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

Matthijs Kouw, Charles van den Heuvel, and Andrea Scharnhorst

Abstract
“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?


 

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