand is this hype about the so-called ‘alternative facts’. From a sociologist’s point of view they are a completely normal thing. In science there is expertise and counter expertise until the knowledge about a certain fact is well established. This process can take a very long time. Therefore, new knowledge is always uncertain and constitutes an ‘alternative fact’ in a manner of speaking. The fact that this is now being hijacked by politics is regrettable. One always needs to ask for what purpose knowledge is produced and whether it has been presented in a transparent form. In this respect I actually do have concerns that there may be cases of abuse.

FWF: As a sociologist, what have you learned from the natural sciences?

Groß: As a sociologist you have certain ideal-typical notions about natural science, but they rarely turn out to be true. Engineers, especially, have a much more sociological approach than I initially thought. They know that certain methods are imprecise, for instance as regards the repeatability of experiments. Natural scientists are very open and, as far as their methods are concerned, much more compatible with social sciences than I would have believed 10 or 15 years ago.

FWF: Is there anything that you yourself would prefer not to have known when you look back?

Groß: That is an interesting question. We do a fair bit of research about how to protect people from too much information, particularly if it’s about serious diseases, as I’ve mentioned. But if you ask yourself the question, you find that you still want to know everything. In that respect I’m a child of the times as well. It shows just how deeply rooted the urge to know is in us. The cultural change lying ahead of us will be anything but easy.


Matthias Groß is a Full Professor of Environmental Sociology at the University of Jena, in joint appointment with the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig. His research topics include theories on the relationship between nature and society, environmental innovations and sustainability, experimental strategies and risk and ignorance. Groß is the author of numerous publications. He is the co-founder and editor of the interdisciplinary journal Nature + Culture and the co-editor of the International Handbook of Ignorance Studies (2015) as well as of the recently published book Experimentelle Gesellschaft.


Open Science, Dark Knowledge

The sociologist Matthias Groß took part in the working group Open science, dark knowledge: science in an age of ignorance at the 2017 European Forum Alpbach. The event was organised by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and brought together leading international experts to discuss changes in the science system, the growing imbalance between existing and publicly available knowledge and the impact of privatisation and economic pressure on science.


More information

> Breakout Session: Open science, dark knowledge: Summary and video recordings

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