Knowing Humans

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How does science shape what humans know, and what we know humans to be?

The Covid-19 crisis has thrown a spotlight onto these questions, and the life-and-death stakes attached to human knowledge. For example, what role did scientific knowledge play in policy decisions during the pandemic, and how did that knowledge influence decision-makers’ perceptions of ‘the public’?

Our work addresses such questions, revealing with the assumptions and imaginaries that underpin our knowledge about the world, who contributes to that knowledge, and who or what remains excluded. Engaging with these questions sheds new light on some of modern democracies’ most urgent issues, such as what determines whether knowledge is trustworthy, what kinds of knowledge are needed to address social and environmental crises, and whether we are really seeing the rise of ‘post-truth’ societies.

How are digital platforms changing experts and expertise?

Traditional forms of expertise appear in crisis. Digital platforms such as YouTube, Wikipedia and Zhihu increasingly shape the knowledge and expertise that constitute the infrastructure of modern knowledge-based democracies. Techno-optimism about the democratisation of knowledge has given way to dismay that the internet has eroded the shared truths that enable rational discourse. Digital platforms’ business models incentivise audience over accuracy, with publics increasingly concerned about the resulting online misinformation. Meanwhile, a new wave of right-wing ‘populist’ politicians in the US, Brazil and elsewhere have come to power by fostering an anti-expert culture. Yet within this bleak picture, new kinds of experts and expertise, particular to digital platforms, are emerging in domains as diverse as finance, science and culture. This project challenges existing theories of expertise and democracy by thinking through the impacts of the technological structures and political contexts within which knowledge is now created, exchanged and, sometimes, resisted.

Blogpost: Dommett, K., & Pearce, W. (2019, June 13). Have we really had enough of experts – What evidence is there for public attitudes towards experts?Impact of Social Sciences

Academic article: Dommett, K., & Pearce, W. (2019). What do we know about public attitudes towards experts? Reviewing survey data in the United Kingdom and European Union.Public Understanding of Science

Making climate social

Social media has transformed the communication of climate change, challenging established sources of scientific knowledge and providing new opportunities to rethink and reframe the ways we talk about the issue. This project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, explores how our understanding of climate change has evolved across different social media platforms, and what this means for the future of climate change communication. 

Selected outputs:

Poster: De Gaetano, Carlo, & Pearce, Warren. (2019).Twitter’s retort to Trump: Before and after the Paris announcement

Journal article: Pearce, W., Niederer, S., Özkula, S. M., & Sánchez Querubín, N. (2019). The social media life of climate change: Platforms, publics, and future imaginaries.Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change

Journal article: Pearce, W., Özkula, S. M., Greene, A. K., Teeling, L., Bansard, J. S., Omena, J. J., & Rabello, E. T. (2020). Visual cross-platform analysis: Digital methods to research social media images.Information, Communication & Society

Science, politics and trust in the Covid-19 crisis

In this emerging project, we study the troubled boundary between science and politics during the pandemic, and how the issue of trust was integral to the presentation and production of knowledge. The project investigates whether a lack of trust in official sources of knowledge contributed to the emergence of alternative sources of expertise as diverse as a resurgent blogosphere and Independent SAGE. 

Selected outputs:

Blogpost: Pearce, W. (2020, June 16). What does Covid-19 mean for expertise? The case of Tomas Pueyo.

Picturing emergency

Images are an increasingly important means by which societies collectively imagine political issues. Yet images remain under-researched in comparison to speech and text. This project seeks to fill this gap, exploring how people and organisations use images to communicate the idea of ‘emergency’ within the examples of Covid-19 and climate change. We use an innovative mix of digital and interpretive methods, in collaboration with information designers, to research the production and reproduction of images within and between different digital platforms.

Selected outputs:

Poster: Pearce, Warren, Colombo, Gabriele, & De Gaetano, Carlo. (2019).Using computer vision to see Google’s visual vernacular of climate change (2008-19)

Poster: De Gaetano, Carlo, & Pearce, Warren. (2019).Visual vernaculars of climate change

Blogpost: Pearce, W. (2017, July 2). Context, images and the limits of digital methods

Journal article: Pearce, W., Özkula, S. M., Greene, A. K., Teeling, L., Bansard, J. S., Omena, J. J., & Rabello, E. T. (2020). Visual cross-platform analysis: Digital methods to research social media images. Information, Communication & Society

The use of consensus in evidence-based policy

Scientific consensus is central to the production of climate change knowledge (eg IPCC) and climate communication. What lessons can other science-led policy areas learn from this, and are there plausible alternatives to consensus as a basis for policy? What are the advantages of seeking consensus on the knowledge that informs decision-making. Who in society might be disadvantaged by such approaches? In short, where and when should we seek agreement, or be happy to live with difference?

Selected outputs:

Media articlePearce, W. (2017, August 1). We’ll never tackle climate change if academics keep the focus on consensus

Blogpost: Raman, S., & Pearce, W. (2017).Why we should expect scientists to disagree about antibiotic resistance – and other controversies

Journal articlePearce, W., Mahony, M., & Raman, S. (2018). Science advice for global challenges: Learning from trade-offs in the IPCC.Environmental Science & Policy

Journal article: Pearce, W., Grundmann, R., Hulme, M., Raman, S., Hadley Kershaw, E., & Tsouvalis, J. (2017). Beyond counting climate consensus. Environmental Communication

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Our work

How we understand being ‘human’ differs between disciplines and has changed radically over time. We are living in an age marked by rapid growth in knowledge about the human body and brain, and new technologies with the potential to change them.

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.