Science as Sub Culture

The Seed Magazine motto is “Science as Culture.” Interesting. I think they are talking about the interaction of culture and science, and about science as a part of the broader culture. But it may also be true that science, or scientists in particular, form something of a subculture (not a perfectly bounded one, of course) that acts differently from the rest of the humans.

Randy Olson has sent around an email to the numerous bloggers who simultaneously released reviews of the movie Sizzle (see here for details of the movie, here for an interview with Randy Olson).

I’ve reproduced most of the email below, but I want to make a number of comments on it.

First, the numbers are interesting: 27 reviews were positive, 18 negative. I talked to Randy about how this was determined. The reviews were ranked by his assistant, and positive vs. negative was determined where possible by the final recommendation … go see the movie vs. don’t go see the movie. I’m sure different individuals ranking these reviews would come up with different results.

In fact, if anyone out there would like to volunteer to analyze these reviews to either verify/refute the like/don’t like count, refine the method, or maybe to collect other information, let me know. You can do a guest blog analysis if you want! (Pending approval, offer not valid in certain states.)

To be pessimistic, one could say that 27 out of fifty bloggers gave positive reviews, with 18 giving negative reviews, and a few not giving the reviews they had promised (I believe it is the case that there were originally fifty).

Moving on from this, Randy provides some additional information and presents us with a rather startling conclusion:


Obviously, there are two groups of people: Those who liked the movie and those who did not. But beyond this, Randy is suggesting that this difference is primarily explained by whether or not a person is a scientist. By and large, scientists do not like the movie, non scientists do.

Randy specifically attributes this to literal mindedness vs not. Literal minded scientist want to know certain things, focus on certain details, etc. and miss the point of the movie or miss the humor, or generally, the experience is simply ruined for them,. The less literal minded non-scientist just enjoys the movie.

Some will argue with the data. It could be said that Randy has sets of non-science friends who almost all liked the movie, compared with scientist non-friends who did not like it. But that is not accurate. There are scientist friends in the sample who hate it. But, if Randy were to supply the raw data, perhaps this could be clarified.

I have mixed feelings about the literal-non literal model. That may be part of it, or it may be that literal mindedness vs. not is correlated with other factors. Personally, I think the biggest factor may be templating (which is a word I’ll use here in order to avoid using the word “framing”).

A number of the scientists who did not like the movie assert that it falls short in efforts to demonstrate that global warming is real and human caused. Let’s examine this criticism as a way of revealing what may be behind the scientist vs. non-scientist dichotomy.

The movie makes the point that global warming is real, that humans are the primary cause, and that it may be fixable. Clearly. These statements are made throughout, and the main character, Hapless Randy clearly “believes in this.” But some scientists are saying, quite validly from their perspective, that it did not work because it did not provide the documentation, the backup, for these assertions. This was a virtually data-free movie. What kind of documentary is that???

Well, for one thing, this movie was called “Sizzle: A global warming comedy” and described as a mockumentary. SO, if you want to evaluate the movie as a science documentary about global warming then, well, fine, but you re not reading the instructions on the outside of the box and your results may not be as expected….

But what about the important task of making the point about global warming? Why were data not used to do this?

This is where templates come in. A scientist has an expectation about methods and presentation as to how one makes a point. Especially a point about science. If you are a scientist, you want to see those methods used, and if they are not, the outcome is a failure. But this movie is neither a grant proposal nor a peer reviewed paper. It is quite possible that for the average non-scientist person showing all the data NEVER makes the point. In fact, that can be demonstrated. Try teaching for a living, you’ll know.

In this movie, the cool black guy buys a Prius. POINT MADE. The anti-point is held by some freak that looks like he’s wearing a fake mustache. TWO POINTS. There are cute cuddly polar bears swimming around in the background while someone is saying YES!, global warming is REAL! …. RIM SHOT!

I think that Randy Olson is just scratching the surface with the memo laid out below. Give it some thought. This is not an afterthought on his part, but rather, the considered opinion of someone in the communication business who also has a strong science background.

(I want to thank Laelaps for his insight in this area. We have been having a useful conversation about the issue. Look for a post or two from him, hopefully. Ah, wait, I see it is already here! Here. )

REVIEWS SUMMARY:
POSITIVE – 27
NEGATIVE – 18

Hi Sizzle Reviewers – I want to thank you all very much for taking part in the group review of “Sizzle.” One very interesting pattern emerged which actually matches what we saw last fall. The movie seems to divide audiences between the literal minded types (who for example want to know if Dr. Chill is real or not) and the less literal minded types (who really don’t care if Dr. Chill is real or not, they just find him funny).

In November we had a first test screening in Hollywood made up of about 35 of our non-science friends who filled out anonymous questionnaires, just as we did with “Flock of Dodos” two years earlier. The audience thoroughly enjoyed the film, laughed at all the right parts and every person gave the movie a score of 4 or 5 out of 5. We were pleasantly surprised given that Dodos had scored a lot of 2′s and 3′s with the test screening. But then we were brought down to earth the next week when a number of my science friends watched it and strongly disliked it. Most of them began their feedback by explaining why Dodos was so much better of a film, and the main reason was the information content — Dodos taught you a lot of specifics about the science of evolution, Sizzle seemed to have almost no science content.

The pattern continued in January when the movie was shown to a dozen senior scientists at a scientific meeting. They all disliked it, several left during the movie, and the rest left immediately afterwards. They felt it was light weight, borderline offensive, and even too supportive of the skeptics.

And yet when we showed it to another, completely different group of 35 of our non-science friends in Hollywood, it again played fine and everyone loved it. HOWEVER, at that second screening, a friend who is a producer of science documentaries with Discovery Channel was the first to speak in the Q&A and said, “I found this film completely frustrating from the very opening as I could never figure out who was real and who were actors.”

But he was immediately over-ruled by two people in the audience who said they ate up every minute of the film and loved the fun, simple story.

The bottom line is that we see two groups of viewers. One group who are interested in the facts and accuracy, and they want to know what is real in a movie and what isn’t. The other group really isn’t that concerned about the fact/fiction divide and mostly just want to enjoy a fun story, AND prefer there not be too much information (these people love Marion because he interrupts the scientists interviews and stops the flow of information).

And in general, these two groups seem to fall somewhat along the lines of scientists (literal minded) and non-scientists

Comments

  1. #1 JanieBelle
    July 16, 2008

    I wonder what the break-down is among teachers vs. non-teachers.

  2. #2 Stephanie Z
    July 16, 2008

    Janie, you can always volunteer to recode the data and satisfy that curiosity. It’s a much smaller project than the one I threw myself onto.

  3. #3 Jennifer Ouellette
    July 16, 2008

    A nicely reasoned take, Greg (and Brian’s post raises some interesting counterpoints). I’m always a bit leery of explicit “dualism” because of course, there are always exceptions. Plus, I hate easy labels. :)

    But I think the “data” Randy has collected — limited though it is in scope, with the possibility of a biased sampling — does offer evidence for a clear trend. There IS a scientific subculture that is out of step with how the average person thinks. That’s why what appeals to a broad general audience tends to make science-minded sorts go bonkers. :) I’ve written for all levels of target audience, and can definitely say that when I gear my writing to the level of the broadest general appeal, I am sharply criticized by more hard-core science types for “dumbing it down,” not going into enough detail, “misleading” readers, and so forth. But a general audience stops reading after the first sentence should they encounter my pieces for INDUSTRIAL PHYSICIST or PHYSICS TODAY. The two different audiences have different needs when it comes to their preferences.

    So, sure, take Randy’s findings with a grain of salt. I would expect nothing less from a critical thinker (and, I daresay, Randy would agree). But there’s definitely some truth lurking in there.

  4. #4 gwangung
    July 16, 2008

    But I think the “data” Randy has collected — limited though it is in scope, with the possibility of a biased sampling — does offer evidence for a clear trend. There IS a scientific subculture that is out of step with how the average person thinks. That’s why what appeals to a broad general audience tends to make science-minded sorts go bonkers. :) I’ve written for all levels of target audience, and can definitely say that when I gear my writing to the level of the broadest general appeal, I am sharply criticized by more hard-core science types for “dumbing it down,” not going into enough detail, “misleading” readers, and so forth. But a general audience stops reading after the first sentence should they encounter my pieces for INDUSTRIAL PHYSICIST or PHYSICS TODAY. The two different audiences have different needs when it comes to their preferences.

    I think everybody, even the most vociferous critics of framing, grants this intellectually. But they tend to object when operationalized, or given concrete examples of the different approaches needed for the different audiences.

  5. #5 JanieBelle
    July 16, 2008

    Janie, you can always volunteer to recode the data and satisfy that curiosity. It’s a much smaller project than the one I threw myself onto.

    Well, I could, except for one small problem:

    I’m supposed to be writing smut just now instead of wandering around ScienceBlogs learnin’ stuff and making fun of creobots and concern trolls and poking people in the eye and analyzing data.

    If I don’t get back to writing soon, I’m going to fade into the sunset (again). I don’t want to lose my voice again, it takes months to get it back.

    Sheesh, Ok, I’ll think about it. I would like to know…

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    July 16, 2008

    Janie,

    Get back to work, girl…

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    July 16, 2008

    Well, Janie, there’s another way to find out. Just promise someone smut for finding out the answer. :)

  8. #8 JanieBelle
    July 16, 2008

    Ok, Greg,

    I’m on it.

    But I’d just like to state for the record:

    Steph is a genius.

  9. #9 llewelly
    July 17, 2008

    Chris Mooney is arguing that the people who most need to see and understand the film’s message are scientists. But Randy Olson is saying that scientists are much less likely to enjoy the film. And he seems to be saying this was deliberate. If the film’s message is so important to scientists, why did Randy make it more difficult for scientists to like?

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    July 17, 2008

    LL: I think you may be conflating Chris’s wish and Olson. They are not working together on this project. I don’t think Randy was trying to make a film for scientists to see.

    Scientists don’t need to see this film unless they want to, but it may be the case that some scientists can learn from this film.

  11. #11 Shirakawasuna
    July 18, 2008

    I think the most one can get out of this movie is that scientists and the general public are entertained/annoyed by different things in a movie. That’s not exactly news. The ‘new thing’ is the assertion that it’s because of this ‘literal-minded’ property assigned to scientists. At the risk of being labeled, categorized, and then easily explained and placed in a convenient paradigm box, this is at best a guess and at worst a condescending gesture. Is it really that easy to ignore mere expertise or knowledge as a factor of enjoyment? Find something someone knows well and appreciates, make a movie about it that essentially seeks to make them look boring, out-of-touch, and wrong-headed, then mix in what seems to be a bunch of loosely-connected ideas and see how it pans with them. Oh, and don’t forget to be light on the actual subject matter, so it’s really clear that it’s just about personality and criticism, despite the stated goal. Choose food. Or gardening. Or art teachers. Or filmmakers. We won’t even get into the other silliness involved…

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    July 18, 2008

    I’m not sure why the term “literal mindedness” is being seen as a negative. Actually, I thought the non-literal mindedness label was more negative..

    But yes, I agree that if there is any easy way to describe this possible phenomenon, or explain it, it has to do with expertise, training, etc. You are wrong about the stated goal, though. Words like “comedy” and “Mockumentary” do not lead me to expect detailed content. You must be some kind of scientist or something.

  13. #13 Philip H.
    July 18, 2008

    Greg,
    It might also have to do with personality type and even emotional intelligence. I’m just starting to learn more about the latter, but it is intriguing. Seems we humans may be hard wired with a need for communal closeness, such that rejection is both a psychological and physiological wound (think stress DOESN’T kill?). How do we know when we’ve been rejected? One way is when we are no longer trusted, and then respected by those around us.

    Scientists generally extend trust and respect to other scientists based on the quality ( and time-series length)of their data sets, the strengths of their statistics, their publication record, the professional societies they belong to, etc. Some of this is how we are taught to think in our academic training, but some of it is also the type of person who generally goes into science.

    Yet when was the last time you heard one scientist, in any discipline, turn to another at the bar after day 3 of Death By PowerPoint and say “I really respect Dr. Zed because he is an engaging speaker. In fact, I’m going to help him podcast his talk today on particle dynamics of whale blubber because it was so good that my grand mother would get jazzed about it – and she is 93?” Nope, won’t hear it in any of the society meeting I attend (ocean and fish focused), and I’d be hard pressed to see it in any of the other science disciplines either.

    What does this mean in the Sizzle context? Just this – the things that scientists respect other scientists for are generally the things that inhibit our ability to communicate with the broader audience. I’m guilty of this one constantly. So when scientists see Sizzle, they don’t respect it because their paradigm isn’t programmed to respect it. They can’t easily make the leap, largely because they think that film about scientific phenomina should be . . . . wait for it . . . . scientific. Even All Gore’s Inconvenient Truth – graphs and all – isn’t scientific enough for a lot of them. it doesn’t make it a bad film and it doesn’t make scientists bad either.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    July 18, 2008

    “Yet when was the last time you heard one scientist, in any discipline, turn to another at the bar after day 3 of Death By PowerPoint and say “I really respect Dr. Zed …”

    I remember the first time I heard that sentence, where in fact Zed=Richard Dawkins himself. It is exactly as you say. Dawkins, Diamond, even Gould, have at various times in their careers been totally dissed by their compatriots because they play with the public. (underscored by some sort of envy or jealousy, of course)