Why should we study ignorance today?

by Paul Trauttmansdorff

‘Is it a right to remain ignorant?’, Hobbes asks Calvin in the comic-strip ‘Refusing to find out’ (by Bill Watterson, http://www.calvinandhobbes.com/)

In what ways do ignorance and non-knowledge shape social and political action? This was roughly the overarching topic that brought together different scholars at a two-day workshop at the University of Vienna in November 2018, discussing related issues such as risk, ignorance, contingency, secrecy in social and political life. Bringing the debate to a public setting, sociologist Matthias Gross from the University of Jena lectured in the “Old Chapel” of the University of Vienna about the question what role non-knowledge plays in evidence-based politics. The panelists, Ulrike Felt, Head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies (University of Vienna), and Stefan Böschen from the Humanity and Technology Center at the Aachen University (RWTH), as well as moderator and co-organizer Katharina Paul (University of Vienna) were tasked to elaborate on the various forms of ignorance and its related practices. Why then should we study ignorance today?

Probably one of the most notorious examples of how ignorance affects politics is Donald Rumsfeld’s statement at a press conference in 2002, at which he pointed to the realm of what cannot be known about weapons of mass destruction manufactured by the Iraqi regime. He thus mobilized ignorance: “There are known knowns […], we also know there are known unknowns; […] But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. Some may call this circumventing a lie, but the public performance of ignorance certainly served a strategic purpose. As studies on ignorance emphasize, strategic ignorance is not about conspiracy theory, but about how ignorance can be characterized as a productive/destructive force by itself; it can be exploited, nurtured, and performed in different forms.

D. Rumsfeld provides a fine example for the increasing salience that ignorance and nonknowledge have acquired over the past two decades. He even contributed to labelling the growing field of ignorance studies “Rumsfeldian”, which not only sounds unlucky, but probably also conceals its interdisciplinary and theoretically diverse character (McGoey, 2012, p. 7). At the panel, Gross presented the issue in a quite broad way, in which he seemed to underscore the essential importance of non-knowledge in structuring our societies. Among the examples he pointed to were the role of the secret (for Georg Simmel one of the big achievements of human mankind); lack of knowledge(s); fake news and disinformation; the unequal distribution of knowledge for divisions of labor; the conscious rejection of knowledge (“ignorance is bliss”). Gross did not aim to present a comprehensive typology or clear-cut definition of non-knowledge, which, in fact, would be classic controversies at any conference of ignorance studies (Gross, 2007, p. 743). Rather, he used his keynote speech to generally demonstrate the need for finding better ways to acknowledge and register not-knowing in contemporary society and political governance.

In their response to Gross, both speakers Ulrike Felt and Stefan Böschen drew on a variety of examples for the makings of knowledge/non-knowledge in our increasingly complex, techno-scientific worlds. In Böschen’s account, the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), as a hub for producing scientific and political expertise on climate change, is confronted with the challenge to specifically select from hundred-thousands of articles for a single special report. Böschen wondered how they possibly deal with the production of non-knowledge that this selection included? How transparent and reasonable should the sorting according to criteria and indicators be made? Does this selection process undermine the institutional authority to constitute knowledge, e.g. given that climate science sceptics attack it on that basis?

Science and Technology Studies (STS) have a long tradition in exploring questions about the messy and complex processes that involve the establishment and institutionalization of scientific facts. Scholars have criticized the “black-boxing” of knowledge-production, which always entails powerful acts that designate authority over knowledge and implicate decisions about what is (un)worthy to know. The making of knowledge, and its flipside ignorance, is not necessarily a rational undertaking, but often charged by controversies and underpinned by values, norms, interests, politics. An interesting question is how to draw on this body of work when it comes to climate change politics? Ava Kofman, in a New York Times article, recently portrayed STS scholar Bruno Latour within the current politicization of climate science, a political moment, which actually reveals the role of “all-too-human networks” that are needed in support of or to stabilize scientific knowledge. For Latour, the point is that the problem of denialism will not be solved through presenting ever more data, because what should count as valuable knowledge and what should be ignored, cannot be determined by scientific facts alone. Or, in other words, scientific knowledge and political order are entangled and co-produced (Jasanoff, 2004).

For Ulrike Felt, it is also big data projects and the build-up of large-scale digital infrastructures in policy areas, such as the health sector (“digital health”), that call for a much broader reflection on what she calls “translation steps”. These would include various layers implicit in knowledge-making, from information gathering to acts of responsibility. Today, the need for collecting, storing, and processing (personal) data seems to be presupposed, and often it is far from clear who is entitled to decide on translating information into knowledge, and knowledge into responsible action. Normative visions and social imaginations are inscribed into digital infrastructures, but hardly ever (publicly) debated. It seems that the dominant imperative of big data collection has grown faster than our capacity to formulate societal and democratic ideas about what kind of knowledge we actually want to gain, who should act upon it, or what kind of responsibilities could emerge from it. Felt’s plea for a better reflection of what has been set in motion confirms the worries about these relatively new aspects of not-knowing that come along with big data systems.

Surprisingly, the current “crisis of evidence-based politics” was largely absent from the panel discussion. As one participant put it, what can be said about the visible forms of ignorance that we observe today in politics? The rise of political figures like Trump has fueled much debate about “post-facticity”, but it could also lead to think more in-depth about the relation between political government and “radical ignorance”, to paraphrase sociologist William Davies. As Davies argues in another New York Times article, America’s president but also the Brexiteers deeply resent the very idea of political governance based in technical and complex facts to solve “prosaic problems”. Governmental issues such as the multilateral governance of climate change or Brexit as “soft” separation of the UK from the EU rely on technical expertise and officials to subsume the unknown, a vision that nationalists across the globe reject. This type of radical ignorance aims at disrupting the link between expert knowledge and political governance as technocratic, regulatory and often global affair, and instead corresponds to their reactionary claims to reassert (state) sovereignty and nativist appeals to the “nation”.

Issues of knowledge and ignorance are thus not only entangled with questions of what power consists of, but also with the question of how political government can or should be envisioned. As relational, rather than stable categories, they become rearticulated and renegotiated in political decision-making and social struggle. Studying the practices of knowledge/ignorance means to look into what is deemed as worth knowing and what is not. And it can also lead to explore the ways in which political government, democratic authority, and social responsibilities are imagined.


Gross, M. (2007). The Unknown in Process: Dynamic Connections of Ignorance, Non-Knoweldge and Related Concepts. Current Sociology, 55, 742-759.

Jasanoff, S. (2004). States of Knowledge. The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge.

McGoey, L. (2012). Strategic unknowns: towards a sociology of ignorance. Economy and Society, 42(1), 1-16.

Paul Trauttmansdorff is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Vienna. His current project examines digital technologies and socio-technical systems in the European border regime and is situated in the intersection of STS and Critical Security Studies.