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This paper explores the paradox of the concept of usable ignorance. The intellectual traditions of rational scientific thought are partially responsible for the dangerous predicament in which civilisation now finds itself: the destructive impact of our technological system, even in its normal operations, on the global environment. The response to this threat requires a science of "policy-related research", concerned with the cleaning-up of the environment and human survival. The expert's true expertise lies in the qualifications he makes, his acknowledgement and awareness of ignorance, based on his skilled judgement. Major industrial disasters are caused by lapses in quality control. Quality assurance is therefore an integral, ubiquitous aspect of the social activity of science. High quality of work depends on the skilled management of uncertainty. The lay audience, the decision maker and the counter-expert are all necessary participants in the new sciences for the transmission of skills and for quality assurance of results. This broad debate leads to a democratisation of science, a sharing of knowledge and therefore of skills and power, through a dialectical interaction of knowledge with ignorance.

Additional information

Authors: RAVETZ J R, Department of Philosophy, The University, Leeds LS2 9JT (GB);FUNTOWICZ S O, Institute of Systems Engineering, JRC Ispra, 21020 Ispra (IT)
Bibliographic Reference: Paper presented: International Congress "The Experts are Categorical: Scientific Controversies and Political Decisions Concerning the Environment", Arc et Senans (FR), Sept. 11-13, 1989
Availability: Available from (1) as Paper EN 35021 ORA
Record Number: 198911132 / Last updated on: 1994-12-01
Original language: en
Available languages: en