In the era of Big Data, more and more data and information are accumulating each year. Yet, there is currently no parallel increase in actual public knowledge. The concept of Open Science is important, yet complementary approaches are urgently needed for narrowing the gap between potential and actual public knowledge – we term this gap Dark Knowledge. In this session, internationally leading experts discussed how to cope with increasing ignorance and misinformation in decision-making processes.

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The present era, often described as the age of information, is also an age of ignorance. Reasons for public ignorance include: (1) the production of biased information and (2) lack of research on key topics, both due to sociopolitical or financial interests; (3) specialized jargon and complex disciplinary knowledge that is inaccessible to the public; and (4) loss of previous knowledge. The gap between potential and actual public knowledge is termed knowledge in the dark – or short: dark knowledge.


Paradoxically, however, the unknown is favoured in science since scientists use well-defined ignorance to direct their research. With each problem solved, unsolved problems and thus new horizons regarding the unknown become visible. At the same time, there are tensions between the usefulness of ignorance on the one hand and the danger of possible misuse by actors with unsavoury motives on the other hand.

We also need to see three key sets of power-holders as distinctive but linked entities that play a strong role in limiting public access to information: state actors; for-profit institutions; and private philanthropic foundations. The first two actors – governments and corporations – have received ample attention from social scientists. Until recently, philanthropic foundations had received less scrutiny, a trend that is now changing. It has been demonstrated in detail why a non-partisan approach is essential to challenging and limiting the anti-democratic influence of private philanthropic funding on U.S. and European electoral politics.

Furthermore, there exists an inherent tension between expertise and democracy. On the one hand, governance in the 21st century would be impossible without public officials with deep expertise making judgments and decisions on subjects that few understand. On the other hand, the many flavors of democratic governance have in common a belief that those who are governed have a right to influence public policy making, including (but not limited to) via elections. We have choices to make in democratic systems that can lead to better or worse outcomes in policy and politics. More effective democratic practices must begin with an appreciation that profound ignorance is the normal condition for all of us, even us experts. No one knows enough to govern the modern state, and even those of us with expertise in one or a few subjects have no more knowledge on most things than any member of the public. For governance to work, experts must be able to make decisions where they apply their unique expertise, but at the same time, those decisions must be viewed to be legitimate in the eyes of those affected by those decisions, the public.

Open Science presents unprecedented opportunities for the communication of scientific knowledge, and for citizen participation in its creation. The opportunities and potential they hold for education and discovery, the challenges to realizing this vision and the potential paths forward have been presented.

In the information age, the ability to read and make data visualizations is as important as the ability to read and write. Data visualizations not only help to locate us in physical space but also to understand the extent and structure of our collective knowledge, to identify bursts of activity, pathways of ideas, and borders that beg to be crossed. It introduces a theoretical visualization framework meant to empower anyone to systematically render data into insights together with tools that support temporal, geospatial, topical, and network analyses and visualizations.

Concluding remarks by Robert-Jan Smits:

First, we are confronted with the fact of an increasing commercialisation and privatisation of knowledge. Nevertheless, we have to find ways to make that enormous amount of knowledge accessible for the public and to avoid monopolisation.

Second, we have to realise the European Open Science Cloud which offers a future oriented digital research infrastructure. That includes also intensive training in data stewardships.

Third, the European Code of Research Integrity will makes data integrity an inherent part of the research process.

Video recordings of the entire breakout session