The Scientific Activist

Sizzle? More of a Simmer

i-901fd8dbd9232f6f03eec23d7882d2eb-sizzle.gifToday, science bloggers from across the web (and particularly here at ScienceBlogs) are reviewing Sizzle, a new film by Randy Olson, maker of Flock of Dodos. Sizzle, billed as a “global warming comedy” is part mockumentary and part documentary, and in that sense is difficult to pin down. And, intentionally or not, this confusion emerges as a defining characteristic throughout.

In the movie, Randy Olson plays himself, a filmmaker who sets out to make a movie about global warming featuring climate scientists. There’s trouble from the beginning, as the big movie producers won’t fund a project they consider untouchably boring. Olson quickly finds an alternative source of support, but is once again hindered by the camera crew they insist on using. While Antwon (played by Ifeanyi Njoku) generally serves as the voice of reason, Marion (played by Alex Thomas) is a fervent global warming denialist and–armed with repetitive denialist talking points–constantly butts in to Olson’s interviews.

In the movie Olson’s motivation for his project is that “the scientists need to be heard.” Unfortunately, that never really happens. Not counting the man-on-the-street interviews in the final sequence of the movie in New Orleans, Olson conducts eleven interviews. Five of his interviewees advocate for the scientific consensus position on global warming that the earth is warming and that this warming is primarily due to human activity. Either explicitely or implicitly, they make the argument that global warming is a serious problem meriting concerted action. Five argue against the scientific consensus, and they range from hardcore denialists to mild skeptics. Another–Pat Michaels of the University of Virginia–agrees that humans are causing global warming, but argues that the threat is overblown. Out of these eleven only three are climate scientists. Two of them–Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Gerald Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado–advocate for the scientific consensus position, and the third is Michaels (who more or less agrees with the consensus position). If this was supposed to be a movie about scientists, I’m not sure how much sense it made to interview more global warming skeptics/denialists than climate scientists.

Ten of these interviews (and the ongoing interpersonal dramas) make up the first two-thirds of Sizzle. Next is the mock-production phase of the movie, and it’s during this part that one of the few actually humorous parts of this “global warming comedy” occurs when the characters engage in a brainstorming session for the title of the movie. Otherwise, the humor is largely derived from various stereotypes–and seems more likely to elicit uncomfortable silence than laughter.

The mock-production phase of the movie ends with an interview with Naomi Oreskes, a science historian from University of California San Diego. In 2004, Oreskes published a small study in Science entitled “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change“. In her study, Oreskes examined 928 papers on climate change published from 1993 to 2003. She found that 75% took a position consistent with the scientific consensus position. The other 25% took no position, and none argued against the consensus (hence the use of the word “consensus” here). This is an important point, and–rightfully so–Oreskes plays a prominent role in the movie.

Orskes then convinces Olson and Antwon (but not Marion–he’s doing something else, and I won’t say what it is, because I don’t want to spoil the ending) to go to New Orleans to see the face of climate change firsthand by examining the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What follows is actually a quite powerful sequence of events that’s part commentary on poverty, part documentary on global warming, and part criticism of the government response to Hurricane Katrina. This is because years after Katrina, the impact is still impossible to ignore. Although no single weather event can be attributed solely to climate change, Katrina was likely a harbinger of things to come if we continue to let global warming spin out of control. And, it puts a personal face on things, showing that global warming is “not just about polar bears.”

As much as I like this final phase of the movie, it’s completely out of character with the rest of the film. And, what is that character, anyway? Serious documentary? Mockumentary? Obviously it’s supposed to be both, but I’m not sure that this is a formula that really works. Maybe I’m just dense, but I had some trouble at times distinguishing the serious from the parody. Clearly, Sizzle advocates for the scientific consensus on global warming–in its own way–but then again Olson’s character (intentionally) comes off as a total ass when arguing these points.

The film does have its moments. About halfway through, there’s a graphic that demonstrates just how all over the place the climate skeptics and denialists really are. While the scientists argue fundamentally similar points, those on the other side argue that the earth isn’t actually warming, that it is but not because of humans, or that it is because of humans, but it’s not a big deal. Maybe the only common thread through all of the skeptic interviews were the overbearing conspiracy theory undertones (made explicit when they called global warming “a religion” and “brainwashing”).

The movie seems to imply that global warming science has not been communicated well in the past, and this is epitomized by Olson playing the hapless communicator. In fact, the scientists in the movie are actually the most effective communicators–giving direct, straightforward, and consistent answers to Olson’s questions. It’s not clear if this is intentional, but maybe the message here is that we need to let the scientists speak for themselves. If this were supposed to be a totally serious movie, then clearly it should have featured much more face time with the scientists. Even as a “global warming comedy”, it wouldn’t have hurt, especially if this was supposed to be a movie about the scientists.

When Al Gore made An Inconvenient Truth, he simplified the science enough to make it accessible, but not so much that it became inaccurate. He had to walk a fine line, and he succeeded marvelously, performing an important public service in the process. Olson, on the other hand, sets out to make a movie that pokes fun at the scientists, at the communicators, and at the skeptics, in the hopes of getting at some basic truths and eliciting a few laughs. In my opinion, this approach is at least as confusing as even the most convoluted scientific equivocating I’ve come across, and it doesn’t appear to accomplish either.

At a time when there is a broad consensus on global warming in the scientific community and to a large extent in the political community outside of the US–and in a year when even the Republican presidential nominee seems somewhat serious about addressing global warming–I don’t know what role there is for a movie like this that an gives inordinate amount of time to skeptics and denialists and just seems to confuse the issues.

Or, maybe I’m just missing the point.

Comments

  1. #1 Karen James
    July 15, 2008

    I reviewed the film too and, though in my review I focus primarily on the un-funnyness of the documentary-mockumentary device, I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement while reading your own review, which does a better job than I did summarising the film for the reader and articulating some of the other (more serious) problems with the film. If I’d had more time to write my own review, I’d like to think mine would have made these same points. So thanks!

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    July 15, 2008

    Thanks for your comments, and I enjoyed your review as well (for everyone else, Karen’s review can be found here).

    I liked this in particular:

    If there’s a saving grace, it’s the interviews with the top climate scientists Drs Richard Somerville and Jerry Meehl, who explain, in very straightforward terms, that climate change is real, it’s caused by humans, and yes there’s still hope to stop it. I particularly liked when Randy Olson asked Jerry Meehl, “do you believe the earth has warmed in the last 150 years” and Meehl replies “belief has nothing to do with it”. Yay, science! I could have used a lot more of these interviews.

    I thought that the Meehl quote was one of the true gems of the movie, and I’m regretting now that it slipped my mind to include it in my review.