Laelaps

Here we go again…

[Note: Apparently Emma Marris didn’t like Sizzle either, and you can read her review in Nature. I’m definitely interested in seeing more reviews of the film from various sources as we get closer to the release date.]

After reading Chris Mooney’s hyperbolic review of Sizzle this morning I have to admit I was a little pissed off. While I panned the film Chris went head-over-heels for it; it seems that we saw two different films. Maybe we did. Although the topic of science communication is an undercurrent through the film (breaking to the surface in a few places) I did not think that framing was what Sizzle was all about. In somewhat pejorative conclusion of his review, however, Chris takes a different perspective;

Yet even without such big-time support, Olson-in-real-life has managed to produce a wonderful film, a remarkable achievement. In light of this, it would be a true shame if scientists, science bloggers, and science pundits make the same mistakes as the literal-minded scientist-documentarian portrayed in this film, and fail to realize what Olson (in real life) has accomplished.

Let’s hope they avoid that error. Let’s hope they can chill. Let’s hope they get real.

Keep your eyes peeled for the use of the phrase “literal-minded” in discussions of Sizzle; it’s basically being used to suggest that people who didn’t like the film wanted to be presented with a truckload of facts and figures (basically being the stereotype of the scientist Randy plays in the film). Indeed, as is common in the framing debates if you don’t like a certain brand of science communication then you “just don’t get it,” and your criticisms are short-sighted. Closing his reply to the Sizzle reviews, for instance, Chris suggests that those who didn’t like the movie watch it again. I’m sorry Chris, but I watched it three times (although Janet has me beat with seven) and I still feel it’s a quagmire of competing ideas that confuses more than enlightens.

Indeed, if you look carefully the reaction to Sizzle is already receiving some amount of spin, those who didn’t like it being scientists (the literal-minded types) who wanted graphs and figures and those who liked it being “less literal-minded types.” From what I’ve seen of the reviews I don’t think that this distinction really holds up. Yes, many of the people who didn’t like the movie were scientists, but the reasons why they didn’t are much more complex than “Where was the hockey-stick graph?” Looking at the negative reviews one of the biggest complaints was that the film did not provide a coherent story and ended up leaving viewers in a muddle. The fictional scenes provided filler between interviews and in a number of places (like asking tv celebrities to host the film and the club scene) really dragged. Such criticisms aren’t about data; they’re about the plot of a movie that I didn’t find very entertaining or funny. (Even among the positive reviews there is some acknowledgment that the film was just not put together all that well.)

If the film is about showing people why they should care about the reality of global warming, as the first hour and the conclusion of the film spend so much time trying to get across, it doesn’t do a good job at all. Given that the first hour is devoted to giving different authorities face time to discuss global warming, that the New Orleans visit is attached because it illustrates how climate change will affect poor people, and the end message that global warming is real but we can do something about it, I was under the impression that I was seeing a sort of “meta” film that was determined to educate the audience about global warming while entertaining them with a “making of” story (the audience basically seeing the raw material of a fictional film that never is actually made). The ending of the synopsis from the website also gave me this impression;

Through a series of interviews and an eventual road trip to New Orleans the movie delves to new depths in an effort to understand the confusion around global warming, which may be the most serious problem ever to confront humanity. Or not.

I was not expecting a fact-filled documentary full of charts and tables, but I was expecting that arguments for the reality of global warming would be in some way supported and not rest on arguments from authority alone. Aside from editing/directorial issues my negative review focused on the failure of the film to dispel some of the confusion the synopsis refers to. If that was not the purpose of the film then obviously I’ve misinterpreted things, but if that is the case then maybe the promotional material for Sizzle needs to be re-evaluated to make the real point of the film (whatever it is) clearer.

If the film is about science communication, about changing the way we engage the public, there are a few good ideas but in many areas things fizzle. We see the character Marion interrupting interviews to ask questions and say how he thinks human-caused global warming isn’t real, yet we seldom get to see any responses or explanations to his improvised questions. There’s a very brief moment in the second major part of the movie in which it’s suggested that when Marion asks a question the scientists speak more convincingly and effectively, but this is quickly forgotten as the crew heads to New Orleans for an emotional, but only loosely-connected portion of the film. Still, although science communication is a running theme it seems to be subtle, something that may well be lost on the public or people who are familiar with the debates about “framing” here on the blogosphere. We’ll know for sure when the public reacts to Sizzle.

Maybe I’m just confused. Is the movie primarily about how scientists aren’t communicating well with the public? If that’s so there are a few good moments but also a lot of unnecessary filler and the message isn’t made entirely clear. If the film is about the reality of global warming, how it is something that we can change and will certainly affect the poor of the world, this message is also present but also gets muddied in the shuffle. Maybe it’s about something else entirely, but many of those who reviewed the film seem to think that a fitting alternate title could be “An Incoherent Truth.” Rather than being accused of being too “literal-minded” to get it I think something that Chris wrote about framing during the last kerfuffle over the subject needs to be kept in mind;

And there’s just no other way to spin it–this is a painfully ironic communication failure on the part of those of us who wanted to introduce what I view as a very important communication tool to the science world. If we can’t explain something so useful to an important segment of our own audience, how can we possibly hope to use it to counter the other side?

I’m not going to call Sizzle a success or failure because it’s not even out yet. Maybe the public will eat it up, I have no idea. (If they do, non-scientist critics giving it rave reviews, then it definitely will offer some food for thought.) What I am trying to convey, however, is that a number of people who were interested in the film when they heard about it have brought up some (I think) well-reasoned criticisms yet are being told they didn’t look hard enough or aren’t watching it “the right way.” This problem has come up again and again with debates about communicating science here on the blogosphere; we’re talking past each other rather than creating a dialog about what works or doesn’t work. I hardly think Sizzle is a film without faults, and while it was a valiant effort I can’t bring myself to like it. Does not shouting “ZOMG! Sizzle is teh awesum!” mean that I just don’t “get it”? It might be easier for some to believe that, but I don’t think that’s the case at all.

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    July 16, 2008

    I agree with you that it is not correct, or OK, to say that if some one did not like the film that they were seeing it the wrong way. Actually, I don’t think that Randy is saying THAT exactly. Chris might be, and I’ve been accused of that (but as usual my critics are WRONG).

    However, it is potentially a valid point that there is a subculture of science … an imperfectly bounded subculture (see my post on this) that does not relate to this movie because they are hampered. Yes, hampered. Nothing wrong with being hampered.

    I doubt very many evolutionary biologists are going to see the bright side of Expelled! as a film! I know a lot of people who don’t like certain kinds of violence in films and they can’t relate to films with that violence while someone else might like the same film because they can ‘handle’ the violence. And so on.

    Science as subculture.

  2. #2 Rev Matt
    July 16, 2008

    Unfortunately some of the people most interested in framing rather than the actual content of what’s being framed could fairly be called True Believers. You either agree with them or you’re wrong.

    Based on his prior work and interviews I’ve read with Olson I’m moderately interested in seeing Sizzle, but the argument of “If you watch it in the context of knowing what Olson is like in real life it’s a great movie” is possibly the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard said about a work of art. If it’s not on the screen, then it doesn’t exist. If the audience for the movie/tv show/book/record extends beyond personal friends of the creator then they certainly aren’t going to know what a tremendous achievement this effort is unless it exists within the entertainment object in question.

  3. #3 Laelaps
    July 16, 2008

    Greg; I read your post (although I saw much of it in our exchanges) and I agree than can be a “subculture of science” that wants to see things done a certain way. That being said, what I find frustrating here is that a number of people are saying “We didn’t like the movie because of x,y, and z,” and the response is “Well, you wanted a documentary.” It seems that the movie does have a BIG problem in that many people don’t know what it is about. If we’re taking it too-literally, how should we be taking it? No answer has yet been forthcoming.

    Like I said here what I really want to know is what the movie is about. Climate change? Science communication? Something else? Many people are saying “Hey, I’m confused” and there doesn’t seem to be an answer to that confusion as yet.

    There may very well be a division between scientists and non-scientists who see this film, but I think we really need to dig into why there is that difference. From reading the interviews I think confusion over what the film seeks to do is a bigger factor than any lack of data, and I don’t want to see the discussion over this turn into “You just don’t like it because it didn’t have enough graphs and figures.”

  4. #4 Patrick
    July 16, 2008

    Of course Mooney went for it – he has no objectivity left.

    You are talking about the same guy who thinks Expelled! was an enormous success.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    July 16, 2008

    Was Cosmos full of tables and graphs? What about James Burke’s Connections, or Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man? I don’t think the TV shows which fueled our passions when we were larval-stage scientists were spectacularly chart-reliant. Consequently, I’d be a little surprised if a hefty proportion of scientists actually went into a documentary expecting data tables. I suspect that claiming scientists were unhappy because they expected such charts and tables is just constructing a giant straw scientist.

  6. #6 H.H.
    July 16, 2008

    Mooney writes:

    “[Olson] has produced a film that sets a kind of trap for too-literal-minded scientists: If they react negatively to it, they’ll just be proving Olson’s point: that they don’t know how to relax, how to ‘keep it real,’ how to communicate.”

    Yeah, a “kind of trap.” Sorry, Mooney, but most thinking people will actually recognize that as a false dichotomy, a logical fallacy, not a “trap.”

    Christians do this all the time. “Jesus said people will mock the truth. If you mock me, then you prove I am telling the truth.” Or “The righteous are always persecuted. If I can claim persecution, then my cause must be righteous.”

    Mooney must really think his readers are feckin’ idiots to fall for this sort of bad reasoning. That, or he’s a feckin’ idiot himself.

  7. #7 Scott Belyea
    July 16, 2008

    On a lighter but relevant note, here’s Michael Flanders in his spoken intro to First and Second Law from 45 years ago.

    One of the great problems in the world today is undoubtedly this problem of not being able to talk to scientists, because we don’t understand science. They can’t talk to us because they don’t understand anything else, poor dears.

    This problem, I think it was C.P. Snow first raised it – Sir Charles Snow in private life – in his books Science and Government and so on. Mind you, I haven’t read it. I’m waiting for the play to come.

    He says, quite rightly, he says it’s no good going up to a scientist and saying to him as you would to anybody else, you know, “good morning, how are you, lend me a quid” and so on, I mean he’ll just glare at you or make a rude retort or something. No, you have to speak to him in language that he’ll understand. I mean you go up to him and say something like, “Ah, H2SO4 Professor! Don’t synthesize anything I wouldn’t synthesize. Oh, and the reciprocal of pi to your good wife.” Now, this he will understand.

    (From http://www.nyanko.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/fas/anotherhat_first.html )

    As a reasonably science-literate layperson, one of the more interesting phenomena on ScienceBlogs is to watch scientists yell at each other about how to communicate with the Great Unwashed without (as far as I can tell) ever wondering whether going and talking to someone outside the Inner Circle might help.

    Mind you, I’m not an Initiate, so what do I know?? :-)

  8. #8 Joe
    July 16, 2008

    The idea that a person needs to see a movie again because they didn’t “get it” on first viewing is ridiculous. Professional movie reviewers don’t do this and neither do moviegoers in the real world. I can’t imagine saying, “Hey, honey, that movie sucked. Let’s see it again to see if we understand it better.”

  9. #9 Cameron
    July 16, 2008

    Here’s Nature’s review. They seem confused by the film as well.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v454/n7202/full/454279a.html

  10. #10 Blake Stacey
    July 16, 2008

    Joe:

    Excellent point.

    Incidentally, I have discussed the times when I talk science with my next-door neighbors (e.g., when they asked about “that surfer dude’s theory of everything”), but it seems such remarks never provoke a blogo-storm. There’s just no juice in something so practical.

  11. #11 gwangung
    July 16, 2008

    The idea that a person needs to see a movie again because they didn’t “get it” on first viewing is ridiculous.

    On the other hand…there are more than a few instances of people re-watching or re-reading works they hated the first time and getting an entirely different reaction a second time.

  12. #12 Blake Stacey
    July 16, 2008

    True enough, gwangung, but in that situation, we’re often talking about returning to a book or a film years later. The novel we loved as a pre-teen has faded with the years, like a childhood home “growing smaller” in our absence; the poem has gained new resonances as we ourselves have picked up baggage. (Just look at all the SF readers who picked up Jurassic Park again and saw in retrospect all the signs foreshadowing Crichton’s descent into global warming denialism and general anti-science garbage.) I can’t think of too many times that my enthusiasm for a movie has waxed or waned dramatically in the week after first seeing it.

  13. #13 gwangung
    July 16, 2008

    True enough. On the other hand, the point is that the work itself does not necessarily change, but our appreciation of it may change as we learn new things or grow out of old viewpoints. That may not happen quickly, but that’s not ultimately the fault of the work, but rather in ourselves as viewers.

  14. #14 D
    July 16, 2008

    Indeed, if you look carefully the reaction to Sizzle is already receiving some amount of spin, those who didn’t like it being scientists (the literal-minded types) who wanted graphs and figures and those who liked it being “less literal-minded types.”

    There’s a word for this: “framing” :P

  15. #15 Joe
    July 16, 2008

    The “literal-minded” scientists vs. “less literal-minded types” is a really amateurish reponse. First, it stereotypes scientists (much like the movie apparently stereotypes gays and blacks?). Is there any evidence that scientists are more literal-minded than people in other professions? In my experience equating scientist to literal-minded is way off the mark. One of the hallmarks of a good scientist is having the ability to think creatively. I mean, since we’re talking movies think of all the “aha!” scenes where a scientist makes a logical leap, or sees a pattern way before anybody else.

    Second, Olson essentially says viewers who didn’t “get” his movie were simply not intellectually able to grasp it. This strikes me as moving the goalposts. The other possibility, which doesn’t occur to him, is that maybe he made a muddled movie.

  16. #16 dogscratcher
    July 16, 2008

    “On the other hand…there are more than a few instances of people re-watching or re-reading works they hated the first time and getting an entirely different reaction a second time.”

    I agree. My anecdotal evidence is “Big Trouble in Little China.” The first time I saw it, I thought it was terrible, but there was something strange about it. After watching it a couple more times in the next couple of days (sorry Blake), I came to realize it was one of the funniest movies ever.

  17. #17 Shirakawasuna
    July 16, 2008

    Well, let’s not forget all the context, now :).

    Chris requested that the critics, specifically those he stereotyped (with superficial qualifiers) as literal-minded, rewatch the film, yes. But he gave a reason, too: he thinks people misunderstood the film’s point, which would be that there’s a disconnect between science/scientists (experts) and the general public.

    Now read the reviews you can find all over the place, or even just the negatives ones (as those are the ones he’s criticizing). Do they seem like they really didn’t consider that? No. In fact, the fact that people did miss the point should tell you something: if this was intended to be in any way a documentary, it failed by covering it up with the comedy, which if we are to believe Chris, would be so subtle that the (vast, imo) majority of people will only see it the second or third time, if at all, without someone explaining it to them. That’s a bad attempt at a documentary and that’s the nicest way one can put it.

    If it’s just a comedy, it seems people find it somewhat funny or unfunny, with the exception of Mooney who, judging from the “tone” of his review, thinks it’s fantastic. I haven’t seen it, obviously, so I couldn’t give you my personal opinion, but it seems to be OK at the comedy from what I’ve read and is largely based on stereotyping.

    So what do you get when you add failure and “just OK”? Well, you get “meh” reviews.

  18. #18 Shirakawasuna
    July 16, 2008

    I should probably reread my posts before submitting them… just in case, that last “add failure” should be “add together failure”.

  19. #19 Blake Stacey
    July 17, 2008

    gwangung said,

    [T]he point is that the work itself does not necessarily change, but our appreciation of it may change as we learn new things or grow out of old viewpoints. That may not happen quickly, but that’s not ultimately the fault of the work, but rather in ourselves as viewers.

    I don’t disagree, exactly; I just think that (a) the timescale for changing one’s mind matters, and (b) it can sometimes be “the fault of the work”. To put it more precisely, my reaction as a reader or a viewer depends on both my state of mind and the work itself. If either were different, my reaction would be different, too, so apportioning blame entirely to one party or the other seems a little foolish.

    Anyway, when we’ve got people watching the flick three or seven times, it’s kind of a moot point. Maybe Janet Stemwedel or our host Brian will see Sizzle in a different light, should they watch it again a year from now; of course, there’s no guarantee their reformed impression will be a good one. For example: “Not only is it ineptly made, but now, what little science it had is out of date, because the climatologists clinched the hurricane connection!”

    Joe asked,

    Is there any evidence that scientists are more literal-minded than people in other professions?

    I wonder about this, too. More specifically, I wonder what scientists really do demand from movies. Nitpicking the bad astronomy, physics or biology in an action flick is, on one level, a form of entertainment itself (like watching for continuity errors or exposed boom mikes). If the movie is well-plotted, decently acted and directed, and generally entertaining, then bad science is typically written off as genre convention or shrugged away with the MST3K mantra, “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.” When I’m watching a documentary, rather than an SF thriller, I expect a higher degree of factual accuracy, but I don’t expect to see a textbook set to music. Like I said earlier, none of the science shows I grew up watching were like that. Of course, my experience might have been completely atypical, and the lesson I learned from it might be unknown amongst the scientific community, but I’d prefer evidence of that rather than empty assertions about “literal-minded scientists”. Talk’s cheap.

  20. #20 Laelaps
    July 17, 2008

    Thanks for the insightful comments and good discussion, everyone. I may actually give Sizzle another go, but not because of what Chris wrote. Although I would argue that the film is certainly confused as far as it’s premise goes I’m willing to grant that it’s about science communication (in which case it does a poor job of making that the main message). In any case, there’s all this talk that global warming denialists are better and more charismatic communicators and while scientists are all hung up on data (they make it sound like such a bad thing, don’t they?).

    I don’t think this is true; several interviews with the denialists were included to show just how terrible at communicating they are (and how Randy intentionally sabotaged the interviews with the scientists he met). The denialists quoted (gasp) facts and figures and tried to give the appearance that they were reputable scientists, yet this idea goes unacknowledged.

    I just find this whole argument absurd. I watched the film three times and didn’t like it, yet I have to somehow apologize for how I didn’t “get it”? If the film is that confusing, if so many of us were misled, than it has bigger problems than content. As Blake pointed out some of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen do a great job of connecting “data” through narrative, like the BBC’s “Life” programs and Cosmos, so the idea that I’m looking for charts, graphs, and numbers is absurd. I shouldn’t have to turn off my brain when I watch a movie, although it seems that’s what some people want me to do.

  21. #21 Blake Stacey
    July 17, 2008

    It just seems downright weird to complain that scientists are poor communicators when, in fact, the impression you provide of those scientists is one you construct.

    I’ve ingested a good many documentaries and popularizations in my time. Sometimes, I first read the book or watched the TV show after I’d had formal training in the subject; on other occasions, I returned to something I found when younger and had to judge whether or not it held up after I’d seen the real deal. I think a successful documentary — Cosmos and Connections are the examples in my head right now — works for multiple audiences. A person with no scientific background can get caught up in the story and learn a few things, while a person who has studied science can get a little history which complements the standard classroom material, perhaps even gaining a little understanding of how we earned the knowledge stored in the textbook. So, if Sizzle were really good, scientists would write reviews saying, “I liked it because of X”, and general film critics — say, the staff of The Onion A.V. Club — would say, “We liked it because of Y”, with X and Y being somewhat complementary.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.