A Review of Sizzle

Happy Sizzle Day!

Today numerous bloggers from ScienceBlogs and elsewhere will be reviewing a new movie Sizzle directed by Randy Olson of Flock of Dodos fame. Sizzle is a documentary/mockumentary/comedy partly about the science of global warming, but more in my opinion about the nature of the global warming debate.

I was fortunate enough to receive a pre-release copy of the film for review, and I can summarize in one sentence what I thought about it: Randy Olson gets it.

By gets it, I mean that he understands that there are two levels to the global warming debate. The first level is a debate among scientists (or people who claim to be scientists) about evidence. It is populated by facts and figures, by Power Point presentations and IPCC panels. The second level is a debate for the conventional wisdom of the public. It is populated by celebrity endorsements and powerful lobbyists, by what you've heard and what your Mom knows for certain.

What this movie illustrates is that the debate has moved past the first level. This is not to suggest that clarifying the science of climate is not important. There are still a lot of things that we don't know that we need to. But the debate about global warming is now in the public. The debate about global warming is now a popular phenomena, and as scientists hoping to influence policy we need to understand and accept that.

Plot Synopsis

From the beginning, I have to say that I really enjoyed watching this movie. Movies about scientific topics aren't usually fun, but Olson pulls off a show that is often amusing and sometimes hilariously funny. (My particular favorite: the conversation between Olson and producers about people not knowing the difference between science and scientology.) The comedy in this movie succeeds because with all the crazies that populate the climate change debate you are never entirely certain who is real and who is a character Olson made up.

The movie opens to Olson shopping for cash to make a global warming documentary. Finding little support, he ends up with a set of producers who are -- let us say -- slightly odd and a bit challenging to deal with. The producers saddle him with two equally challenging production technicians, and these two play to the "everyman" role in the interviews. His camera-man breaks conversations he is having with eminent climate scientists with his own skeptical questions.

Much of the film is spent with Olson traveling around with his challenging production staff. He is the straight man trying to talk straight science about global warming, but they simply won't have it. They challenge him to produce evidence -- particularly about polar bears -- and challenge his patience with their nitpicking and poor punctuality. (In the end, they even challenge his sanity when they kidnap his 83-year-old mother to go dancing at a hip-hop club.)

In many ways, the conflict between Olson and his production staff represents the quintessential conflict between scientists and society. Olson would very much like for this conversation to be about the data. He would like this movie to fairly show the data and thereby influence the public. But the other characters (and people in general) won't have that. They want the argument to be about beliefs and values, and in the end -- availing on Olson to take a trip to visit hurricane-ravaged New Orleans -- they succeed in bringing over to their point of view.

The "heroic" journey in this movie is an elevation of Olson past global warming data, past the minutiae of the factual debate, to the level of personal influence. This is the level where climate change will affect people's lives, and it is the level where the debate must go if we ever hope to influence the public.

Significance

It is Olson's confrontation with the other side that really illustrates my point about the debate happening at two levels.

Many very smart scientists are interviewed in this movie as are many global warming skeptics. The scientists cite data. One -- Dr. Gerald Meehl -- makes explicit the notion that this debate is not about what he believes. It is about what he as a scientist can prove. From the skeptic side, the debate is also about facts, or rather it is about debunking the notion that facts suggest that global warming is a problem. These are the people that scientists have been fighting for a long while, and this is the level of debate that they are accustomed to. We may not like having to deal with crack-pots, but we do know how to bring data to the conversation.

On the other hand, this film illustrates that for the majority of people our debate about facts is irrelevant. The majority of people in this world do not give a rats ass about whatever figures Olson would care to produce. What they care about is what they have been told and how what they have been told relates to their conventional wisdom.

This is the point of view represented by Olson's production crew. There was a very compelling point in the film where one of his crew members shows him some footage. The crew member notes that whenever he asks a question, he gets a scientist answer. Whenever the crew asks a question, they get an answer for a normal person.

This is where the debate has moved. It has become a debate between two brands of conventional wisdom. One brand is the one that we are all used to arguing against. It assumes that because nothing bad has happened to us all yet, nothing is happening at all. It is heavily influenced by conservative talk radio and industry lobbying. It denies that global warming is real or that humans are causing it.

But the people pushing climate change also have their own conventional wisdom. I say this because there are plenty of people in this film who believe that global warming exists but haven't the foggiest idea why they think that. It just fits in with what they have been told; it is included in the narrative about the world that they accept. At one point, Olson is even interviewing someone from the NRDC who can't quote facts without a cue card. From a scientist's perspective, that is just sad. However, it is also illustrative that for a good section of this country the reality of global warming has nothing to do with facts. It is just about who you believe.

(When skeptics accuse the global warming proponents of turning it into a "religion," I think this that this is what they are saying. For every proponent who knows the facts, there is some jackass celebrity who doesn't have a clue what they are talking about. The existence of such people does not make the climate scientists wrong, but it does make us susceptible to the accusation that global warming has become in degrees divorced from science.)

The realization that there are two conventional wisdoms competing for the hearts of the public is a significant one.

For one, if that this true, then this is a argument we have to win. The notion that a revolutionary vanguard can change society on the level that this problem will require is a delusion. Margaret Mead was full of it. What is very much needed in the global warming debate is a mobilization of the masses. To quote blogger Ezra Klein, without the masses -- without the votes -- "you don't have a plan; you have a position." No policy will be produced without winning the war for conventional wisdom.

This is why examples like New Orleans are so compelling. (In spite of the very reasonable debate about whether global warming has or will increase hurricane frequency or intensity.) Examples like Katrina speak directly to people's understanding of how climate change will affect them.

On the other hand, having a debate in the realm of conventional wisdom holds many dangers. For starters, it is not a level where scientists are very good at operating. Data has no real power there, and so one of our primary tools must be abandoned. Further, debates over conventional wisdom are particular prone to errors in substance and degree.

At one point in the film, Olson talks to a polar bear biologist who notes that the origin of the polar bear drowning story was that approximately four polar bears had been observed floating dead in the water. This had never been observed before. Now, obviously the fact that it hasn't been observed before is disconcerting. On the other hand, that people are likely to blow the death of four polar bears completely out of proportion is equally disconcerting. It reveals the dangers of participating in the conventional wisdom debate.

What makes me afraid about operating in the realm of conventional wisdom is what consequences it will have for the resulting policy. Clearly something must be done. Clearly we will have to win the hearts of the public in order to do that. But producing a measured response that balances costs and benefits may be impossible if we have to a rely on a public that will dwell too long on examples like Katrina -- examples that may not even be directly related to climate change. (One of the ironies in this film is that in lamenting the government's failure to help the people in New Orleans, we believe that the government will be more effective in dealing with the much larger problem of climate change.)

Conclusion

The realization that the global warming debate has moved to a different level is important, and it is a key aspect of what makes the movie Sizzle great.

On the other hand, realizing that is just the first step. In playing with public sentiments, scientists have a tiger by the tail. Now what needs to be done is steering that tiger towards positive and ultimately effective policy solutions. While I have always wholeheartedly agreed that global warming is a real, I do not think that the remedies provided thus far will be effective. This includes Kyoto -- which Olson cites at the end of the film.

I am happy to see that we have finally gotten past the debate about science and into a debate about policy, but coming up with solutions is not going to be easy. Fixing climate change is not going to be cheap. Many people moved by the horrors of future disasters will be much more reluctant to make sacrifices once they realize how much these sacrifices are going to cost.

All told this is an excellent film, and I definitely recommend seeing it in theaters.

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To Bob B: Will you refrain from putting in your oar?