The culture of not yet knowing

By Misch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

Last year, a comfortable illusion was broken: Experts didn't know something. People had to wait. But it is precisely this uncomfortable not-yet-knowing that is the fuel of research.

"We don't know." It's a one-sentence cliffhanger, an intellectual leap into lukewarm water. And it usually falls just when tempers are running hot. As the premise of almost every mystery novel, it invites you to take a look at the last page of the book. In the past year, however, it has become clear to mankind that the book is not finished, that we cannot skip any pages. While scientists have now managed enough knowledge to produce vaccines, the uncomfortable uncertainty still hangs in the room like an elephant: the people who are expected to "know" …didn't know. And outside the novel, it's a scary phrase, while it follows disasters, terrorist attacks or missing persons reports. It complicates discussions about the precise effects of climate change, genetic manipulation or side effects of vaccines. At the same time, however, it is the fuel of research.

Clickbait has no time for nuance

"You have to be able to endure not knowing, " says Professor Jens Kreisel, vice rector for research at the University of Luxembourg: "And scientists are actually quite good at that." The best researchers, he says, are often those who know what they don't know. "It takes a certain elegance and humility to admit that." Often, however, this patience is lacking, in the (social) media and in public debate: phrases like "Scientists* have found out…" or "Science has proven that…" clash with the very lengthy, scientific process: "That we have really understood something can possibly be said for small, precise things. Let's take my last name: Kreisel (eng. “Gyro”). In physics, we have understood gyroscopic motion, we know how it works. That's where the sentence fits. But we can only say that because the problem is very simple and isolated – though still very complicated – and because the question has been pursued for a long time." That doesn't always work with larger, complex issues, he says. That's because really getting to the bottom of a question and forming well-founded scientific opinions is a time-consuming process that fast-moving media often don't have the patience for.

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The culture of not yet knowing


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