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The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty

by William Byers

With The Blind Spot, William Byers, professor emeritus of mathematics and statistics at Concordia University, has written a passionate, informed manifesto that takes aim at our culture’s reigning myth of scientific certainty. Byers would like to debunk that myth, and put in its place a science of wonder that freely acknowledges its “blind spot” – a metaphor for all that remains inherently and irreducibly unknowable, ambiguous, and mysterious.

This uncertainty is not a bad thing. Though he never mentions Keats, Byers’ “science of wonder” is suggestive of the poet’s “negative capability”: the philosophical state in which mankind is capable of existing with uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts. Such a state is desirable, Byers suggests, for several reasons. In the first place, it is generative. A science of certainty is a closed, essentially static system, while a science of wonder is all about stimulating human creativity and encouraging free thought and imagination. It also offers a more honest and accurate account of the real world. “Ambiguity,” Byers insists, “not logical consistency, is the way things are.” By ignoring this, the science of certainty makes excessive and misleading claims for the validity of its methods and models. Such excess makes the dream of total certainty a dangerous one, encouraging us to put too much faith in our ability to control complex systems – like the environment or financial markets – that are unstable and unpredictable.

Byers presents a number of intricate ideas and paradoxes – such as the underlying unity and ambiguity of reality, the importance of “self-reference,” and the human element in scientific investigation – in an accessible and informative way. He also works hard, with limited success, to bring together C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” of the arts and sciences. This discussion remains a bit abstract and pared-down, however, and might have benefited from deeper examination and further concrete examples.

That said, The Blind Spot is an important book for our time, part of a necessary and pressing debate about how to think, and live, within limits both certain and otherwise.


Reviewer: Alex Good

Publisher: Princeton University Press


Price: $27.5

Page Count: 224 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-69114-684-3

Released: May

Issue Date: 2011-6

Categories: Science, Technology & Environment