Science is unable to explain certain phenomena. While the phrase "scientific ignorance" refers to a lack of knowledge on the part of the layman, scientists themselves are ignorant in many fields. Yet scientists tend to cultivate an image of competence, particularly in relation to non-scientists, but only with respect to those problems that are currently considered solved, or in the process of solution. The unreliability of certain conclusions is not communicated to non-scientists, nor is this unreliability always acknowledged within those disciplines focused primarily on soluble problems. Researchers tend to choose to investigate those problems for which there is some probability of finding a solution. Scientists place their careers at risk if they explore problems for which the research tools and conceptual frameworks are believed to be as yet inadequate.
Students of science are expected to accept the facts they are taught as being uncontested and incontestable. Examinations assume that every problem has only one correct solution. Only when these students begin researching are they are admitted to the knowledge that scientific results can vary in quality, that many solutions can only be understood as tentative, that facts in scientific literature may be unreliable, and that concepts have a certain degree of plasticity. Those with any degree of insight eventually acknowledge that there are problems which cannot be solved. Such scientific ignorance is paradoxical and directly contradictory to the image of science and its associated technologies.
The pervasiveness of ignorance concerning the interactions of technology with the natural and social environment has only recently been explicitly recognized, despite the manner in which ignorance dominates the sciences of the biosphere. Science has been able to draw attention to its successes as justification for further investigations along similar lines, whatever the relevance to humanity's problems, whilst distancing itself from preoccupations which cause its current incompetence to become apparent.
Humanity is entering an era of chronic, large-scale and extremely complex syndromes of interdependence between the global economy and the world environment. Relative to earlier generations of problems, these emerging syndromes are characterized by profound scientific ignorance.
It is ignorance and unanswered questions which inspire and motivate investigation and research. The limitation of scientific knowledge is therefore in itself a means to greater scientific competence.