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An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth: a social
representation of scientific expertise
Warren Pearce, Brigitte Nerlich
On 30 June 2006 An Inconvenient Truth (AIT) (Guggenheim, 2006),
a climate-change documentary presented and written by leading US
Democrat politician Al Gore, was released. e lm contains a heady
mix of expert scientic evidence, personal stories and normative
political statements. An ‘oral history’, based on interviews with those
involved in the creation of the lm and celebrating this anniversary,
proclaimed: ‘Somehow, a lm starring a failed presidential candidate
and his traveling slideshow triggered a seismic shi in public under-
standing of climate change’ (Armstrong et al., 2016).
It is likely that AIT has contributed as much as anything or anyone
to making climate-change expertise public. In particular, it brought
climate-science expertise, which had steadily accumulated in the
preceding decades, into the public realm in a new way: combining
scientic data with personal stories and calls for political action. In
combining these elements, AIT made climate change public by oering
a particular social representation of climate change. While primarily
appealing to a public that was already interested in, and attentive to,
climate change, AIT also helped to broaden that audience. e lm’s
intended audience was what one may call its ‘convenient’ public. On
the other hand, the lms very success in speaking to such a public also
triggered contestation from what one may call an ‘inconvenient’ public;
that is, from an audience that disputed the lm’s social representation of
climate-change expertise – in some cases the lm and/or its producer
were framed as ‘monstrous’. e lm thus became a successful meme
and what some saw as a dangerous monster at the same time.
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An Inconvenient Truth 213
In this chapter we discuss AIT as an example of taking climate-change
expertise out of the pages of science journals and into the public sphere.
We draw on the ideas of John Dewey (1938, 1989) and their elucidation
by Mark Brown (2009, and see chapter 9) to show how the notion of
expertise is the key to understanding the lm’s motivation, successes
and critics. While the purpose of the documentary was to persuade its
audience of the consensual truth imparted by climate-science experts,
its eect was to become a lightning rod for disagreeing with, criticising
and debating with that expertise. Overall, AIT created a dominant
representation of climate change, based on expertise that became a
touchstone for consent and dissent, action and reaction. is position
was enhanced by the joint award of the 2007 Nobel Peace prize to
Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In the following we shall rst provide some background to the
lm’s emergence, highlighting its echoes of Dewey’s argument that
expert knowledge should be integrated in society (Brown, 2009: 150).
We use the concept of social representation (Moscovici, 1988) to show
how Gore combined scientic content with a personal and political
context in order to provide a meaningful representation of climate-
change expertise. We highlight how AIT sought to create its own
public for scientic expertise, returning climate-science expertise to
society as one of the many tools with which citizens make sense of
the world and solve problems (Brown, 2009: 160–161). We then show
how the very elements that helped AIT to establish a dominant social
representation of climate change also contributed to the creation of
a counter-representation and counterpublic that questioned how AIT
represented climate-science expertise. With AITs success in bringing
social context to scientic content came inevitable contestation. We
conclude with some tentative lessons for science communicators from
the AIT story.
AIT had a huge cultural and political impact following its release in
2006, winning a host of awards, including the 2007 Academy Award
for Best Documentary (IMDb, 2015), helping Gore win a share of a
Nobel Peace prize with the IPCC and providing an anchor for intense,
prolonged debates about climate change.
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214 Science and the politics of openness
e documentary was timely, which helped it to embed itself in
global culture and shape both dominant or hegemonic and counter-
hegemonic polemical social representations of climate change. A
dominant or hegemonic social representation is one that is a coercive
and widely shared construction of climate change, while a polemic
one is dened as ‘one which is generated in the course of social conict,
and characterised by antagonistic relations between groups’ (Jaspal
et al., 2014). In 2007 the IPCC released its Fourth Assessment Report,
which marked a step change in the public visibility of climate science.
ese events represented a political and cultural reinforcement of the
emerging scientic consensus and were signicant in establishing for
the rst time a dominant, hegemonic representation of climate change
that called for signicant personal and political action to address the
challenge. AIT did not disappear from cultural consciousness aer
2007. Gore made sure that future campaigns such as Climate Reality
built on its success, seeking to train volunteers as ‘Climate Reality
Leaders … spreading the word about the truth of climate change and
the solutions we have today in over 100 countries, making a global
challenge a personal issue for citizens on every continent’ (Climate
Reality, n.d.; emphasis added).
is suggests that AIT was a highly successful project, both as a
cultural event in itself and as a way of bringing meaning to climate
change and momentum to climate-change mitigation. AITs combina-
tion of scientic ideas with personal stories and political activism
echoes Dewey’s call for ‘bare ideas’ to have ‘imaginative content and
emotional appeal’ in order to be eective (Dewey, 1989: 115). AIT
also takes seriously Dewey’s notion that scientic expertise is a social
product rather than the result of individual scientic brilliance and
that science communication marks the return of knowledge to its
rightful owners: the public (Brown, 2009: 150). Indeed, AIT takes this
one step further by seeking to empower its audience to gain the expertise
to go out and disseminate locally. Yet, while Dewey points to the seeds
of AITs success, he also shows how the successful communication of
scientic knowledge and its social consequences brings more public
scrutiny to bear on expertise (Brown, 2009: 159).
A decade later, AIT remains an important representation of climate-
change expertise. Gores name continues to be synonymous with public
discussions of climate change (Grundmann and Scott, 2014) and AIT
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An Inconvenient Truth 215
continues to act as a salient reference point for climate-change critics
(e.g. Booker, 2015; Daily Mail Comment, 2015; Turnbull, 2011). In
the next section we describe the key elements of this representation.
Representing climate-change expertise
Climate science is an example of the scientic representation of nature
that responds to a problematic situation. Communicating this expert
knowledge is important as the problematic situation is bound up
with social conditions (Brown, 2009: 160). Yet Dewey understands
that if this expert knowledge is to gain purchase within societies, it
must be communicated aesthetically and imaginatively (Brown, 2009:
150). As discussed above, this provides a rationale for AIT but it also
shows that AIT is a social representation of a scientic representation
of nature (namely, the abstract concept of climate change). Hence,
concepts from social-representations theory help to show how AIT
represented climate-science expertise by objectifying climate change
through humans (personication) and non-humans (ontologisation)
(Jaspal et al., 2014). is constituted an attempt to establish a coher-
ent, hegemonic social representation of climate-science expertise
that would gain purchase with the AIT audience, inspiring them to
take various actions on climate change or to contest such actions
(Hollin and Pearce, 2015; Jacobsen, 2011; Jaspal et al., 2014; Nolan,
According to social-representations theory, a social representation
is ‘a system of values, ideas and practices’ about a given social object
(Moscovici, 1973: xiii), as well as ‘the elaborating of a social object
by the community for the purpose of behaving and communicat-
ing’ (Moscovici, 1963: 251). Such a representation provides a social
group with a shared social reality and common consciousness of a
particular social object. e primary function of a social representation
is to allow a social group to incorporate ‘something unfamiliar and
possibly troubling into their own network of categories (Moscovici,
1981: 193). Hegemonic social representations are shared by members
of a group; they are coercive and uniform. Polemic representations
are generated in the course of social conict and are characterised
by antagonistic relations between groups (Jaspal and Nerlich, 2014:
124–125; Moscovici, 2000: 28).
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216 Science and the politics of openness
Objectication is the process whereby unfamiliar and abstract objects
are transformed into concrete and objective common-sense realities.
Moscovici and Hewstone (1983) postulate three subprocesses associated
with objectication; namely, the personication of knowledge, guration
and ontologisation. We focus here on the rst and the last. e
personication of knowledge links the abstract object to a person or
a group, providing the object with a more concrete existence through
this association. Ontologisation refers to the process whereby physical
characteristics are attributed to a non-physical entity, essentially
‘materialising’ the immaterial.
We will show that while AIT helped to elevate the cultural signicance
of climate change and contributed to forging and disseminating a
hegemonic representation of climate change, it also prompted the
emergence of a strengthened polemic-representation counterpublic
that placed AITs representation of climate-science knowledge under
intense scrutiny. By highlighting some scientic weaknesses in the
lm and Gore’s role as the face of expertise, the counterpublic sought
to establish a counter-hegemonic or polemical social representation
of climate change. Here, the monsters lurking under the public face
of climate change came to life, most notoriously in an episode of
South Park where Gore was depicted warning of an implausible, unseen
monster called ManBearPig (Parker, 2006; Delingpole, 2010). Monstrous
representations continue to this day, with a Breitbart article confusingly
describing a new sequel to the lm (Cohen and Shenk, 2017) as a
‘scientic monstrosity’ while referring to climate change as ‘a non-
science beast’ (Williams, 2017).
While scientic knowledge plays an important role in the lm,
Gore evidently recognised, like Dewey, that public mobilisation requires
climate change to be made meaningful, not abstract, by manipulating
both cognitions and emotions (Beattie et al., 2011) so that ‘enough
people lock into the same narrative and connect the dots and feel the
danger facing their children’ (Bates and Goodell, 2007). e emergence
of scientic knowledge about climate change has given rise to ‘an
impersonal, apolitical, and universal imaginary of climate change
that has taken over from ‘normative imaginations of human actors
engaging directly with nature’ (Jasano, 2010: 235). AIT attempts to
redress this balance by personalising and ontologising climate change.
Most obviously, it positions Gore – for better or worse – as the human
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An Inconvenient Truth 217
face of the climate-change debate (Jaspal et al., 2014: 114). Yet it also
contains other attempts at personalisation. In a powerful early section,
Gore tells how his young son was almost killed in a car accident, and
of the painful days spent at his bedside waiting to see if he would
recover. e parallel is drawn between Gore’s son and the natural
world that we assume to be stable, showing that the things that we
take the most for granted can be taken away from us unexpectedly
(Murray and Heumann, 2007).
As well as this personalisation of climate or nature, the lm seeks
to reintroduce the personal into the accumulation of scientic knowl-
edge. Knowledge is given credence not only using charts and numbers,
but by the scientists who produced them. Gore refers to palaeocli-
matologist Lonnie ompson as ‘my friend’ when arguing that
ompson’s research shows a striking correlation between atmospheric
carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature. Science may achieve
its he through abstraction (Jasano, 2010: 234), but Gore reminds
his audience that scientic practice is irreducibly human, through his
account of his son’s accident.
AIT also seeks to mitigate abstraction through the ontologisation
of climate change by way of various non-human forms. e lm begins
with a paean to the central role of nature in Gore’s early life, which
is subsequently referenced in the story of his son’s car accident. is
environmental nostalgia’ makes climate change real by presenting it
as an emotional threat to our own memories of living in nature (Murray
and Heumann, 2007). Glaciers are used as another material example
of what we might lose from climate change. However, this was not
without controversy. One supportive climate scientist’s review of AIT
argued that while the general point was well made, the particular
examples used in the lm were poorly chosen, as they were probably
unrelated to temperature change (Steig, 2008). AIT ties climate change
to the threat of extreme weather, traumatically felt in the USA through
Hurricane Katrina just prior to the lm’s release (Nerlich and Jaspal,
2014). While Katrina is mentioned prominently in the lm, the
important role of engineering failures in the devastation it caused are
overlooked; a position described by Rayner as ‘using bad arguments
for good causes’ (2006: 6).
Criticisms of some of the specic examples used in AIT highlight
a broader tension underpinning the ontologisation of climate change;
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218 Science and the politics of openness
that is, that local examples of climate-change-related events are likely
to be less scientically certain than global representations of climate
(Hollin and Pearce, 2015). is is not to say that AIT is entirely
unsuccessful on this front; merely that scientic representations and
social representations may oen come into conict. Evaluating how
these are resolved depends on whether Gore’s role in AIT is ‘as a
politician, a lay expert, or a spokesperson for science’ (Hulme, 2009:
81), something that remains unclear during the lm.
is section has outlined the social representation of climate-science
expertise in AIT. e next section demonstrates the integral role of
the audience in this representation, as Gore returns science to the
people (Brown, 2009: 160).
Emergence of a public
Empire magazine’s ve-star review of AIT begins with an inauspicious
synopsis: ‘On the face of it, this is the least appealing lm in history.
A failed politico … preaching to the world about global warming
with the aid of PowerPoint’ (O’Hara, 2015).
Presentation soware such as PowerPoint or Keynote1 appears
to be a questionable medium through which to persuade an audi-
ence of the seriousness of climate change. Even at the time of AIT’s
release, such soware was becoming notorious for homogeneous,
ready-made slide designs resulting in boring corporate presentations
(Reynolds, 2005; Tue, 2003). While Gore’s professionally designed
slides avoid the template trap, one might wonder why he chose to
make such a presentation the focus of the lm, rather than the front
line of climate change where the physical eects are beginning to be
noticed, as subsequent lms have done (Orlowski, 2012). In short, AIT
foregrounded the presentation as that was the tool with which Gores
message would be propagated by his helpers, supporters and acolytes.
Gore makes clear his frustration with inaction on climate policy
from the US Congress and the then Bush administration, using this
as the basis for a ‘bottom-up’ approach to spreading his message ‘city
by city, street by street, house by house. Gore explains that he has
been ‘trying to tell this story for a long time’ and that he is focused
1 Gore’s presentation was developed using Keynote (Reynolds, 2007).
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An Inconvenient Truth 219
on ‘getting people to understand’ climate change. Clearly, this is not
public education as a good in itself; the intermingling of the positive
and the normative points towards the need for the climate-change
challenge to prompt particular actions.
AIT ends on an upbeat note, claiming that we already have the
technologies available to switch from fossil fuels, and that all that is
stopping us is a shortage of political will. e lm ends by fading to
black, as the text ‘Are you ready to change the way you live your life?’
appears on the screen, followed by an intermingling of the lms credits
with a mixture of tips on reducing personal environmental impacts
(e.g. switch to a hybrid car) and bringing about political change (e.g.
ask your senators what they are doing about climate change). Viewers
were also directed to a supporting website including more details
about the lm and about climate science, and suggested actions for
the audience to undertake (‘An Inconvenient Truth > take action’, 2006).
Taken together, the lm, website and accompanying book (Gore, 2006)
represented a multimedia take on a very traditional linear model of
science education, with the idea that presenting members of the public
with more scientic information will prompt them to take action.
While this is a clear aim of AIT, the lm also operated at a more
sophisticated metalevel.
Gore is the lms sole cast member, but his audience – his intended
public – plays an important supporting role throughout. e rst
faces to appear in the lm are those of the attendees at the various
presentations of Gore’s slideshow around the USA. AITs main presenta-
tion is staged in a way that ensures the audience’s faces are oen in
view, brightly lit and seated in a horseshoe formation. ese are not
just the faces of people listening to Gore’s story, but of those who may
retell it to their peers. Soon aer the lms release, Gore led a programme
of training for people who wanted ‘to tell their friends, families and
neighbours that human activities are altering global climate and that
each person can do something about it’ (Haag, 2007). e programme
continues today through the Climate Reality Leadership Corps that
encourages peer-to-peer communication and ‘spreading the word
about the truth of climate change’ (Climate Reality, n.d.).
In this way, AIT went beyond public education to instead aim
explicitly at the creation of a climate-change public. For a while Al
Gore became known as the high priest spreading an ‘environmental
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220 Science and the politics of openness
gospel’ (Mr Americana, 2015; Nerlich and Koteyko, 2009), a title that
also contributed to conjuring up the counterpublic that the lm did
not intend to create. Overall, then, it was not just the content of the
slideshow that was important, it was also the performance of the
slideshow that is a central part of the lm. e lm was intended not
only to persuade but to have a much stronger performative force: to
create a public that in turn would continue the performance. In Dewey’s
terms, scientic expertise is reinstated as ‘a renement of commonsense
inquiry’ rather than ‘a foreign way of knowing to be imposed on the
common sense of an ignorant public’ (Brown, 2009: 160). However,
this overt focus on putting scientic expertise back into the hands of
society was turned back on AIT itself, as a counterpublic questioned
the lm’s representation of climate-science expertise.
Emergence of a counterpublic
e evidence presented thus far suggests that AIT was extremely
successful, not just as a lm in its own right but also in establishing
a powerful social representation of climate change, an idea that had
been somewhat nebulous up to that point. AIT was also successful
in creating a public actively engaged in reproducing the representa-
tion of climate change by training individuals to give presentations
based on AIT locally. However, individuals are not merely passive
recipients of representations; they actively contribute to the construc-
tion of new representations in response (Jaspal et al., 2014: 116).
Some of these individuals assumed a much more critical view of AIT
and Gore.
Scepticism about climate science predated the lm’s release as an
important part of the ‘struggles over meaning and values in US climate
science and politics’ (Lahsen, 2008: 216). While such struggles were
continuing, US climate politics pre-AIT was broadly characterised by
a lack of federal-level progress on legislation to cut greenhouse gases.
Congress’s comprehensive rejection of the Kyoto Protocol was followed
by Gores loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election,
with the subsequent Bush presidency being noted for a stalemate on
climate policy. e success of AIT towards the end of the Bush presi-
dency provided a window for reframing the US climate debate (Fletcher,
2009: 807). It also acted as a powerful rallying point for climate critics,
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An Inconvenient Truth 221
both in the mainstream media and the blogosphere, who were opposed
to more stringent action on greenhouse gases.
A struggle ensued over the lm’s accuracy, and as AIT gained greater
public visibility a counterpublic emerged that sought to destabilise
the apparently coherent meaning of climate change provided by AIT
and Gores newfound position as a public expert. is counterpublic
was mobilised through the emerging new media of blogs such as
Watts Up With at (Watts, 2006) and Climate Audit (McIntyre, 2006),
as well as syndicated columns in the mainstream media (Elsasser and
Dunlap, 2013). e movement challenged the links claimed between
climate change and material events (Hulme, 2010), and the credibility
of Gore himself (Elsasser and Dunlap, 2013).
It is unsurprising that Gore, as a prominent Democratic politician,
became a focus of much conservative commentary. A study of conserva-
tive op-eds found him to be by the far most discussed topic related
to climate change (Elsasser and Dunlap, 2013: 763). Within the sceptical
blogosphere, the three blogs found by Sharman (2014) to be the most
central – Watts Up With at, Jo Nova and Climate Audit – have all
had numerous posts on Al Gore and/or AIT. While Sharman notes
that these blogs are more likely than mainstream media op-eds to
focus on scientic issues, their criticisms of AIT and Gore were both
scientic (Edelman, 2007; McIntyre, 2007; Nova, 2009b) and personal
(McIntyre, 2008; Nova, 2009a; Watts, 2008). Crucially, these com-
mentators had a (small) number of similarly critical climate scientists
upon whose knowledge they could draw. Two of these scientists
published critiques of AIT as part of a series in GeoJournal (Legates,
2007; Spencer, 2007).
is network of critical actors was akin to a scientic counterpublic
attempting to challenge the hegemonic representation of climate change
sought by AIT. ey were a relatively small number of scientists with
connections to other societal actors sharing a concern about the
interactions between science, power and politics (Hess, 2010: 631).
is is not to say that the counterpublic is any closer to the truth, or
freer from external biases, than the dominant public, only that AIT
and Gore provided important rallying points around which a coun-
terpublic could coalesce (Jaspal et al., 2014). e substance of this
counterpublic’s criticisms is already well documented in the literature
(Koteyko et al., 2013; Lahsen, 2013; Matthews, 2015).
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222 Science and the politics of openness
One particular characteristic of these criticisms is focused on
here; the way in which critics sought to disassociate the notion of
climate-science expertise from the representation provided in AIT.
Jaspal et al. describe this as the challenging of science ‘by appealing to
its norms’ (2013: 383). ey highlight a reader comment on climate-
change articles on the Daily Mail website that ‘distances Al Gore from
“science, which is interesting in itself, as he is not actually a scientist’
(Jaspal et al., 2013: 395). Of course, Gore does not overtly claim to be
a scientist; however, as the linchpin of AIT Gore became a cornerstone
for the social representation of climate-science expertise. e reader
comment claims that ‘Gore stood to gain hundreds of millions of dollars’
if legislation were passed lowering carbon emissions (Jaspal et al.,
2013: 395).
It is indeed the case that two years before AIT Gore co-founded
an investment management partnership focused on sustainability
issues (Generation Investment Management, n.d.), and that one
newspaper report claimed that his ‘green-tech’ investments boosted
his net worth from $2 million to $100 million between 2002 and 2012
(Leonnig, 2012). Whether or not these gures are entirely accurate,
they highlight the importance of the social context that is given to
Dewey’s ‘bare ideas’, and in particular the contested boundary between
content and context (Brown, 2009: 159).
Brown (2009: 160) notes that the ‘social conicts associated with
genetic engineering do not invalidate the theory of the double helix’.
Similarly, the nancial interests of Al Gore highlighted in the Daily
Mail comment do not invalidate the fundamentals of atmospheric
physics. However, the comment highlights the fuzzy boundary between
content and context in the public sphere, and how a questionable
context can bring the content into question and destabilise representa-
tions of expertise. Citizens’ willingness to accept or challenge climate-
science expertise is to some degree dependent on their core values
(Kahan et al., 2011). One can’t please all the people all the time.
However, even assuming that Gore’s intentions in making AIT were
of the best, his nancial interest in sustainability investments was not
necessarily a rm foundation for his emerging public status as a
climate-change expert.
While helping to raise the prole of climate change, AIT seems
also to have contributed to polarisation and strengthened the voices
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An Inconvenient Truth 223
of what some may call an ‘inconvenient public’ keen on publicising
‘inconvenient knowledge’ related to Gore’s presentation of climate
science and his own role as the public face of climate change. e use
of the lm to increase ‘public understanding’ of climate change was
thus at one and the same time a success and a failure, a miracle and
a monster.
In this chapter we have outlined the role of AIT in creating a strength-
ened social representation of climate change; making the impersonal
personal and the invisible visible. By many measures AIT was hugely
successful, winning numerous awards, earning Al Gore a share of the
Nobel Peace Prize and providing a springboard for a global campaign
of public education and activism. Drawing on the work of Brown, we
have shown how AITs focus on creating new audiences for climate-
science expertise echoes Dewey’s original call for science to be returned
to the people as ‘a renement of commonsense inquiry’ and not to
remain an entirely unfamiliar way of knowing (Brown, 2009: 160).
e lm also echoes Dewey in providing an aesthetic, emotional
communication of expertise, going beyond the persistent decit model
in climate-change communications that assumes that the absence of
concern about climate change is the result of a lack of knowledge
(Nerlich et al., 2010; Pearce et al., 2015). In many ways AIT provides
a model for bringing scientic expertise into the public sphere.
However, mistakes were made. In particular, errors on scientic
content should have been avoided. As Hulme noted in his study of
Gore’s questionable comments on Mount Kilimanjaro’s glaciers,
returning scientic knowledge to the people ‘may destabilise knowledge
as much as it may legitimise it’ and public trust in provisions for
quality assurance in evidence are key (Hulme, 2010: 322). is goes
for social representations of climate-change expertise as much as it
does for scientic representations of nature appearing in the peer-
reviewed literature. Whether these mistakes had a signicant bearing
on public attitudes towards AIT is beyond the scope of this chapter.
However, what we have shown is how social representations of expertise
inevitably bring context to content, and a boundary between the two
that is contested. In the case of AIT, Gore’s position as a Democrat
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224 Science and the politics of openness
politician formed part of the lm, perhaps making Republican-
supporting viewers less receptive to the lm’s message. Counterpublics
may seek to bring in other contexts as a means of contesting social
representations. In the example above we show how Gore’s nancial
interests were used as a means of discrediting the scientic content.
For scientists, this may seem anathema, but is the kind of issue that
requires attention when returning scientic expertise from academia
to the broader society.
In its mix of the scientic, personal and political, AIT is perhaps
best thought of as an ambitious, if awed, experiment in science
communication and in making climate change meaningful. It did so,
whether consciously or not, by politicising climate change and
reintroducing the human into previously apolitical representations
of climate change (Jasano, 2010). While agreeing with the need for
politics, not science, to bear the load of dealing with climate change,
we note that one eect of AIT was to turn climate science into ‘Al
Gore’s science’, closely tied to a narrow range of policy options that
were anathema to US conservatives (Sarewitz, 2011). We also note
that if future engagement on climate change is to improve on the
experience of AIT, those taking part must be open to engaging with
publics that might be regarded as inconvenient just as much as with
invited and convenient ones. Such engagement can be rewarding or
frustrating to various degrees (Hawkins et al., 2014), something we
have both personally experienced with diverse publics on the Making
Science Public blog that we have edited throughout the duration of
the research programme. However, such engagement should continue
if there is to be any hope of social representations of scientic expertise
becoming a source of moderation rather than polarisation. We cannot,
and should not, seek to vanquish the monsters lurking under the
public face of science, but we might be able to do a better job of
taming them.
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Full-text available
Climate change is one of the most important global challenges in the twenty-first century, given that a changing climate is likely to have negative and potentially irreversible consequences for the environment and human beings. Drawing upon Social Representations Theory (SRT) and Identity Process Theory (IPT) from social psychology, we argue that research should focus upon, and successfully integrate, three levels of analysis, namely (1) how climate change knowledge is constructed and circulates (social representation); (2) the role of identity in relation to these representations (identity); and (3) how people might respond to them (action). It is suggested that identity processes may determine how people process social representations of climate change, and that they mediate the link between representations and environmental behavior. Understanding human responses to climate change necessitates an integrative social sciences perspective, in terms of disciplinary, theoretical, and methodological approaches.
Full-text available
Previous research has claimed that providing people with information about global warming may have a negative (and unanticipated) effect on their explicit attitudes towards climate change. One study found that more informed respondents felt less personally responsible for global warming and also showed less concern for the problem as a whole. This earlier study was, however, correlational in design and did not allow for firm conclusions regarding the direction of causality. For this reason, in our study we used an experimental approach - highly informative (and emotional) clips from An Inconvenient Truth were played to sets of participants and their mood states were measured as well as their explicit social attitudes/social cognitions on five critical scales (message acceptance/motivation to do something about climate change/empowerment/shifting responsibility for climate change/fatalism). Our study found that the clips did affect emotion, and in particular, they decreased the happiness and calmness levels of our participants, but they also felt more motivated to do something about climate change, more able to do something about climate change and, in addition, they were significantly less likely to think that they had no control over the whole climate change process. These were much more optimistic conclusions than the previous study had allowed, and they remind us of the power of strong informative and emotional messages on explicit attitude change and social cognition generally.
Here we demonstrate that speakers at the press conference for the publication of the IPCC' s Fifth Assessment Report (Working Group 1; ref.) attempted to make the documented level of certainty of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) more meaningful to the public. Speakers attempted to communicate this through reference to short-term temperature increases. However, when journalists enquired about the similarly short ' pause' in global temperature increase, the speakers dismissed the relevance of such timescales, thus becoming incoherent as to ' what counts' as scientific evidence for AGW. We call this the ' IPCC' s certainty trap'. This incoherence led to confusion within the press conference and subsequent condemnation in the media. The speakers were well intentioned in their attempts to communicate the public implications of the report, but these attempts threatened to Erode their scientific credibility. In this instance, the certainty trap was the result of the speakers' failure to acknowledge the tensions between scientific and public meanings. Avoiding the certainty trap in the future will require a nuanced accommodation of uncertainties and a recognition that rightful demands for scientific credibility need to be balanced with public and political dialogue about the things we value and the actions we take to protect those things.
Surveys of public opinion show that a significant minority of the population are skeptical about climate change, and many suggest that doubt is increasing. The Internet, in particular the blogosphere, provides a vast and relatively untapped resource of data on the thinking of climate skeptics. This paper focuses on one particular example where over 150 climate skeptics provide information on their background, opinion on climate change, and reasons for their skepticism. Although these data cannot be regarded as representative of the general public, it provides a useful insight into the reasoning of those who publicly question climate science on the Web. Points of note include the high level of educational background, the significant numbers who appear to have been converted from a position of climate concern to one of skepticism, and the influence of blogs on both sides of the climate debate.
Moscovici, S. (2001). Why a theory of social representations? In K. Deaux & G. Philogène (Eds.), Representations of the Social: Bridging Theoretical Traditions (pp. 18-61). Oxford: Blackwell.
Serge Moscovici first introduced the concept of social representations into contemporary social psychology nearly forty years ago. Since then the theory has become one of the predominant approaches in social psychology, not only in continental Europe, but increasingly in the Anglo-Saxon world as well. While Moscovici's work has spread broadly across the discipline, notably through his contributions to the study of minority influences and of the psychology of crowds, the study of social representations has continued to provide the central focus for one of the most distinctive and original voices in social psychology today. This volume brings together some of Moscovici's classic statements of the theory of social representations, as well as elaborations of the distinctive features of this perspective in social psychology. In addition the book includes some recent essays in which he re-examines the intellectual history of social representations, exploring the diverse ways in which this theory has responded to a tradition of thought in the social sciences which encompasses not only the contributions of Durkheim and Piaget, but also those of Lévy-Bruhl and Vygotsky. The final chapter of the book consists of a long interview with Ivana Marková, in which Moscovici not only reviews his own intellectual itinerary but also gives his views on some of the key questions facing social psychology today. The publication of this volume provides an essential source for the study of social representations and for an assessment of the work of a social psychologist who has consistently sought to re-establish the discipline as a vital element of the social sciences.
The recent slowdown (or 'pause') in global surface temperature rise is a hot topic for climate scientists and the wider public. We discuss how climate scientists have tried to communicate the pause and suggest that 'many-to-many' communication offers a key opportunity to directly engage with the public.
Climate change is not 'a problem' waiting for 'a solution'. It is an environmental, cultural and political phenomenon which is re-shaping the way we think about ourselves, our societies and humanity's place on Earth. Drawing upon twenty-five years of professional work as an international climate change scientist and public commentator, Mike Hulme provides a unique insider's account of the emergence of this phenomenon and the diverse ways in which it is understood. He uses different standpoints from science, economics, faith, psychology, communication, sociology, politics and development to explain why we disagree about climate change. In this way he shows that climate change, far from being simply an 'issue' or a 'threat', can act as a catalyst to revise our perception of our place in the world. Why We Disagree About Climate Change is an important contribution to the ongoing debate over climate change and its likely impact on our lives.
While mainstream scientific knowledge production has been extensively examined in the academic literature, comparatively little is known about alternative networks of scientific knowledge production. Online sources such as blogs are an especially under-investigated site of knowledge contestation. Using degree centrality and node betweenness tests from social network analysis, and thematic content analysis of individual posts, this research identifies and critically examines the climate sceptical blogosphere and investigates whether a focus on particular themes contributes to the positioning of the most central blogs. A network of 171 individual blogs is identified, with three blogs in particular found to be the most central: Climate Audit, JoNova and Watts Up With That. These blogs predominantly focus on the scientific element of the climate debate, providing either a direct scientifically-based challenge to mainstream climate science, or a critique of the conduct of the climate science system. This overt scientific framing, as opposed to explicitly highlighting differences in values, politics, or ideological worldview, appears to be an important contributory factor in the positioning of the most central blogs. It is suggested that these central blogs are key protagonists in a process of attempted expert knowledge de-legitimisation and contestation, acting not only as translators between scientific research and lay audiences, but, in their reinterpretation of existing climate science knowledge claims, are acting themselves as alternative public sites of expertise for a climate sceptical audience.