Why Science Does Not Know

A Brief History of (the Notion of) Scientific Ignorance in the Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries


  • Peter Wehling Goethe-University, DE




cultures of non-knowledge, undone science, agnotology, social construction, scientific ignorance


Currently, “scientific ignorance,” that is, the blind spots and knowledge gaps of science itself, appears to be an important and legitimate research topic in the sociology, history, and philosophy of science. In this article, it is argued that this unusual and provocative topic could only emerge as an object of research in its own right to the extent that the traditional modernist view of scientific ignorance as a merely ephemeral and ultimately irrelevant phenomenon was challenged, starting about one hundred years ago. The article follows the controversial shaping of the notion of scientific ignorance through the works of influential scholars in the twentieth century. It then traces the concept through the evolution of various research programs in the early twenty-first century, focusing on the reasons for and causes of that ignorance. One should nevertheless be careful not to (mis-)understand this history as a linear and irreversible “success story,” given that the familiar (self-)image of science as the eminent modern institution producing knowledge and eliminating ignorance is still highly influential.

This article is part of a special issue entitled “Histories of Ignorance,” edited by Lukas M. Verburgt and Peter Burke.






Special Issue