Gross, Matthias. Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design.

Author:Murphy, Linda
Position:Book review

Gross, Matthias. Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. xii + 240 pages. Cloth, $30.00.

Humans have been changing their physical environment since there have been humans. Since the Industrial Revolution we have had the ability to change the physical world radically and quickly. The last half of the twentieth century saw humans begin to reclaim and restore much of the natural world. Going into that reclamation process, humans had many preconceived notions based on what scientific knowledge offered at that time. The natural world sometimes offered some unexpected responses to reclamation efforts that pointed out to the scientists and the non-scientific communities of governments and concerned citizens where human ignorance about the natural world existed. Matthias Gross's book, Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design, takes a long look at how humans react and are forced to adjust to the unexpected reactions, or surprises, that nature sometimes offers. In addition, he attempts to define the role that unexpected events play as scientists, governments, and citizen groups adjust their policies and approaches to meet the new parameters. Gross, a senior researcher in the Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research-UFZ, recognizes that humans cannot know everything, and the surprising response is an opportunity for them to learn and gather more data. That knowledge and response cycle sets in motion a perpetual learning curve. As the author puts it, "new knowledge also means more ignorance" (p. 1). Ignorance, then, becomes the foundation for surprising events.

"Ignorance creates new research questions" (p. 169). This statement sums up Gross's ultimate conclusion to what surprising events contribute to the scientific world, but also to human society as a whole. Where ecological systems are concerned there is always action based on the known facts of the moment. Ignorance of the natural world's responses to action always changes the known data; therefore, future actions must be based on the responses of the natural world. Gross points out that scientists usually do not speak or plan in terms of absolute certainties. He also notes that politicians and bureaucrats often quote scientific data as absolutes in order to achieve their agendas. He does not excuse the scientific world completely from that certainty, either...

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