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Hardcover | $32.00 Short | £26.95 | 256 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 11 b&w illus. | May 2010 | ISBN: 9780262013482
eBook | $22.00 Short | May 2010 | ISBN: 9780262266277
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Ignorance and Surprise

Science, Society, and Ecological Design


Ignorance and surprise belong together: surprises can make people aware of their own ignorance. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, a surprising event in scientific research—one that defies prediction or risk assessment—is often a window to new and unexpected knowledge. In this book, Matthias Gross examines the relationship between ignorance and surprise, proposing a conceptual framework for handling the unexpected and offering case studies of ecological design that demonstrate the advantages of allowing for surprises and including ignorance in the design and negotiation processes.

Gross draws on classical and contemporary sociological accounts of ignorance and surprise in science and ecology and integrates these with the idea of experiment in society. He develops a notion of how unexpected occurrences can be incorporated into a model of scientific and technological development that includes the experimental handling of surprises. Gross discusses different projects in ecological design, including Chicago’s restoration of the shoreline of Lake Michigan and Germany’s revitalization of brownfields near Leipzig. These cases show how ignorance and surprise can successfully play out in ecological design projects, and how the acknowledgment of the unknown can become a part of decision making. The appropriation of surprises can lead to robust design strategies.

Ecological design, Gross argues, is neither a linear process of master planning nor a process of trial and error but a carefully coordinated process of dealing with unexpected turns by means of experimental practice.

About the Author

Matthias Gross is Senior Researcher in the Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology at Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research–UFZ.

Table of Contents

  • Ignorance and Surprise
  • Inside Technology
  • edited by Wiebe E. Bijker, W. Bernard Carlson, and Trevor Pinch
  • Janet Abbate
  • Inventing the Internet
  • Atsushi Akera
  • Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineers and Computers during the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research
  • Charles Bazerman
  • The Languages of Edison’s Light
  • Marc Berg
  • Rationalizing Medical Work: Decision-Support Techniques and Medical Practices
  • Wiebe E. Bijker
  • Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change
  • Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law, editors
  • Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change
  • Wiebe E. Bijker, Roland Bal, and Ruud Hendriks
  • The Paradox of Scientific Authority: The Role of Scientific Advice in Democracies
  • Karin Bijsterveld
  • Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century
  • Stuart S. Blume
  • Insight and Industry: On the Dynamics of Technological Change in Medicine
  • Pablo J. Boczkowski
  • Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers
  • Geoffrey C. Bowker
  • Memory Practices in the Sciences
  • Geoffrey C. Bowker
  • Science on the Run: Information Management and Industrial Geophysics at Schlumberger, 1920–1940
  • Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star
  • Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences
  • Louis L. Bucciarelli
  • Designing Engineers
  • Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe
  • Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy
  • H. M. Collins
  • Artificial Experts: Social Knowledge and Intelligent Machines
  • Park Doing
  • Velvet Revolution at the Synchrotron: Biology, Physics, and Change in Science
  • Paul N. Edwards
  • The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America
  • Andrew Feenberg
  • Between Reason and Experience
  • :
  • Essays in Technology and Modernity
  • Herbert Gottweis
  • Governing Molecules: The Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States
  • Joshua M. Greenberg
  • From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video
  • Matthias Gross
  • Ignorance and Surprise
  • :
  • Science, Society, and Ecological Design
  • Kristen Haring
  • Ham Radio’s Technical Culture
  • Gabrielle Hecht
  • The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II
  • Gabrielle Hecht
  • The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II, New Edition
  • Kathryn Henderson
  • On Line and on Paper: Visual Representations, Visual Culture, and Computer Graphics in Design Engineering
  • Christopher R. Henke
  • Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power: Science and Industrial Agriculture in California
  • Christine Hine
  • Systematics as Cyberscience: Computers, Change, and Continuity in Science
  • Anique Hommels
  • Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Sociotechnical Change
  • Deborah G. Johnson and Jameson W. Wetmore, editors
  • Technology and Society: Building Our Sociotechnical Future
  • David Kaiser, editor
  • Pedagogy and the Practice of Science: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
  • Peter Keating and Alberto Cambrosio
  • Biomedical Platforms: Reproducing the Normal and the Pathological in Late-Twentieth-Century Medicine
  • Eda Kranakis
  • Constructing a Bridge: An Exploration of Engineering Culture, Design, and Research in Nineteenth-Century France and America
  • Christophe Lécuyer
  • Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930–1970
  • Pamela E. Mack
  • Viewing the Earth: The Social Construction of the Landsat Satellite System
  • Donald MacKenzie
  • Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance
  • Donald MacKenzie
  • Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change
  • Donald MacKenzie
  • Mechanizing Proof: Computing, Risk, and Trust
  • Donald MacKenzie
  • An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets
  • Maggie Mort
  • Building the Trident Network: A Study of the Enrollment of People, Knowledge, and Machines
  • Peter D. Norton
  • Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City
  • Helga Nowotny
  • Insatiable Curiosity: Innovation in a Fragile Future
  • Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann, editors
  • Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users
  • Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, editors
  • How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology
  • Shobita Parthasarathy
  • Building Genetic Medicine: Breast Cancer, Technology, and the Comparative Politics of Health Care
  • Trevor Pinch and Richard Swedberg, editors
  • Living in a Material World: Economic Sociology Meets Science and Technology Studies
  • Paul Rosen
  • Framing Production: Technology, Culture, and Change in the British Bicycle Industry
  • Richard Rottenburg
  • Far-Fetched Facts: A Parable of Development Aid
  • Susanne K. Schmidt and Raymund Werle
  • Coordinating Technology: Studies in the International Standardization of Telecommunications
  • Wesley Shrum, Joel Genuth, and Ivan Chompalov
  • Structures of Scientific Collaboration
  • Charis Thompson
  • Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technology
  • Dominique Vinck, editor
  • Everyday Engineering: An Ethnography of Design and Innovation
  • Ignorance and Surprise
  • Science, Society, and Ecological Design
  • Matthias Gross
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • ©
  • 2010
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information about special quantity discounts, please email special_sales
  • This book was set in Stone Serif and Stone Sans by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Gross, Matthias, 1969–
  • Ignorance and surprise : science, society, and ecological design / Matthias Gross.
  •  p. cm.—(Inside technology)
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-01348-2 (hc : alk. paper)  1. Restoration ecology—Social aspects. 2. Human ecology. 3. Science—Social aspects. 4. Knowledge, Sociology of. I. Title.
  • QH541.15.R45G75 2010
  • 333.71′53—dc22
  • 2009037131
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • Contents
  • List of Figures and Tables ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • 1 Introduction:
  • Brave the Unknown 1
  • Landscapes, Precaution, and Experiment 2
  • Objectives 6
  • Part I Concepts
  • 2 Experiments and Surprises:
  • Classical and Contemporary Perspectives 13
  • Knowledge Societies and the Inevitability of Surprises 14
  • The Transdisciplinarity of Ecological Restoration 19
  • New Modes of Experimental Knowledge Production 25
  • Public Experiments: Producing Surprise and (Occasional) Delight 29
  • Toward an Empirically Grounded Typology of Surprises 34
  • New Nature, New Surprises: Return of an Extinct Carnivore 44
  • 3 Knowledge Production and the Recurrence of Ignorance 49
  • Knowledge in a Sea of Ignorance 50
  • Nescience, Ignorance, and Nonknowledge 53
  • Studying the Other Side of Knowledge 59
  • Dynamics of the Unknown 67
  • More Questions than Answers: The Case of Malaria Control 71
  • Toward the Experimental Integration of Ignorance and Surprise 75
  • Part II Practice
  • 4 Ecological Restoration and Experimental Learning 83
  • Ecology in Society: The Shifting Boundaries of Ecological Restoration 84
  • New Land: Shaping the Chicago Shoreline 91
  • Public Participation and Controversies over “Real” Nature 95
  • Surprises Appropriated: Native Birds, Nonnative Bushes, and the Arrival of Baby Dunes 99
  • Maintaining Integrity in the Face of Surprises 106
  • Aligning Research and Heterogeneous Social Goals 109
  • Robust Restoration Strategies through Recursive Practice 114
  • 5 Postindustrial Landscapes as Laboratories of Change 121
  • Europe’s Largest Landscape Construction Site 122
  • The Design of a Lake District: New Nature in Postmining Landscapes 128
  • Anticipated Acidification and Surprising Heavy Metals 134
  • Fleeing Forward: Fast Flooding as Acting in the Face of Nonknowledge 140
  • Trust and Nonknowledge: Research in the Context of Its Application 143
  • Further into the Unknown: Rising Water, Shrinking Population 149
  • The Challenge of Keeping Surprises Surprising 155
  • Part III Outlook
  • 6 Welcome Surprises and New Edifices of Knowledge 165
  • Modernity and the Unanticipated Consequences of Progress 166
  • Research as Application: Toward an Experimental Knowledge Society 168
  • Perspective: Surprises as Opportunity, Nonknowledge as a Working Base 178
  • Notes 183
  • References 197
  • Index 229


“Gross’ book is an excellent contribution to the analytical terrain of uncertainty in studies of science-society relations and will bode well for scholars interested in expanded societal membership in the production of knowledge.”—Metascience
“[A]n excellent historiography of social science philosophies of learning.”—International Social Science Review
“What kinds of science will help us navigate the Anthropocene? Matthias Gross’s book takes an important step toward answering that question.”—Science as Culture
“A nicely focused approach to joining theory and practice for shaping the environment for human use.”—Building Research & Information
“Offers an important postnormal model of a science that counters the absolute pronouncements and rhetoric of a traditional science that fears ignorance and surprise, but that at the same time preserves the best parts of the scientific enterprise...Highly recommended.”—Choice


Ignorance and Surprise provides the first comprehensive synthesis of the sociology of ignorance and the sociology of scientific knowledge. In addition to developing a framework for analyzing ignorance and knowledge together, Gross suggests a way of bringing the power of the scientific experiment, which can both encourage and control surprise, into the world of ecological restoration and environmental policy. Given the often disheartening environmental surprises that contemporary society faces, this book is a thoughtful and timely intervention into our thinking about the environment, resilience, and sustainability.”
David Hess, author of Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry
“Matthias Gross begins his book with the wonderful declaration that ‘ignorance and surprise belong together.’ He uses the seemingly unlikely but very pertinent domains of landscape design and ecological restoration to illustrate a shift toward what some call postnormal, mode 2, or transdisciplinary science. Drawing on classical as well as contemporary social theorists, he constructs a framework that provides important insights into current debates about irreducible ignorance and surprise, and yields an enticing vision of a new kind of inclusive public experimentation.”
Michael Smithson, Department of Psychology, The Australian National University, author of Ignorance and Uncertainty: Emerging Paradigms
“Matthias Gross is in the business of rewriting modernity. Far from being a prescription for paralysis, not knowing becomes, in his telling, a springboard for wider participation, experimentation, and creativity. Part science studies and part environmental sociology, this is a hugely optimistic and intelligent book for anyone who finds the contemporary world too complex to govern.”
Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University