Making the unknown knowable
Başak Sarac̣-Lesavre, Research Fellow, Department of Social Anthropology, The University of Manchester
Making the unknown knowable has always been located at the heart of scientific activity. Yet, whether the goal is to understand extreme environments, outer space or the universe (Helmreich, 2009; Messeri, 2016; Galison, 2020), to transform uncertainties into calculable risks (Sarewitz, 2000; Brown and Rappert, 2017), to make futures present and actionable (Harding and Rosenberg, 2005; Galison and Moss, 2015; Beckert, 2016, 2018; Saraç-Lesavre, 2020), to characterise contamination, toxicity or pollution (Tousignant, 2018; Alexander and Sanchez, 2020; Gramaglia, 2020), to establish the causes and effects of human intervention on Earth and its inhabitants (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2013; Chakrabarty, 2018; Yusoff, 2018) or to comprehend bodies, diseases and pandemics (Cohn, 2004; Stark, 2020), this activity has never been as equipped and mediated as it is today. Knowledge institutions, civil society organisations and ordinary citizens engage with a myriad of methods, tools and technologies to collect and analyse data; sometimes it is microbes, plants, and individuals (Paxson, 2008; Kelly and Lezaun, 2014; Houdart, 2017), and other times it is sensors, scenarios, algorithms, robots, tests, novel analytical and methodological approaches or previously inaccessible archives that mediate the approaching of uncertainties and unknowns (Gusterson, 1996; Saraç-Lesavre and Laurent, 2019; Marres and Stark, 2020).
The production of knowledge about the unknown is not only a fascinating activity in that it involves pushing the limits of human knowledge, but the analysis of its modalities also tells us a lot about the nature and forms of scientific collaboration (Latour and Woolgar, 1979; Traweek, 1988; Galison, 1997; Vertesi, 2015), political economies in which these collaborations take place (Birch and al. 2020), multispecies engagements (Haraway, 2008; Kirksey and Helmreich, 2010; Mélard and Gramaglia, 2019), modes of conflict and cooperation among humans and non-humans (Tsing and al., 2017), definitions given to ‘responsible’ action under the conditions of deep uncertainty (Dupuy, 2009; Haraway, 2016; Saraç-Lesavre, 2020), forms of injustices (Voyles, 2015; Liboiron, 2021), and the identity of those who hold the capacity to access information and to produce expertise in advanced industrial societies (Galison and Moss, 2008; Oreskes and Conway, 2011; Galison and Proctor, 2020).
This seminar series inquired into the ways in which the unknown is rendered knowable by a wide range of actors in a multitude of contexts. It aspired to generate a fruitful discussion among three concerned groups; those who produce knowledge on the unknown (scientists and engineers who work within academic institutions and industry, regulatory instances, civil society organisations), those who seek the limits of the known be extended to undertake policy action (regulatory instances, policy-makers), and those who study how the unknown is made knowable (historians/sociologists of sciences/technology, human geographers, philosophers of sciences, anthropologists of science/technology, STS scholars…).