Risk and ignorance

Authored by: Matthias Gross

Routledge Handbook of Risk Studies

Print publication date:  April  2016
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138022867
eBook ISBN: 9781315776835
Adobe ISBN: 9781317691662


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Ignorance Studies is a relatively old field that extends back to at least the nineteenth century, if not to the well-known saying attributed to Socrates: ‘I know that I know nothing’. In 2002 the terms ‘known’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ received some media attention in Donald Rumsfeld’s statement about evidence (or lack thereof) of weapons of mass destruction owned by Iraq. Indeed, the concepts of known and unknown unknowns existed long before Rumsfeld because much scientific research has been conceptualized as investigating known unknowns or, as Robert Merton (1987) called it, ‘specified ignorance’. In this spirit, Michael Smithson’s now classic monograph Ignorance and Uncertainty (1989) showed that deliberately imposed unknowns can be understood as socially constructed in both ordinary action as well as strategic manipulations. Nevertheless, the topic of ignorance has suffered from a lack of scholarly attention and it is only relatively recently that academics have begun to rediscover some of the classical concepts related to ignorance and addressed it as a subject worthy of investigation in its own right, as well as its relation to risk and uncertainty (for current overviews, see Gross and McGoey, 2015; McGoey, 2014; Proctor and Schiebinger, 2008; Vermeir and Margócsy, 2012).

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