Chapter 4: Exploring Uncertainty in Knowledge Representations: Classifications, Simulations and Models of the World

Matthijs Kouw, Charles van den Heuvel, and Andrea Scharnhorst

“The world is not a solid continent of facts sprinkled by a few lakes of uncertainties, but a vast ocean of uncertainties speckled by a few islands of calibrated and stabilized forms.” (Latour 2005, 245).

Uncertainty can be a source of knowledge that potentially disrupts existing categories that provide epistemological bearing, thereby leading to the acquisition of new knowledge. However, not all scientific disciplines are welcoming towards such disruptive effects of uncertainties. The question is whether scientific practitioners want to keep their feet firmly on the ground offered by solid continents, or whether they are open to new insights offered by 'oceans of uncertainties'.

In this chapter, we argue that having a strong inclination to either islands (which provide epistemological bearing) or oceans (which set objectivity adrift) puts researchers at risk of not tapping into uncertainty as a source of knowledge. This may be tantamount to developing a closed system of explanations that leaves a particular and potentially also restricted room for knowledge production. What is needed is an emphasis on both forms of knowledge.

To support this claim, our discussion of the potential value of uncertainty with regard to knowledge representations asks the following three questions: first, in what ways can uncertainty be a source of knowledge, and how does appreciating this dimension of uncertainty require a combination of natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences? Second, how can historical examples of knowledge representations in the form of classifications, simulations, and models of the world provide insights about ways to think about uncertainty as a source of new knowledge? Third, how can these examples inform contemporary approaches to uncertainty in e-research in the humanities and social sciences?


Reference list -

ACLS. 2006. Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies’ Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and Social Sciences. Available at

Bammer, Gabriele, Smithson, Michael Eds. 2009. Uncertainty and Risk. Multidisciplinary Perspectives. London: Earthscan.

Barabási, Albert-László. 2003. Linked. How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life. London: Plume-Penguin Group.

Beaulieu, Anne, Matt Ratto and Andrea Scharnhorst. (Forthcoming) “Learning in a landscape: Simulation-building as reflexive intervention”. In The architecture of the book and the database, eds. Pieter Uyttenhove, and Wouter Van Acker. Lanham (MD): Scarecrow Press Inc.

Beaulieu, Anne and Paul Wouters. 2009. “e-Research as intervention.” In e-Research:. Transformation in scholarly practice, ed. Nicolas W. Jankowski, 54-69. New York, London: Routledge.

Bertalanffy, Ludwig von. 1949. Vom Molekül zur Organismenwelt. Grundfragen der modernen Biologie. Postdam: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion.

Brugnach, Marcela, Dewulf, Art, Pahl-Wostl, Claudia, and Tharsi Taillieu. 2008. “Towards a relational concept of uncertainty: About knowing too little, knowing too differently, and accepting not to know.” Ecology and Society 13 (2). Available at

Collins, Randall 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Coppola, Emery A., Owens, Jack B., and Ferenc Szidarovszky “Fuzzy rule-based modeling of degrees of trust in cooperation-based networks: Close research collaboration among domain experts (historians) and mathematical modellers”, Unpublished manauscript. TECT strategic workshop Visualization and Space-Time Representation of Dynamic, Non-linear, Spatial Data in DynCoopNet and Other TECT Projects, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Spain, 25-26 September 2008.

Curthoys, Ann 2009. “Historians and disputes over uncertainty”, In Uncertainty and ris:. Multidisciplinary perspectives, eds. G. Bammer, and M. Smithson, 127-136. London: Earthscan.

Ducheyne, Steffen 2009. “To treat of the world”. Paul Otlet’s ontology and epistemology and the circle of knowledge.” Journal of Documentation 65 (2): 223-244.

Feistel, Rainer, and Werner Ebeling. 1990. Evolution of Complex Systems. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Foerster, Heinz von. 1984. Observing Systems. Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications.

Forrester, Jay Wright 1971. World Dynamics. Cambridge, MA: Wright-Allen Press.

Fuller, Richard Buckminster 1963. Ideas and Integrities: A Spontaneous Autobiographical Disclosure. Englewood Cliffs:

Fuller, Richard Buckminster 1971. The World Game: Integrative Resource Utilization Planning Tool. Carbondale, IL: World Resources Inventory.

Fuller, Richard Buckminster 1981. Critical Path. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Galison, Peter. 1997. Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Ghamari-Tabrizi, Sharon 2000. “Simulating the unthinkable: Gaming future war in the 1950s and 1960s.” Social Studies of Science, 30 (2): 163-223.

Heuvel, Charles van den. 2008. “Building society, constructing knowledge, weaving the web: Otlet’s visualizations of a global information society and his concept of a universal civilization.” In European modernism and the information society. Informing the present, understanding the past, ed. Boyd Rayward, W., 127-153, Surrey: Ashgate.

Heuvel, Charles van den. 2009. “Web 2.0 and the semantic web in research from a historical perspective: The designs of Paul Otlet (1868-1944) for telecommunication and machine readable documentation to organize research and society.” Knowledge Organization, 36 (4): 214-226.

Heuvel, Charles van den. 2010. “Web archiving in research and historical global collaboratories.” In Web history, ed. N. Brüggen, 279-302. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Group.

Heuvel, Charles van den, and W. Boyd Rayward. (forthcoming) “Interface as thing. Paul Otlet’s visualizations of data integration.” In The architecture of the book and the database, eds. Pieter Uyttenhove, and Wouter van Acker, Lanham (MD): Scarecrow Press Inc.

Kemp, Karen K. and Ruth A. Mostern. 2001. First COSIT Workshop on Spatial Vagueness, Uncertainty and Granularity, Ogunquit, ME. CD- ROM. Available at

La Fontaine, Henri, and Paul Otlet. 1908. “L’Etat actuel des questions bibliographiques et l’organization de la documentation.” IIB Bulletin, 13: 165-191.

Latour, Bruno. 1999. Pandora’s Hope. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDaniel, Reuben R., Driebe, Dean J. eds. 2005. Uncertainty and Surprise in Complex Systems. Questions on Working with the Unexpected. Heidelberg: Springer.

Melville, Herman 2003. Moby Dick. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Myrtveit, Magne 2005. “The world model controversy”, Working papers in System Dynamics Group WPSD 1/05, System Dynamics Group, University of Bergen, Available at

O.S. Earth. 2008. “Global Simulation Workshop History.” Available at

Otlet, Paul. 1934. Traité de Documentation: Le Livre sur le Livre : Théorie et Pratique. Brussels: Editiones Mundaneum

Otlet, Paul. 1935. Monde, Essai d’Universalisme: Connaissance du Monde, Sentiment du Monde, Action Organisée et Plan du Monde. Brussels: Editiones Mundaneum.

Owens, Jack B. 2007a. “What historians want from GIS.” ArcNews 29 (2): 4-6.

Owens Jack B. 2007b. “Towards a geographically-integrated, connected world history: Employing Geographic Information Systems (GIS).” History Compass 5 (6): 2014–2040.

Owens Jack.B. 2009. “Reflections on a literature that GIS scientists and historians do not know’, Evolution of cooperation: Models and theories, Report on the TECT Conference at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria, 15-18 September, Available at:

Petersen, Arthur C. 2006. Simulating Nature. A Philosophical Study of Computer-Simulation Uncertainties and their Role in Climate Science and Policy Advice. Apeldoorn: Uitgeverij Makluj.

Poincaré, Henri 1952. Science and Hypothesis. London: Dover.

Rayward, W. Boyd 1983. “The international exposition and the world documentation congress, Paris, 1937.” Library Quarterly 53 (3): 254-268.

Rayward, W. Boyd Ed. 1990. International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge. Selected Essays of Paul Otlet, Translated and edited with an introduction by W. Boyd

Rayward. Amsterdam, New York, Oxford, Tokyo: Elsevier.

Rayward, W. Boyd 1994. “Visions of Xanadu and hypertext.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45: 235–50.

Rayward, W. Boyd Ed. 2008. European Modernism and the Information Society. London: Ashgate Publishers.

Scharnhorst, Andrea. 2001. “Constructing knowledge landscapes within the framework of geometrically oriented evolutionary theories.” In Integrative systems approaches to natural and social sciences – Systems science 2000. Ed. Matthies, M., Malchow, H. and J. Kriz, 505-515, Berlin: Springer.

Scharnhorst, Andrea, Marz, L., and T. Aigle. 2009. “Designing survival strategies for propulsion innovations” Available at (See also Aigle, T., Krstacic-Galic, A., Marz, L., Scharnhorst, A. “Busse als Wegbereiter. Zu einem frühen Markt für alternative Antriebe“. WZB discussion papers SP III 2008-102, Berlin: Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB) 2008.

Sterman, J. D. 2007. “Exploring the next great frontier: system dynamics at fifty” System Dynamics Review 23 (2-3): 89-93 (editorial to a special issue).

Smithson, Michael, Bammer, Gabriele, and the Goolabri Group. 2009. “Uncertainty metaphors, motives and morals.” In Uncertainty and risk: Multidisciplinary perspectives, ed. Bammer, Gabriele, Smithson, Michael, 305-320. London: Earthscan.

Trant, Jennifer 2009. “Tagging, folksonomy and art museums: Early experiments and ongoing research.” Journal of Digital Information 10 (1).

Wardrip-Fruin, N. 2009. Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Weinberger, David 2007. Everything is Miscellaneous. The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Holt Paperbacks.

Wiener, Norbert 1954. The Human Use of Human Beings. Cybernetics and Society. (2.ed. rev.) Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Wright, Alex 2007. Glut. Mastering Information through the Ages. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.