PhD course: Ignorance, Agnotology, and Uncertainty: Drivers for Doctoral Research

24 November 2020 - University of Copenhagen

18.09.2020 | Webadministrator

Dato tir 24 nov
Tid 10:00 17:30
Sted University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law, Njalsgade 76, DK-2300 Copenhagen S, Room 6B.4.04 (Building 6B, 4 floor, Room 4)

The School and Centre for International Law, Conflict and Crisis invite all PhD students within the discipline of jurisprudence to a course on Ignorance, Agnotology, and Uncertainty: Drivers for Doctoral Research.


“It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room” an ancient proverb warns. “Especially when there is no cat”. Stuart Firestein likens scientific research to a collective fumbling and stumbling in the dark, a process that stands in stark contrast to the popular perception of the scientific method as a systematic search for knowledge. While this disjuncture is particularly sharp in scientific research, this picture also bleeds into research projects with legal, regulatory and governance challenges at their core. We are encouraged to define tight research questions that ‘fill in gaps’ in existing knowledge, whether these are wrought of new developments or revisit past debates. Yet, in the practice of pursuing such research, however, it often becomes clear that the compelling questions are different than those that served as the point of departure. ‘Adjacent possibles’ loom into view, and the research process refines ignorance into higher quality ignorance that yield further or more specific unknowns. The gap between what PhD projects are perceived to be, and what they prove to be in practice is often the source of anxiety for PhD candidates who feel that their projects are not ‘on track’.

There are also different taxonomies of ignorance that help and hinder this process. Robert E Proctor suggests: ignorance as a native state; ignorance as lost realm or selective choice; and ignorance as strategic ploy or active construct. Donald Rumsfeld infamously set out a different typology of ignorance as an uncertainty-generating ploy in relation to the question of WMDs in Iraq: There are known knows (things that we know we know); there are also known unknowns (there are things that we know that we do not know); there are the unknown unknowns (what we don’t know that we don’t know). Noam Chomsky drew a distinction between two kinds of issues: problems (which appear to be within the reach of approaches and concepts that are moderately well understood) and mysteries (that remain as obscure to us today as when they were originally formulated). These are but three examples, but they indicate the complexity of ignorance, which we are tightly intertwined with as researchers.

Programme (to be announced)


University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law, Njalsgade 76, DK-2300 Copenhagen S, Room 6B.4.04 (Building 6B, 4 floor, Room 4)

A guide on how to find Campus is available at our website  and a map of campus 



Course organiser

Associate Professor Hin-Yan Liu

Maximum no. of participants



No later than 29 October 2020 (now closed)