Imaginable surprise in global change science

Stephen H. Schneider, B. L. Turner, Holly Morehouse Garriga

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Decisionmakers at all scales (individuals, firms, and local, national, and international governmental organizations) are concerned about reducing their vulnerability to (or the likelihood of) unexpected events, ‘surprises.’ After briefly and selectively reviewing the literature on uncertainty and surprise, we adopt a definition of ‘surprise’ that does not include the strict requirement that it apply to a wholly unexpected outcome, but rather recognizes that many events are often anticipated by some, even if not most observers. Thus, we define ‘imaginable surprise’ as events or processes that depart from the expectations of some definable community. Therefore, what gets labelled as ‘surprise’ depends on the extent to which what happens departs from community expectations and on the salience of the problem. We offer a typology of surprise that distinguishes imaginable surprises from risk and uncertainty, and develops several kinds of impediments to overcoming ignorances. These range from the need for more ‘normal science’ to phenomenological impediments (e.g., inherent unpredictability in some chaotic systems) to epistemological ignorance (e.g., ideological blocks to reducing ignorance). Based on the input of some two dozen scholars at an Aspen Global Change Institute Summer Workshop in 1994*, we construct two tables in which participants offer many possible ‘imaginable surprises’ in the global change context, as well as their potential salience for creating unexpectedly high or low carbon dioxide emissions. Improving the anticipation of surprises is an interdisciplinary enterprise that should offer a sceptical welcoming of outlier ideas and methods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)165-185
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Risk Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Engineering(all)
  • Strategy and Management


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