A Blog Around The Clock

Sizzle

Yes, I am one of many SciBlings and other bloggers who got offered to pre-screen Randy Olson’s new movie “Sizzle” (check the Front Page of scienceblogs.com for links to all the others). I was reluctant at first, but in the end I gave in and agreed to preview a copy. Why was I reluctant? As a scientist, I need to start my piece with a bunch of neatly organized caveats, so here are the reasons why I thought I would not be a good person to review the movie:

- I am just not a good movie critic. Of the thousands of movies I have seen in my life, I disliked perhaps three. I am terribly uncritical of movies in general. When I go to the theater, I go with a blank mind, no expectations and, just like any Average Joe, I sit back with a bag of popcorn and ask the Director “Entertain me”. And I am usually quite entertained. I do not have the willpower to watch a movie critically – I just go for the ride. I want to enjoy myself, so I do.

- √Źn the past couple of years (and this may have to do with my internet “addiction”) I have found it increasingly more difficult to focus. It is hard to read a book – I need to deliberately remove myself from the vicinity of the computer for this task, so I mostly manage to read books on airplanes and at the pool. The same with scientific papers – I find it hard to focus and read the thing from beginning to end unless I print it out and take it somewhere away from the lure of the Web. It has come to the point that I have the same problem with movies. Sometimes kids drag me to the theater, but if my wife gets something Netflixed, I usually watch a few seconds and leave the room. A person who has the requisite training and the official license to diagnose people, unofficially suggested I would need Ritalin to go through a book, and he knows me pretty well.

- I am not a climate scientist, but I am a scientist and think like one. I am not the intended audience for this movie. Am I able to watch it through the eyes of an Average Joe?

- I am firmly in the camp of Global Warming believers. But it is not because I would know how to make a climate model. Or because I studied the issue deeply. It is because people I trust say so. Good science bloggers (and a couple of good journalists) explained the models in ways I can understand. They explained the issues in ways I can understand. But most importantly, I believe it because of people who say GW is not a problem – their backgrounds, their corporate and political ties and their sources of income make me deeply mistrustful of them. In a way, my view of GW is political: I see who the people on the two sides are, see how nicely the two sides divide between the people who genuinely care and have no reason to lie, and the people whose financial and political interests led them to lie on many other issues before, and the conclusion is clear.

- I have zero background or even context to watch this in. Nothing to compare. I never saw The Incovenient Truth. I never saw Al Gore’s slideshow presentation. I never saw Randy’s other movie The Flock Of Dodos. I never saw Borat (though I saw a couple of older Michael Moore’s documentaries). I never read a book that is specifically about Climate. The only related thing I saw was that action movie in which GW arrives in hours and traps some kids in a library in the frozen NYC (which I, of course, enjoyed, as I always do, despite of obvious scientific flaws). So, my mind is less prepared for this than either scientists or the Average Joes.

- I am weary of the Framing Wars in the blogosphere and I am afraid that a bunch of blog reviews of the movie will start off another round. This time, I am not sure if I want to participate…

- I am such a stupid Luddite! Knowing that my DVD player can’t do anything with a CD-ROM, I unthinkingly assumed that the reverse is also true, i.e., that my computer would not know what to do with a DVD. So, this stupidity resolved, Sizzle was the very first movie that I ever watched on my computer. I usually watch movies with a bowl of popcorn and a glass of wine, in a comfortable chair or bed, like most people will watch it. But this time I watches it crouched over my laptop, with my earphones on, the way only geeks will see it. I do not know if that is good or bad.

So, I got the DVD and watched the whole thing in one sitting. Normally, I would have quit after the first few minutes, but I persisted because a) I promised to do it, b) I heard that the second half is better than first, and c) because I could not believe that Randy would really be that bad, so I wanted to see more, to see how I was played by Randy in the beginning. It appeared too bad to be genuinely bad – there must have been a catch!

So I put myself into my typical inert film-watching state of mind: my idiotically zen-like, blank-slate, “entertain me”, uncritical, unscientific, impressionistic mode. And through the first half of the movie I was frustrated, frustrated, frustrated, frustrated, frustrated, frustrated!

The first half is so over-the-top awkward. There are totally shallow gay and Black stereotypes. Randy looks and acts like a doofoos and a jerk. The critique of the Star-Obsessed movie-making culture was painful, especially since I had my own experiences with it: younger and more “have-something-to-prove” the movie-makers, more shallow, self-centered, ignorant and arrogant they are. But they needed horses (and people who can ride them, in costumes) and they paid well, so we did try to survive their torture.

For the scientists, the first half (heck, the whole movie) is frustrating because there is very little data and very little explanation of the science of climate change. For the politically minded, like me, the first half is frustrating because it looks like a typically “balanced” He-said-she-said piece, where both sides are given equal time and equal merit. Heck, if anything, the Bad Guys were given more time – there are interviews in there with six sweet-talking GW deniers whose political and financial ties are not put up front for all to see, versus only two climate scientists and one environmentalist spokesperson, none of whom was as eloquent as the deniers. Randy’s occasional angry assertions that denialists are lying are weak and off-putting and make you like the denialists better, especially since the “Average Joe” – Marion, the cameraman – is cool and hip and easy to identify with and yet he swallows all the denialist crap bait, hook and sinker.

I hope people do not get up and leave during the first half.

Because it is subtle. And the second half shows how. The whole movie has to be seen to the end.

The first half is frustrating to us because it shows us our own view in the mirror. Many of us in the sciences, or in the “reality based community”, will find it uneasy and uncomfortable to see that view, but many of us are just like Randy: too serious, too controlling, blind and deaf to the “regular” people’s ways of looking at the world, and overconfident that “truth will set you free”. Yes, it is a caricature, but not too far from the reality of how many of us try to communicate to people who do not think like us.

When we try to explain something and the person we talk to does not believe us, despite of all our years of study, we get frustrated and try to persuade them the same way we try to persuade our scientific peers: by throwing more data at them. But they are not our scientific peers – the data do not hold such a large sway on them. You need to persuade them to believe you, not to understand the graphs. And that is where the professional PR hacks do better – they do the PR tricks: they smile, and bribe, and compliment, and talk like “regular folks” and appeal to emotion. And it works. We know it works. I believe in GW because people who study it persuaded me to believe them, not because I understand their science, or even have any interest in the details of their data. They earned my trust in other ways, and the opponents earned my distrust in other ways. Even for me, a scientist, data had no effect on my current belief – it is the way two sides present the data, or manipulate the data, and explain “what it really means” that one side earned my trust.

And that is exactly what is shown in the second half of the movie. Randy’s mom, and his crew (mostly the sound man, until then pretty silent, even refusing to talk) pretty much sit Randy down and give him a lesson. Now we see some other, previously unseen snippets from the interviews: how well the climate scientists explain stuff when asked by laymen in regular language. And how sleazy the denialists are in their sweet-talking, but can be derailed by a straightforward, direct question.

We are shown a simple graphic of how the six denialists disagree with each other. Oooh!

Then we see two superb examples of scientists who are great communicators, chatting and bantering, at ease with answering questions from skeptical lay audience, putting it all very plainly yet very effectively. While watching the polar bears play. Just before going to New Orleans to see the devastation still there two years after Katrina, and what people who live there have to say.

Every sympathy for the denialist side you could have gathered in the first half disappears after this. No need to show any data, to present any facts, to get angry in the face when screaming that the denialists are lying. You clearly see who is honest and who is not. Who is compassionate and who is a sleazebag. You easily choose who to trust and who not. Without any additional information, you grasp that GW is real, is man-made and should be fixed by us, humans, and soon.

Then you realize that the frustrating over-the-topness of the first half is subtle and there on purpose, to give us contrast, to show us how we keep trying to do it wrong, and then how to do it right.

I noticed how many times I laughed during the second, “serious” half of the movie. I was overjoyed. And I never even chuckled during the first, “comedic” half. The joke was on me. Us.

That is powerful.