Gross, Matthias. Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Murphy, Linda
Pub Date: 09/22/2011
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Fall-Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 86 Source Issue: 3-4
Topic: NamedWork: Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Gross, Matthias
Accession Number: 279722824
Full Text: Gross, Matthias. Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. xii + 240 pages. Cloth, $30.00.

Humans have been changing their physical environment since there have been humans. Since the Industrial Revolution we have had the ability to change the physical world radically and quickly. The last half of the twentieth century saw humans begin to reclaim and restore much of the natural world. Going into that reclamation process, humans had many preconceived notions based on what scientific knowledge offered at that time. The natural world sometimes offered some unexpected responses to reclamation efforts that pointed out to the scientists and the non-scientific communities of governments and concerned citizens where human ignorance about the natural world existed. Matthias Gross's book, Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design, takes a long look at how humans react and are forced to adjust to the unexpected reactions, or surprises, that nature sometimes offers. In addition, he attempts to define the role that unexpected events play as scientists, governments, and citizen groups adjust their policies and approaches to meet the new parameters. Gross, a senior researcher in the Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research-UFZ, recognizes that humans cannot know everything, and the surprising response is an opportunity for them to learn and gather more data. That knowledge and response cycle sets in motion a perpetual learning curve. As the author puts it, "new knowledge also means more ignorance" (p. 1). Ignorance, then, becomes the foundation for surprising events.

"Ignorance creates new research questions" (p. 169). This statement sums up Gross's ultimate conclusion to what surprising events contribute to the scientific world, but also to human society as a whole. Where ecological systems are concerned there is always action based on the known facts of the moment. Ignorance of the natural world's responses to action always changes the known data; therefore, future actions must be based on the responses of the natural world. Gross points out that scientists usually do not speak or plan in terms of absolute certainties. He also notes that politicians and bureaucrats often quote scientific data as absolutes in order to achieve their agendas. He does not excuse the scientific world completely from that certainty, either. While the author does not exactly quote the ramifications of the Quantitative Revolution, he does make it clear that all human groups, whatever their composition, are often lured into action or non- action based on what are perceived as scientific truths. His examples of the natural world's responses to human activity always point out that the natural world is not bound by scientific certainties. The examples are actually amusing in some cases. The surprises that an ecosystem can throw at human certainty make the assuredness of what can be measured a little less certain. Gross uses those examples to great effect when he compares knowledge to ignorance in ecological reclamation.

Gross's two field studies, restoring the ecosystem of Chicago's shoreline and reclaiming a safe environment in eastern Germany, are superb examples of the interaction of science, social responses, and nature's responses. He outlines the simplest form of a cycle of acquired knowledge, knowledge surprise new knowledge in using these examples. Both case studies examine how planners from both science and societal groups use existing knowledge to formulate an action plan. Those people then respond when surprises occur. Gross uses his own models to explain various reactions to surprise, and how ignorance can promote new approaches to action in the example of reclaiming Chicago's shoreline. It is in the example from eastern Germany that Gross begins to truly put forth his own definitions. In his description of responses from both government and businesses to surprise events, it becomes clear that with ecological reclamation, top down responses do not work. How bureaucracies evolve is beautifully explained. Gross uses the term "locked in" to explain that once bureaucratic goals are involved, the reclamation slows down, sometimes coming to a complete halt.

The author further points out that science often assumes a rationality of action that neither humans nor nature often follow. He explains how scientific rationality is based on what is known at the time. The surprise, or ignorance, when it occurs, creates a new field of scientific responses. Science has no option except to work with the known data of the present moment, but it is an assumption that either humans or nature will stay rational. The example of the honeysuckle hedgerow and bird habitats from Chicago's Montrose Park shows that humans will make non-rational decisions when faced with surprising events. The hedge was actually an invasive species that had entered the park because of human activity. The surprise was that birds, also non-native, had started using the hedge as a stopping off point in their migration patterns. Another surprise was that humans enjoyed the hedge and the birds, so the planning for reclamation adapted to the new knowledge and incorporated the hedge and the birds as part of that process.

Humans in the end are not bound by logical arguments when their emotions enter the mix. Studies in economics have examined the non-rational decision-making of humans since Martin Hollis and Edward J. Nell's Rational Economic Man (1975). Gross never states clearly that although science truly can only work with rational approaches humans and nature will always provide surprises in their coping strategies. What Gross says plainly is that as we begin a reclamation process, we must assume that there are things about which we are ignorant. If we are wise, we will be open to learning from the new data and formulate plans with new knowledge, accepting that now we are ignorant again. He also makes a strong case that human responses to surprise events are more flexible the lower on the societal/bureaucratic structure that those decisions are made.

Ignorance and Surprise definitely has a place in the library for works that examine how societies learn. From a teaching perspective, it is heavily laden with secondary sources to the point that some sections are difficult to read. On the other hand, the book presents an excellent historiography of social science philosophies of learning. It could contribute a great deal to upper level or graduate classes that focus on how societies respond and change when information and access to new information creates changes in the paradigm. Perhaps the greatest contribution that Gross makes with this book is examining how learning occurs in societies as ignorance is replaced with knowledge.

Linda Murphy, Ph.D.

Instructor of Geography

Blinn College

Bryan, Texas
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.