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The cunning of uncertainty. Book Review

The cunning of uncertainty
Helga Nowotny | Malden, MA: Polity, 2016


Helga Nowotny is author and coauthor of an impressive number of significant contributions to understanding our contemporary late-modern condition with respect to knowledge, science, and technology. She has always emphasized the importance of research-based knowledge, while acknowledging that science is both tentative and fragile. In her latest book, she explicitly deals with the many different ways in which we encounter and engage with uncertainty. The main argument is that uncertainty is inherent to modern society and should be seen as a resource, not a problem, for learning about, exploring and dealing with the present and future.

Using the notion of the “cunning of uncertainty” Nowotny implies that we can and should learn from situations characterized by ambiguity, provisional knowledge, the unexpected, undecidedness, etc. “Cunning” according to the Oxford English Dictionary means “having or showing skill in achieving one’s ends by deceit or evasion”. Nowotny uses the more archaic meaning of cunning: skillful, resourceful, opportune, even wise. Building on a series of richly described case stories from the world of contemporary research and innovation, Nowotny argues that the notion of uncertainty has much more in store for us than just, well, uncertainty. Since uncertainty appears to be fundamental to the way we live today, we should seek to maintain and qualify our deliberation on uncertain issues: “embracing uncertainty” as Nowotny puts it.

The way we understand uncertainty clearly has an impact on public understanding of science, although Nowotny does not address this issue head on. There is a long tradition trying to explain different kinds of scientific uncertainty, such as the uncertainty involved in risk assessments, to non-scientists. Rather than focusing on scientific uncertainty alone, even though this clearly is important, Nowotny challenges us to think about the many kinds of uncertainty that are “written into the script of life”.
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Kristian H. Nielsen
Associate professor
Centre for Science Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark

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