An unusually heated set of remarks about climate change by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore have been making their way around the Internet. Speaking at an Aspen Institute forum on media and society last week, Mr. Gore charged that corporate interests “pay pseudo-scientists to pretend to be scientists to put out the message: ‘This climate thing, it’s nonsense. Man-made CO2 doesn’t trap heat. It may be volcanoes.'” Bloggers have tittered at Gore’s forceful denunication of these claims as “bullshit,” but Gore’s diagnosis of the effects of these claims on public discourse may be more noteworthy. “There is no longer a shared reality on an issue like climate,” Gore argued. “It’s no longer acceptable in mixed company—meaning bipartisan company—to use the goddamn word.”
The questions Mr. Gore raises are profoundly humanistic ones. What does it mean for citizens of a democratic society to share a reality? How is such a shared reality constructed, maintained, and transformed over time? From what institutions, discourses, and practices does it derive its epistemic and moral authority? How does the boundary between the said and the unsaid (or unsayable) get policed, and to what end? These questions and others will be on the table when Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, gives the inaugural lecture in Rice’s Cultures of Energy series on September 30, 2011. Oreskes’ recent book Merchants of Doubt examines issues of scientific consensus and dissent around climate change, and was mentioned approvingly, by name, earlier in Mr. Gore’s remarks. Check back for student reactions to Professor Oreskes’ talk.