Helga Nowotny takes on institutional science in her new book: The Cunning of Uncertainty

Helga Nowotny is fascinated with uncertainty. Not with its risks, but with its possibilities. As a scholar and former president of the European Research Council (ERC), this has been her life-blood.

We have “entered a phase in which uncertainty … is losing the allure of being a carrier of opportunities,” she told the audience at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna in mid-November. As a fellow of the IWM, Nowotny was participating in the Institute’s “Books in  Perspective” series – events that give fellows and other scholars a platform on which to debate new publications related to the IWM’s research fields.

Tonight, the topic was Nowotny’s recent book, The Cunning of Uncertainty (Polity), in which she tackles the question of whether or not society can face up to uncertainty, learn to embrace it and thereby become more open to a future that is constantly evolving.

Unassuming, with a manner both serene and passionate, Nowotny speaks with a calm, steady assurance, a gentle smile never too far away. But there’s no mistaking the intellect that dwells behind the amiable facade; throughout an exhilarating 90 minutes, she drew on science, history, economics and wider culture to elucidate her position. There is also a wealth of personal experience that informs the book, particularly from witnessing first hand the paralyzing tension from different outlooks on the role of science.

A ‘radical step’ for science

In 2007, the European Commission took the “radical step” of allowing a group of independent scientists to set the strategy for Nowotny’s nascent ERC. In theory, this would provide a space in which the best ideas could be developed in an environment totally committed to scientific excellence, without any distracting “thematic priorities.” As the author herself puts it, “if science does thrive on the cusp of uncertainty, here was the cusp.”

The bureaucrats with whom the ERC had to work, however, felt differently. In particular, Nowotny referred to a culture of control that often pervades institutional science and its “very low tolerance… for uncertainty.” After months of negotiation, the two sides finally succeeded in establishing a world-class funding organization. But it was a difficult birth and the experience clearly stayed with the author – so much so that today it underpins a major part of her argument for a new approach to thinking about the unknown.

The administrators were acting out a deeply ingrained human urge to be able to predict, and even control, the future. On a psycho-sociological level, she observes, we’re still very similar to the ancient Chinese, many of whom practiced oracle bone divination – a process involving scratching questions onto pieces of bone, applying heat until they cracked, and interpreting the resulting fissures. Today, we differ only in the means. But just as oracular divination required interpreting, so too do today’s data-set predictions. And since predictions are based on probabilities extrpolated from past events, we must inevitably recognize that our world might, quite easily, have been different.

It is in this arena of prediction that Nowotny urges embracing “the cunning of uncertainty.” It involves a certain willingness to suspend routine and deflect any direct cause and effect links, however comforting. It also prepares us for the surprises that come with “an increasing order of complexity in which non-linear dynamics reign” – a way of thinking about modern society that only becomes more relevant with time.

Challenging the paradigm

Echoing physicist Thomas Kuhn, whose essay The Structure of Scientific Revolutions influenced a generation of research, Nowotny is interested in how anomalies accumulate to eventually challenge the existing scientific paradigm. Science is better at this than other disciplines, but there is no reason this has to be so. We shouldn’t shy away from realizing that uncertainty can herald unexpected and disturbing results, she said. As centralization has given way to decentralization, “government has been transformed into governance, complemented… by the rise of the individual as consumer, voter and proprietor, as well as manager and caretaker of one’s own body.”

As such complexity increases, so too does the threat of uncertainty-induced chaos.

The solution is to see uncertainty through the lens of inquiry, and conspire with it as a partner in progress. We should, in other words, strive to be a little less like the administrators and more like scientists.

And when all else fails, Nowotny welcomes the idea of “muddling through” – something that sounds highly unscientific and yet, in its acceptance of contingency, is often the most sensible way of proceeding. In other words, we should go with the flow; we should be capable of playing several internal registers at once, based on chance, probabilities, or rules of thumb, and in a world that seems to be growing more volatile, it is an in-built pragmatism that alone will endure.

Uncertainty will always be a part of the future. What is decisive, Nowotny suggests, is how we choose to cope with it.