Uncertainty and claims of uncertainty as impediments to risk management

Authored by: Raymond Murphy

Routledge International Handbook of Social and Environmental Change

Print publication date:  October  2013
Online publication date:  October  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415782791
eBook ISBN: 9780203814550
Adobe ISBN: 9781136707995


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If uncertainty were absolute, then no leader, no institution and no population could be held accountable for preventing harm, mitigating environmental problems or decreasing vulnerability to hazards. There would be no reason to change practices because we simply would not know of any threat. The concept of uncertainty is frequently used in this absolute sense as a rhetorical device to excuse bad decisions: decisions not to invest in protection against natural hazards; decisions not to impose higher standards on polluting industries; decisions not to pay short-term costs to avoid long-term problems. This chapter argues that uncertainty must not be reduced to a politically convenient rhetorical device. At first sight, uncertainty appears to be a well-understood concept, but it is not that simple. It is necessary to examine more precisely what it is we are uncertain about and to capture the nuances of uncertainty. For example, there is uncertainty about when, where and how you will die, but not about the fact that you will die. John Maynard Keynes distinguished uncertainty from both certainty and scientifically based calculations of probability, such as could be calculated for roulette. His nuanced conception also captured degrees of uncertainty: ‘the expectation of life is only slightly uncertain. Even uncertainty did not necessarily indicate the complete absence of knowledge about threats. Nor, according to Keynes, did uncertainty excuse inaction. Indeed, he argued that ‘the necessity for action compels us … to do our best to overlook [the] awkward fact’ that the future cannot be known with absolute certainty. This chapter explores the nuances of uncertainty and knowledge. It goes on to examine how new uncertainties and risks are being created by modern societies. Finally, it investigates whether learning has occurred to minimize risks or whether claims of uncertainty are paralysing the management of risks.

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