evolgen

A Sizzling Hypocrisy

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Randy Olson left a career as a marine biologist (Titleist!) to become a film maker. His first feature project was Flock of Dodos, a movie I enjoyed. His second film is Sizzle, a movie reviewed by lots of ScienceBloggers a couple weeks ago. The gist: a lot of ScienceBloggers didn’t like sizzle. Neither did a reviewer for Nature (doi:10.1038/454279a).

I did not request a review copy of the movie because I don’t like to diverge much from the main themes of evolgen: evolutionary genetics, manatees, and the douchebag who writes this blog. But some of the recent discussion surrounding Sizzle has caught my attention, and I think it relates to the broader issue of science outreach (that is: communicating science to the general public).

Chris Mooney is one of the ScienceBloggers who did like the movie. He thinks scientists didn’t like the movie because they saw Randy’s character as a reflection of themselves:

Could it be that, for some of these hypercritical bloggers, Randy Olson’s documentarian character in Sizzle is really their reflection in the mirror? After all, the character is basically a caricature of someone who repeatedly demands facts, facts, facts, and can’t relate to non-scientists, have a good laugh, enjoy a good story.

After viewing the film at a public screening during Outfest, a gay and lesbian film festival, Chris has more to say about Sizzle:

After all, here we have an innovative attempt, by a scientist-filmmaker who is one of us and part of our community, to reach new demographics with information about one of our recurrent and core topics–global warming. In short, Sizzle represents the kind of effort that we ought to be promoting vigorously, selflessly, and with enthusiasm–especially given the lack of much available funding for this kind of experiment in Hollywood from major studios.

As someone who has not seen Sizzle, but who has seen Randy’s other movie and read his blogging on other issues related to science outreach, I can understand the negative critiques of Olson’s new movie. In Randy’s mind, he’s the expert on communicating science, and he loves telling scientists that they’re doing it wrong. However, he won’t tell us how to do it right!

The problem with Chris’s argument is the following. It’s not that scientists don’t support reaching out to the general public — see, for example, scientists who blog. It’s that the scientists who saw Sizzle didn’t think Olson did a good job of communicating science to the general public. Perhaps the limited audience of non-scientists who saw the movie enjoyed it (according to Randy and Chris), but did it accomplish anything in increasing their understanding or awareness of the issues? If not, did it accomplish any of the film maker’s goals (if there were any goals beyond entertainment).

Alas, I may not be allowed to bring up such criticisms of the Olson/Mooney message. According to Mooney:

Yet instead, what I see is far too much negativity, far too much criticism, directed at a film that is funny and damn good and ultimately very profound–all of which the audience in LA clearly appreciated. So why can’t we?

Apparently, Randy Olson and Chris Mooney are allowed to criticize scientists for doing a bad job with outreach. But scientists aren’t allowed to criticize Olson when he does a bad job of it (after all, Olson is “The Expert”). I think I smell a hypocrite. I don’t mind Randy Olson riding in the backseat of the science outreach/communication wagon (he’s not gonna take a pro-active position and drive), so long as he stops telling everyone else, “You’re doing it wrong!” If we’re doing it wrong, show us how to do it right.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 22, 2008

    I had noticed a similar arrogance from Chris, Randy and Matthew following the release of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. They touted its box-office success while refusing to acknowledge the number of tickets that had been bought by church groups, and said, “Folks, this is how propaganda and framing are done.”

    I am sure that Randy must have been in production for Sizzle! at the time of the release of Ben Stein’s POS, and so maybe he was telling us to watch him, cause he was about to follow along the same vein.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    July 22, 2008

    So does this count as a negative review of sizzle? (the movie that you never saw)?

    By the way, I loved it, I recommend you see it when you get a chance.

  3. #3 RPM
    July 22, 2008

    Good one Greg. Not a review of sizzle — more of a meta-treatment of the reviews of sizzle.

  4. #4 V Profane
    July 24, 2008

    You’ve pretty much summed up the main problem that people have with ‘the framers’, they’re really bad at it; or at least they’re really bad at framing ‘framing’.

  5. #5 Sean Walker
    July 25, 2008

    This pretty much sums up my experience with the whole framing thing.

    Scientists: Help us communicate.
    Framers: You must frame your message.
    Scientists: How do we do that?
    Framers: I don’t know but if there is grant money perhaps I’ll investigate.
    Scientists: What is framing?
    Framers: It’s putting a spin on things so the general public gets it.
    Scientists: That sounds like what Bush did to get into Iraq…
    Framers: No, it’s ok because it is for the greater good.
    Scientists: Sounds fishy to me, I think I’ll go have a beer now

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