The Scientific Activist

When I published my review of Sizzle yesterday, I felt like adding a reluctant-parent-disciplinarian-esque “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” qualifier. Although I felt that Randy Olson’s heart was in the right place, I just didn’t have many positive things to say about his new movie, and I wasn’t too excited about the prospect of writing such a negative review. But, since I had been recruited–like so many others–to participate in this science blogosphere-wide experiment before seeing the movie, I went along grudgingly.

Fortunately for me, various events today have helped ease my guilty conscience. The first was a somewhat Orwellian email sent to the participating bloggers with the subject line “SIZZLE TUESDAY: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”. I’d like to think that this was supposed to be a clever and ironic play on the Bush aircraft carrier landing, but, following from my experience with this movie, all I can really say for certain is who the fuck knows? (Although I really doubt any irony was intended here.) The rest of the email was much more nuanced, but it did claim 27 positive reviews to 18 negatives. That’s pretty optimistic. Browse through the links on the Sizzle Tuesday page, and you might come to a different conclusion.

Even worse was Chris Mooney’s post at The Intersection today. After going so far as to call the movie “profound” on his blog yesterday, today Mooney writes:

And so I’d like to make a suggestion: 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.

In my view, what’s so great about Sizzle is the way it asks us to look hard at the insularity of our pro-science community–and the disconnect between the science world and other walks of life, other parts of American culture. In this context, doesn’t the fact that many science bloggers are slamming it–and misunderstanding it–simply validate the film’s central point?

There’s something to this, in that non-scientists were much more likely to give the movie a favorable review than scientists. But, that’s about it. And, let’s get one thing straight right away: Sizzle is not a funny movie… unless you really like black and gay stereotypes. In that case, you’ll probably think it’s really funny.

Mooney says that we should just watch it again. Well, I did watch the movie twice before I wrote my review. Maybe Mooney was watching a different movie from me. Maybe I just didn’t “get it”. Maybe Mooney needs to concretely explain to me what the movie’s “central point” is, because I must have missed it. I’m a humorless scientist, though, so I might not understand unless his explanation is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

I’m not just being facetious. I really would like someone to explain to me what the point of this movie was and who it was aimed at. Because, as I wrote yesterday:

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.

If anything, Sizzle can be seen as a commentary on the media and on our scientific communicators. The only people who communicate science effectively in the movie are the actual scientists. Not only does Olson’s fictionalized character in the movie not help the situation, but he actively hinders the transmission of the message from the scientist to the viewer. That’s intentional. But what’s not intentional–as far as I can tell–is that real life Olson has the same effect in making a movie that spends more time with global warming skeptics and denialists than climate scientists and obscures a message that scientists have been doing their best to effectively communicate.

No, I don’t think that the scientists–or even the science bloggers–need to turn a mirror on themselves. The communicators do. The professional communicators. Just as the media has time after time missed the point on a whole range of scientific issues by equating non-scientific objections with legitimate scientific controversy and so confused the public, Sizzle takes a straightforward issue and turns it upside-down, inside-out, and mangles it almost beyond recognition. If this isn’t a commentary on how our media treats global warming and other scientific issues, I’m not sure what it is.

I have a lot of respect for Mooney, and I think that he is a very talented political journalist. On this issue, though, he’s way off base.


  1. #1 Katharine
    July 16, 2008

    These guys have been ridiculous about other shit before.

    Mooney, Nisbet, and Olson: the ScienceBlogs trifecta of imperceptive ignorance.

  2. #2 pough
    July 16, 2008

    It’s all so frustratingly ironic. Mooney and Olson effectively have jobs communicating science to lay people. What do they do, instead? Spend their time telling scientists that scientists make crappy communicators. Duh. That’s your job, Mooney and Olson!

    They need to stop using their powers for evil and start using them for good.

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 16, 2008

    I watched the film (all the way through) seven times. Still didn’t like it, and it had nothing to do with data or a lack thereof. The storytelling did not work.

    And if I’m watching it again, someone will be paying me to do it.

  4. #4 Laelaps
    July 16, 2008

    I reacted to Chris’ post much the same way you did, Nick

    I second what Janet said. Although I didn’t watch it seven times (now THAT’S commitment) the three times I did watch it were more than enough. If I have to do it again I’d better get full snack bar privileges, at least.

  5. #5 Mike the Mad Biologist
    July 16, 2008

    Just to repeat what I wrote over at Chris’ blog, this would be like blaming economists for the rampant misunderstandings about the solvency of Social Security. Does anyone seriously think those misunderstandings should be laid at the feet of geeky economists?

    Sizzle was just stupid concern trolling.

  6. #6 worldpeace
    July 16, 2008

    I watched the story, and I didn’t like it very much

  7. #7 Chris C. Mooney
    July 17, 2008


    Nothing personal either. But first, let’s dispense with this complaint about stereotypes. It is addressed here by Greg Laden and myself

    As for giving climate skeptics air time–well, that’s part of the point. They’re wrong on the science, but they’re often better communicators: more personable, more colorful. You can see that in Sizzle.

    And the film doesn’t mangle the climate issue beyond recognition–the issue is already mangled beyond recognition, and Sizzle shows the way out. If you want to make global warming have any meaning to anybody, you might start by showing its affect (or potential effect) on real people, like New Orleanians.

  8. #8 Joshua
    July 17, 2008

    I’ve read several reviews across ScienceBlogs, and none of them faulted Sizzle for lack of hard data. They’ve all, instead, criticised both the air time given to deniers and the general crappiness of scripted “mockumentary” scenes. I don’t see how you get from that to “scientists are joyless fuddy-duddies!”

  9. #9 Nick Anthis
    July 17, 2008

    We can let people make up their own minds about the stereotypes, I suppose.

    I understand this idea that skeptics are perceived as better communicators than scientists, and I felt like Olson was trying to convey that in the movie, but it just doesn’t come across. In fact, Olson’s character has to actively sabotage his interviews to make the scientists unable to communicate. Otherwise, they appear to be the most effective communicators in the movie.

    So, I guess you’re saying that the point of the movie is that it “shows the way out”. I got the fact that it was saying we need to put a personal face on global warming (and I even commented on that in my review). And, I agree to an extent. However, I don’t think that focusing on two of the most tenuous areas of global warming science (polar bears and hurricanes) is the answer. Neither do I think that Sizzle–in its failed experiment–teaches us much about effective communication or lays out a roadmap of any sort.

  10. #10 Nick Anthis
    July 17, 2008

    I should add that in regards to the stereotypes, my goal is not to paint Olson or anyone who likes this movie as insensitive in any way, and this hasn’t been the focus of my criticism. However, as much of the comedy in the movie seems derived from these stereotypes, one shouldn’t be surprised that quite a few people aren’t laughing.

  11. #11 Ian
    July 17, 2008

    I think the negative reviews were a lot closer to being on the money than were the positives. Besides, how is Olson going to improve what he does (and we all want to see that) if he’s catered to by a bunch of sycophants instead of honest PoVs?!

  12. #12 Joe
    July 17, 2008

    How did the Olson character choose the people to interview? It sounds like a straw man argument. How would the movie had changed if he had interviewed inarticulate, unpleasant deniers and scientists that were charming, articulate and excellent communicators?

  13. #13 dusty59
    July 17, 2008

    Ok, here’s my fairly uninformed comment:
    (I have only read reviews, not yet been out to see the film)
    It sounds like a movie length version of an “Onion News” type video.
    Funny in small doses, but could be a bit tedious for a full length film.

  14. #14 Matti K.
    July 18, 2008

    I think Chris’s problem is egocentrism. He seems to be genuinely perplexed when opinions of smart and rational people differ profoundly from his own.

    Most people think that differences in personal taste are good enough explanations for different opinions about movies. Not for Chris, though. Not liking Sizzle is a serious shortcoming, which requires bulk psychological analysis. And since beeing a scientist is the only common denominator for critical Sciencebloggers, that is an obvious explanation for the non-scientist Chris. A triumph for framing?

    Chris is a personal friend of Olson. A layman would think that that is a much more likely basis for bias than beeing a scientist.

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