Tag Archives: climate science

Session 2 reflections: Environmental change and digital scholarship

Joe Smith

The second session of the workshop series was led by Dr Joe Smith of the OpenSpace Research Centre at The Open University. Joe is one of those rare scholars working at the intersections of research and public debate, and who has a long record of bringing his interests in environmental change and the politics of consumption to wider audiences, whether that is through podcasts, blogging (e.g. see Joe’s blog and twitter feed), web platforms or more traditional broadcast mediums.

One of Joe’s starting examples was the recent controversy over the hacked climate science emails. Though most rational assessments would argue that these emails ought not have undermined the very significant and robust corpus of climate science research available, their wide publication nevertheless did manage to do some significant damage to the image of climate change science. This suggests, Joe argued, that we scholars are conducting our work in public whether we know it or now, and indeed, whether we like it or not.

But Joe’s message here was a positive one: that scholars seeking to conduct some or much of their work beyond scholarly books and journals can often make highly significant impacts on public debate. He reflected, for example, on David Attenborough’s two-part BBC special Are We Changing Planet Earth (2006) as a landmark in building more nuanced public knowledge about environmental change (contrasted, for example, with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in the same year). As good as such broadcast programmes are, however, Joe suggested that we remind ourselves how ‘narrow a pipe’ this medium can be, in terms of its ability to present the complexity of environmental issues.

Joe then turned to a series of live examples of digital scholarship, such as his Letter to a Climate Sceptic, where he first learned to ask ‘who is the audience?’ while realising the potential of using iTunes U for distribution); or his ATLAS of Interdependence (with Renata Tyszczuk), an example of how one can use the web as a unique ‘publication’ platform (i.e. the web need not always mean dynamic or constantly updated). After taking a look at some other examples of digital scholarship, such as Angela Last’s Mutable Matter and Nigel Warburton’s remarkable Philosophy Bites, we broke into groups for a very productive set of discussions on forms of digital scholarship, from podcasting to blogging to various experiments with digital media.

As the group chatter made clear, the prospects of digital scholarship are both exciting but also challenging. For instance, must a digital scholar adhere to the principle of authorship (and authority), and try to work from defined or semi-contained online spaces like a personal blog; or should one’s content hop across web platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, etc) like a frog across lily pads? There were also questions about the ethics of online publishing. For example, when scholars change their mind about something, should they amend existing content online? Maybe not – maybe it should be treated like publications, and once out, also (to an extent) out of mind. Or maybe so, and if so, how should amendements be made (e.g. simply change it or indicate the change using a datemarked strikethrough)? And what about ‘safe experimenting’ online? Many expressed a desire to use online media for various forms of experimentation with research work – a process through which one might even provoke some healthy ‘digital goosebumps’ – yet still many thought it important to protect their data, or one’s research subjects/contacts.

Joe ended the workshop with an overview of his remarkable Creative Climate, a ten-year multimedia participative and research project that will provide a longitudinal account of societal responses to global environmental change. Interestingly, though the project is set out in the nice, round number of ten years, Joe indicated the possibility that, if successful, there would be no reason not to continue the project for a longer period of time – certainly that could be called some digital or networked logic. I think it is fair to say that we all hope the project succeeds!

By Scott Rodgers

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