Radical Uncertainty in Scientific Discovery Work

Science, Technology, and Human Values 34 (3):313-336 (2009)
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Abstract

Radical uncertainty is a concept currently debated, for example, in the economics literature to theorize the impossibility of foreseeing the outcomes of scientific and technological development work. The purpose of this study is to extend the concept to articulate and theorize the minute-to-minute transactions in scientific laboratories. Empirical materials resulting from five years of ethnographic work in one laboratory focusing on fish vision are used to show how scientists produce a material continuity between some natural phenomena and the way they are represented in scientific discourse. Because the outcomes of scientists' actions sometimes turn out to be uncertain, the material actions that produce this continuity themselves retroactively become uncertain. Scientists may at any one point determine that what they had done is not what they thought and said to have done. Actions and the objects they produce therefore stand in a dialectical relationship: they produce, mutually presuppose, and in their respective materiality, stabilize one another.

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