Shifting Baselines

SIZZLE Reviews: Nature vs. Variety

Here we have it now, pretty much formalized. We spotted the pattern last November in our first test screenings of non-science friends in Hollywood vs. scientist friends. As the Sizzle Tuesday reviews popped up, Chad Orzel noted it among the Science Bloggers. Then Chris Mooney identified the pattern and editorialized on it. Now we can look at the reviews of the most authoritative voice in the science world, Nature, versus the most authoritative voice in the entertainment world, Variety. The divide is almost exactly the same. The former says the “comedy falls flat,” the latter raves about the comedy and calls the movie “ingenious.” This is not a fluke. If you’re willing to look at both sides with an open mind, there are things to be learned here about the mass communication of science in today’s world.

Nature vs. Variety: disappointment vs. applause


  1. #1 OmegaMom
    July 29, 2008

    So, Variety loved it. Yet they also had this to say: “…rather than bringing the global-warming debate to a close, “Sizzle” reopens it, and only raises more questions.” And this: “…a film designed to convince that global warming is a present danger may do precisely the opposite.” And this: “The skeptics actually begin to win the day, at least onscreen, and Julia Bovey, spokeswoman for the environmentalist Natural Resources Defense Council, comes off as far less convincing than Olson may have hoped.”

    So. Did you want to present a film that actually causes people to *doubt* global warming? I know it’s been a labor of love for you, but I thought all along that you wanted to present a solid case *for* global warming, in addition to investigating the question of how scientists should communicate with the general public. Or did you want to make an “object lesson” that scientists would listen to, showing that the naysayers are better at communicating, at the cost of spreading a message *against* global warming?

  2. #2 Randy Olson
    July 29, 2008

    What I “wanted” to do is no longer relevant. The film is emerging into the public arena. All that matters now is how it plays and is interpreted. And while this review made the comments you’ve excerpted, for some reason no skeptics have asked to distribute it yet.

  3. #3 llewelly
    July 29, 2008

    What I “wanted” to do is no longer relevant.

    If the artistic merit of your work is the only thing of value, that is a respectable attitude. But if your goal is to transmit a message other than pure artistic appreciation, a failure to consider the results in comparison to your intentions will cripple your ability to communicate any specific message. If you want to deliver a message about, say, science communication, then a declaration that your intent is ‘no longer relevant’ will prevent you from using people’s reaction to the film to improve your ability to deliver a message about science communication. There’s a difference between using art to communicate a specific message, and producing art for art’s sake.

  4. #4 Peter
    July 29, 2008

    I’ll bet that when you started this you never expected to be comparing Variety to Nature, Randy. To be fair, my impression from reading Variety for a few years, and from friends who worked there, is that the magazine is geared towards promoting films to potential distributors. They tend to show films in their best light. Congrats on the nice review, though. That’s great. I’m looking forward to watching the movie.

  5. #5 Mark Powell
    July 29, 2008

    I love it, Randy, Variety vs. Nature smackdown, film at 11.

    Here’s how it’ll go…Nature is about to win on points, but Variety lands an undetected illegal punch and flattens Nature for a walk-off knockout victory.

    I’ve learned a lot from you Randy even when we disagree. No, especially when we disagree. The film is not about making a case for anything, it’s about what kind of messages matter. Who cares if you have good facts in a public policy debate if you’re also irrelevant because nobody listens?

  6. #6 Jon
    July 30, 2008

    versus the most authoritative voice in the entertainment world, Variety.

    Huh?? On the industry itself possibly, but on whether or not a movie is good or will be successful?

  7. #7 Jon
    July 30, 2008

    Also, Variety panned Expelled as a miserable failure, while I recall opinions from a certain corner of sciblogs claiming it was an inarguable success…

  8. #8 MH
    August 5, 2008

    #1 “Did you want to present a film that actually causes people to doubt global warming?”

    #2 “What I “wanted” to do is no longer relevant.”

    It’s relevant to the person who asked you the question. Perhaps you’d be polite enough to answer her?

  9. #9 dr mustafa eraslan
    April 24, 2012

    They tend to show films in their best light

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