2. Uncertainty and incomplete knowledge

Question marks
Photo: ? by alistairh (cc by 2.0)

Uncertainties are everywhere, but how do we navigate the future when we don’t know the likelihood of different outcomes? There are always gaps in our knowledge about the way things are and what might happen, but there is a great deal of pressure to ignore or downplay uncertainties, closing down towards a narrow ‘risk management’ approach.

Taking ‘incertitude’ seriously – including risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance – can help to avoid nasty surprises, and uncover options for action that have been neglected.

Lecture: Prof Andy Stirling, Knowledge, Incertitude and Power


After you have watched the lecture, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are the differences between risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance?
  2. What are the dangers of assuming that we can always measure and manage risk?
  3. How are issues of uncertainty and incomplete knowledge connected to issues of science, legitimacy and democracy?

Essential reading

Andy Stirling (2010)

Keep it complex. Nature 468: 1029-1031

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Stirling, A. and Scoones, I. (2020)

Uncertainty and the politics of transformation. Chapter 1 of The Politics of Uncertainty: Challenges of Transformation. Routledge, London

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Scoones, I. (2019)

What is uncertainty and why does it matter? STEPS Working Paper 105

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Additional reading

Blog series on Uncertainty by Andy Stirling


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