Charismatic facts are magnetic; they move from speaker to speaker, gaining velocity and weight the more they circulate and the further they travel from their point of disciplinary origin. Charismatic facts can be used by speakers in many situations, including academic, political, or informal conversation. Before a data point becomes a charismatic fact, linguistic and methodological barriers preventing interdisciplinary circulation must be overcome. One might encounter a charismatic fact on a protest sign, in a speech before the UN, or over the course of a family argument. A charismatic fact becomes commonsensical and emotionally compelling when it is stripped of field-specific language, but retains vestiges that signal its credentials. These authority signals might be authorial, institutional, or linguistic.
Unlike cultural artifacts like memes, which pass from one individual to another by processes of imitation, a charismatic fact does not mutate as it spreads; and, though it may lose the format of its disciplinary origin, the core proposition of a charismatic fact remains intact. A charismatic fact is so memorable that it would survive a game of telephone. A charismatic fact can accommodate debate and continued clarification, such as when, for example the data to which it is moored are refreshed or updated. Charismatic facts suggest a formal rethinking of popular twentieth-century campaigns featuring charismatic megafauna by groups like the Nature Conservancy or the World Wide Fund for Nature that understood charisma as a subject, rather than a discursive strategy.
A charismatic fact grafts scientific evidence onto culturally resonant narratives that lend themselves to circulation and reproduction. A charismatic fact is generally scientifically verifiable, tied to reputable sources.1 Scientific facts are mediated; though the term “charismatic facts” draws our attention to the possibility that mediation need not be synonymous with misrepresentation or inflation.2 In a time of overwhelming scientific consensus about human-caused climate change but weak political action, the charismatic fact might usefully connect the academy and activism.
The deployment of charismatic facts is an ideal that seeks to reclaim the portable and memorable fact. Charisma has a dubious history, generating shimmering auras of distortion around persons and objects. And yet, in a time of fragmented political will, charismatic facts offer a medium for organization, mobilization, and circulation. In this context we propose that charismatic facts offer special promise for climate activism. A charismatic fact feeds on the internet’s capacity to support and grow mass communication networks. A charismatic fact might be distributed through decentralized means, engendering connections among groups that are not traditionally aligned, but a charismatic fact might also use traditional public channels of broadcast media to gain recognition and uptake. A charismatic fact is a conceptual framework, an open possibility for asking what language can accomplish, how can climate facts be honed and taken up for immediate use.
1. Specific facts are often drawn from large institutional studies conducted, for example, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The citation of charismatic facts often scales directly from the specific to the institutional.
2. “Science creates entities—the periodic table of chemical elements, the nitrogen cycle, blood pressure, the metric system, biodiversity, the ozone hole—that reflect no-one’s unmediated observation of the world and yet are recognized and accepted as real. It is this very capacity to make ideas and objects that travel, spilling over the limits of lived experience, that students of the scientific enterprise have taken as the foundation of sciences special cognitive authority.” Sheila Jasanoff, ‘A New Climate for Society’, Theory, Culture & Society 27, 2010, (2–3): 233–53. doi:10.1177/0263276409361497.