An Inconvenient Truth: A Knowledge Analysis
Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth attempts to bridge a gap in knowledge. Gore defines the gap as a mismatch between public perception of climate change and the scientific realities of its causes and effects. Misconceptions about the climate change issue has prevented political change and kept everyday people from changing the way they behave as a part of the global environment. Gore’s pitch is one that leans heavily on communicating scientific evidence and global climate trends. Gore makes appeals to a couple different ways of understanding knowledge – consensus and body of knowledge and norms and practices. Ultimately the film is successful because it presents the elaborate scientific knowledge about climate change into a package that everyday people can understand.
Gore leans on several key pieces of evidence in his presentation that demonstrate global warming is real, human caused, and potentially disastrous. First is a look at global CO2 levels that shows their rapid increase in recent years compared to all the rest of history. His data comes from Antarctic ice cores that contain little pockets of air from when the ice was frozen thousands of years ago. From this data he constructs a timeline of global CO2 levels and creates a dramatic demonstration of how CO2 levels are higher than any other time in the last 65000 years.[i] This is compelling evidence that human industrial activity is affecting the composition of the atmosphere. Here Gore leans on a key assumption of norms and practices. In order to be convinced of this point, one needs to have faith in the scientific methods that are creating the evidence. The norms of the scientific practice, Gore proposes, create a large collection of proof.
This piece of evidence is linked to other evidence about the increase in global temperature, from photographic evidence of receding glaciers to another key piece of evidence that Gore leans on is a temperature record that demonstrates how the 10 hottest years on record have all taken place over the past fourteen years.[ii] Evaluating these claims is slightly more difficult. The photographs and temperature record are often criticized on grounds of their falsifiability, the idea that no confirming number of observations can confirm a universal generalization. This is particularly more difficult to get people to listen to because of the smaller number of observations, and the relatively short time period since we have begun to notice changes in the environment. Skeptics will argue that such small temperature increases in such a short time are not sufficient evidence to argue that global human activity is changing the climate.
A final key piece of knowledge that Gore brings up is a survey of scientific literature. This survey looks at 928 peer reviewed scientific articles about global warming for a decade long period. Not a single one took a stance against anthropogenic global warming. Gore compares this number to a different survey where 53% of major newspaper articles over a similar period gave similar attention to climate skeptics, many of them captured by fossil fuel interests, compared to expert climate scientists.[iii] This, Gore argues, creates a bias that distorts public perception about the issue. Gore presents this knowledge in a way that makes it appear that experts overwhelmingly agree. This idea of defining knowledge is the idea of consensus. Science, peer revision, and healthy skepticism all help to define problems. The body of scientific knowledge and the independent scholars all coming to the same conclusion makes the truth very clear in Gore’s eyes. The body of scientific knowledge builds on itself to create consensus around reality. The problem Gore tries to tackle is why this reality for science is not salient for the rest.
Gore leans on these ways of understanding knowledge – norms, body of knowledge, and consensus of science, to make his point, and explains why they are important for a general audience. Gore is most effective when he takes the foundation of scientific knowledge and presents it in an understandable and digestible social and political framework.
An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning. Dir. Davis Guggenheim. Perf. Al Gore. Paramount,
[i] An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning. Dir. Davis Guggenheim. Perf. Al Gore. Paramount,
[ii] An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning. Dir. Davis Guggenheim. Perf. Al Gore. Paramount,
[iii] An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning. Dir. Davis Guggenheim. Perf. Al Gore. Paramount,