Uncomfortable Knowledge

Introducing Issue 13 of the Breakthrough Journal

Correction: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly stated that Sweden and Germany had similar rates of COVID infection and mortality. That sentence has been revised.

On the day that Steve Rayner died, the United States announced that it would begin screening Chinese arrivals for COVID-19. At the time, a test for the virus did not exist. Nobody knew that the virus could be transmitted asymptomatically or, for that matter, exactly how transmissible or deadly it was. But even then, the notion that questioning arrivals about whether they were feeling well could halt the spread of a virus that many already feared could trigger a global pandemic was laughable.

It is doubtful that anyone actually implementing the new screening policy believed it would work either. But as with most other forms of security and policy theater, much of what is actually being enacted involves selectively managing cognizance of what is known as much as what is unknown.

Donald Rumsfeld famously opined on the problems of decision-making in the face of “known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” To those three categories Rayner added a fourth, “unknown knowns” — the things we actually know but pretend we don’t. He called this “uncomfortable knowledge,” referring to all that policy makers and institutions forget in order to govern.

To some degree, banishing uncomfortable knowledge from the picture was unavoidable, Rayner argued. Faced with a world of irreducible complexity, humans must construct simplified versions of reality in order to act. But when institutions are unable to integrate uncomfortable knowledge into policy making, the consequences can be grave. This is true not just with regard to short-term policy outcomes, but also to the long-term credibility of the institutions.

A year later, the COVID-19 pandemic has offered us an object lesson in how this is so. From the beginning, scientists, experts, pundits, and provocateurs made bold pronouncement after overconfident prediction. Policy makers announced restrictions, based ostensibly on the best available science, and then abandoned them within days.

Sweden’s herd immunity strategy was adjudged a failure because its cases and mortality have been significantly higher than its Scandinavian neighbors. But its rates are also no higher than those of many other European nations, where draconian lockdowns and other restrictions were implemented.

New Zealand’s progressive prime minister Jacinda Ardarn, who governs a rich and sparsely populated island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, has been celebrated as a paragon of enlightened, science-based leadership because her nation has been virus free for months. Meanwhile the communist leadership of Vietnam, a much poorer nation with 20 times the population and without an ocean to control its borders, also goes months without any local transmission of the virus, and has the same mortality rate as New Zealand, yet merits hardly a mention.

As often as not, the facts are subservient to our interpretations of their meaning. Success at containing the virus in Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan doesn’t count because they are Asian countries. New Zealand does because they are like “us.” High case rates in the United States and the UK are due to the incompetence of globally unpopular leaders. In Italy, Spain, and France, they are due to aging populations and higher density.

And the band plays on. As the calendar turned from 2020 to 2021, the latest COVID-19 news ping-ponged between hopeful reports about the latest vaccines, frustrating delays in distributing them, dire warnings about how quickly new variants of the virus appeared to be spreading, and charges and counter-charges about the origins of the virus — all simultaneously adorned with expert authority and couched in uncertainty.

One thing, though, seems certain. With each twist of the plot, each new skirmish among dueling experts, each round of blame-saying when things don’t work out as promised, our social and political institutions lose a little more credibility.


As with the pandemic, so with the world. This issue of the Breakthrough Journal is titled “Uncomfortable Knowledge” in homage to Rayner, whose work informed, anticipated, and inspired so much that we have published over the years. It includes Rayner’s final essay, “Policy Making in the Post-Truth World,” published posthumously with Daniel Sarewitz. In the essay, Rayner and Sarewitz offer a valedictory of Rayner’s thinking about the demands and perversities of “post-normal” science, how normative views about nature inform science as it relates to risk, technology, and the environment, and the ways in which so much of what we call science today does not actually describe nature but rather artificial simulacrums of the natural world that are increasingly removed from anything we can observe or test.

The resulting hash of normative claims, confirmation biases, superficial empiricism, unfalsifiable predictions, counterfactuals, and counter-counterfactuals has, unsurprisingly, been attended by declining faith in the sciences, experts, and institutions that presume to guide us on these matters. In response, many observers conclude that we have entered a “post-truth” era, in which right-wing populists, conspiracists, and alternative healers are waging a war on science with potentially devastating consequences for human societies and the planet.

But Rayner and Sarewitz argue that this isn’t so. The problem is not that charlatans have duped the public with pseudoscience and misinformation but rather that the expert class and the institutions in which they are embedded have failed to attend to the panoply of public values that are unavoidably implicated in the construction of policy-relevant science. The solution, they argue, is not more research, better science communication, or louder condemnations of science denial. Instead, it is greater cognitive pluralism — both in how we define problems and how we shape solutions — so that both are better able to speak to a broader range of normative postures toward risk.

Much of the discussion of the “war on science” and our “post-truth” condition, of course, regards not a generalized condition but a specific controversy: the failure of policy makers to heed the recommendations of climate scientists, with many climate advocates claiming that the failure to act is the result of a sustained campaign of media disinformation underwritten by fossil fuel interests.

But in “Unbalanced: How Liberal Elites Have Cued Climate Polarization,” political scientists Eric Merkley and Dominik Stecula argue that there is little evidence to support this claim. Drawing upon a comprehensive study of three decades of news coverage of the issue, Merkley and Stecula find that mainstream media outlets, including conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, have never given climate skeptics much of a platform.

That, however, is not the end of the story. The media has played a role in the polarization of attitudes about the issue, just not the role that many have imagined. “The problem with the conventional environmental story about climate denial,” Merkely and Stecula write, “is that it ignores the critical and polarizing impact of cues Republican voters received from Democratic and liberal elites.”

Over the last two decades, Republicans have become more skeptical about climate change. This is not because they were taking their cues from science denialists in the media but because they were reacting negatively to high-profile liberal and environmental climate advocates who have dominated media coverage.

That is indeed uncomfortable knowledge for those who have been overwhelmingly represented on this issue in media coverage and have shaped the broader narrative. And so partisans and environmentalists invented a conspiracy to explain their failure to win over the public rather than countenance the possibility that two decades of framing the issue in ways that served partisan and ideological ends predictably polarized the issue along partisan and ideological lines.

This issue also includes new essays from Mark Sagoff, Charles Kenny, and Joanna Szurmak.

In “What Would Hayek Do About Climate Change?” Sagoff takes aim at neoclassical economists who argue that the problem is the result of a “market failure” that can be solved by pricing carbon. The claim misunderstands what markets and prices actually do. “Markets are for discovery, not utility,” Sagoff argues. Prices convey information, not value.

“If the American Economic Association (AEA) had its way, it would set prices in terms of its calculus of the social cost of carbon,” Sagoff writes. “Entrepreneurs would then plan not around market prices but around AEA ‘prices,’ which float in the doctrinal and political winds. This turns investment into speculation — bets on what the next administration or central committee will do.”

Hayek, Sagoff speculates, would have understood climate change not as a problem of market failure but as one of information, discovery, and innovation. He would not have objected to government acting as investor and venture capitalist, or even paying more for nascent clean energy technologies. But he would have objected to government attempting to fix markets by setting prices.

“By chanting a ritual ‘market failure’ abracadabra over social problems,” economists, Sagoff argues, “would replace a free-market economy with cost-benefit analysis, the better to achieve a figment of their mathematical imagination, i.e., welfare, being better off, or utility, which they expect to be paid to measure.”

The will to technocratic power is also a recurring theme in Joanna Szurmak’s “Accentuating the Negative: Why Eco-Pessimism Has Become Elite Religion.” At a moment in world history of unprecedented human thriving by almost every metric, Szurmak asks why negative, zero-sum, and pessimistic narratives have come to dominate our politics, especially among those who have benefitted the most?

As others have done before her, Szurmak points a finger at a combination of cognitive biases and perverse media incentives. But pessimism also, she argues, often serves elite defenses of privilege. “Despite being seemingly antithetical, competing narratives of pessimism and crisis from Left and Right are both wielded in service of defending their rival versions of the status quo,” she writes. “In both cases, the view from above is zero-sum."

The capture of progressive politics by environmentalism, she argues, has thrown the traditional contest between liberals and conservatives out of balance. When progressives abandon notions of progress, dynamism, and non-zero-sum outcomes, politics and culture devolve into a competition of zero-sum claims. “Today, there is little room in our politics or culture to celebrate innovation or economic dynamism,” she writes. “Little wonder that publics across the developed world have become blinded to the abundance, prosperity, and unprecedented personal and political freedoms all around them.”

Nowhere is the abandonment of progress by progressives more apparent than in the popularity of “degrowth” among some segments of the Left. Among degrowth’s overwhelmingly well-educated, Western acolytes, “sufficiency,” not prosperity or productivity, should be our goal. Anything more than that threatens ecological collapse.

In “Degrowth in the Age of Dickens,” Charles Kenny points out that this is an old claim, not a new one. John Stuart Mill, the great liberal philosopher, made exactly the same argument at the dawn of the industrial age. “The density of population necessary to enable mankind to obtain, in the greatest degree, all the advantages both of co-operation and of social intercourse,” Mill argued, “has, in all the most populous countries, been attained.” At the time, Kenny points out, per capita income in the UK, in gross adjusted dollars, was less than that of present-day Bangladesh.

From Malthusian claims of overpopulation to Neo-Malthusian claims of resource scarcity and ecological collapse to Neo-Luddite predictions of technological unemployment and a “robot-led jobs apocalypse,” a certain class of public intellectual from across the ideological spectrum has long insisted that rising prosperity, technological change, and productivity improvement cannot end well for humanity. That includes not only familiar bogeymen like Malthus, Vogt, and Erhlich but liberal icons like Mill, Keynes, and Galbraith.

“It is far easier to imagine the environmental crises that will emerge if we continue on our current path than the solutions that might allow for both continued prosperity and sustainability because some of those solutions have not been invented,” Kenny observes.

Claims about socio-technological futures always exist, explicitly or otherwise, in comparison to some sort of baseline or counterfactual. Had they come to pass, Mill’s alternative sufficiency arrangements probably would have been superior to the real England of 1850, which by most metrics marked a low point for human well-being in Great Britain over the last 700 years. It would also have condemned the nation’s entire population to what any British citizen alive today would consider extreme deprivation. Kenny’s essay should remind both techno-optimists and eco-pessimists that humility, especially about the future, is an intellectual asset that never goes out of style.


Across a long and varied career, Rayner, an anthropologist by training, was less interested in what science does in the abstract, or what its intrinsic value is, than what it is for. How do we use it? Why do we trust it? How do the sciences, and the people who interpret them for policy-makers and lay publics, help us make sense of the world, produce outcomes that we want, and make better decisions?

In these regards, Rayner was as concerned with the misuse of science, and scientific authority as he was with all that science could do. Whether it is climate scientists who demand ever more media coverage of their science, environmental advocates who insist that their political agenda is simply the law of thermodynamics writ small in social policy, or economists who imagine that they can reliably estimate the costs of climate change at the end of the century to calculate appropriate carbon tax levels today, all of the essays in this issue speak, in one way or another, to this question.

The notion that public science could reasonably characterize the costs and benefits of climate change over a century or the behavior of a nuclear waste repository over millennia, or even the global consequences of a quickly unfolding pandemic across hundreds of regions with different populations, cultures, and institutional traditions and capacities asks something of science, and the institutions in which it lives, that it could never possibly live up to.

“Nobody worries,” Rayner and Sarewitz observe, “whether laypeople trust astrophysicists who study the origins of stars or biologists who study anaerobic bacteria that cluster around deep sea vents.” Nor have most of us come to distrust surgeons or airline pilots. It is rather a particular kind of science, “making claims upon how we live and how we are governed” that so many of us no longer trust.

This sort of science has become so intensely contested in the early decades of the 21st century because the science, related as it is to the complex interface of human societies, public health, the natural world, and technology, carries so much uncertainty across so many valences of human choices and values. Lay publics are right to mistrust strong claims, whether they come from scientists, policy-makers, or advocates, based upon this sort of science.

For this reason, Rayner cared far more about civic institutions than the knowledge they embody; believing that good institutions, capable of navigating competing interests and worldviews, were more important than an idealized notion of “good science.” That perspective has proven ever more prescient and valuable as so much public science has become increasingly untethered from claims that are actually observable or testable in nature, as our expert class has become ever more unaccountable to its many competing and overconfident claims and predictions, and as our political class has become unwilling to take responsibility for their actions and decisions. The problem is not so much the science relevant to social controversies regarding risk, technology, and the environment but the elites and institutions that produce it.

As we have watched so many of our institutions fail and so much of our political culture come apart, it only becomes clearer that our capacity for self-government in advanced developed economies depends upon reestablishing a healthy interface between science, public institutions, and the publics they serve. Sadly, Steve Rayner is no longer here to help us navigate these challenges. But his work and legacy have left us a deep reserve to draw upon as we grapple our way toward what Rayner recognized would always be “clumsy solutions.”