“Don’t Look Up”

The highlight of the movie season for climate science has clearly been the release on Dec 24th 2021 of “Don’t Look Up”. While nominally about a different kind of disaster – the discovery of a comet heading to Earth on a collision course – the skewering of our current science-policy dysfunction transcends the specifics and makes a powerful metaphor for climate change, and even the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

There have been a number of good reviews and discussions (and some bad ones) about the movie, from the discussion of the excellent science advising from Amy Mainzer (Discover Magazine, the New Yorker, and a longer interview with Andy Revkin), to meta-discussions about the kind of criticism the movie has received, to articles on how effective it is as science communication (from Aaron Huertas).

The film producers are making the climate change connections explicit, directing viewers to a climate platform to promote activism on the issue (though it’s mostly focused on individual actions as opposed to tackling more systematic problems). Unsurprisingly, climate scientists have weighed in, including Peter Kalmus in the Guardian, Mike Mann in the Boston Globe, and on twitter (#DontLookUp):

I recommend diving in and seeing what folks (both climate professionals and civilians) are saying.

Some personal thoughts

Like Ayana, Mike, and Peter, I saw a number of elements that resonated clearly with my experience in climate #scicomm. The ‘deer in the headlights on live TV’ feeling you get when the interviewer starts to go in a totally bizarre direction is very familiar. I recall a situation like that with Lou Dobbs (when he was less insane, but still a massive egotist). The scene where Dr. Mindy indulges in some righteous twittering when arguing with idiots is very real. The lack of control that Dibiasky feels once their image/words get meme-ified also.

One thing that I thought was funny, but not real, was the implication that all climate science communicators are at all times just a moment away from screaming that “we’re all doomed!” and it’s only the niceties of polite society that prevent us from telling everyone what we ‘really’ think. Conceivably this could be true for some people, but I’d wager it isn’t true for most. The reason why is that the act of communication itself is an act of advocacy – people do it in order to create a change somewhere, and the “we’re all doomed” message accomplishes nothing. With all due respect to Jennifer Lawrence’s character, the message she wanted to convey was that the situation was imminent and serious but people could act to mitigate it (a deflection mission, perhaps the construction of underground shelters, and stockpiles, etc.). Because if there really was nothing to be done, why bother to communicate about it at all?

Is there really a difference between tornado politics and other science-policy issues?

In the BeforeTimes™, the conventional wisdom was that science-based advice could be placed on a spectrum between two (somewhat idealized) end points: The first extreme is where the universality of the values at stake/immediacy of the problem mean that there was no dispute about what to do, and the only issue was making sure that people knew about it (e.g. what to do with a tornado bearing down). The second is a situation where the dispute is over basic values for which science discoveries don’t have much bearing (a classic example being abortion – at least in the US). In the first example, the science (of tornado warnings for instance) serves to guide action, while in the second, the science is often politicized and used as justification of previously held positions. In this second situation, the misuse of science, the rise of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and personal (and sometimes physical) attacks on scientists can all occur.

The ongoing pandemic, this movie and even the actions of some companies during the recent tornado outbreak in Kentucky, have all served to demonstrate that there are no circumstances where there are no values at play. Every decision we make (as individuals, employers, politicians, planners etc.) is informed by those values in the light of information from science (and other related sources). Given that values are far more embedded than devotion to rationality or logic, there is therefore always the potential for dispute. And when disputes occur, people can behave badly, especially when stakes might be high or even existential.

Just this week there were two articles, one from a public health professional (Dr. Devi Sirdhar) and one from a health journalist (Helen Branswell), expressing surprise that this happens. The writers’ implicit defaults were that their science-policy issue was a pure ‘tornado politics’ case where the cause of action should be driven by the science, and the fact that it wasn’t has come as a shock.

But just because there are values embedded in all decisions, it does not mean every issue gets politicized. Differences in location, culture, governmental competence, basic levels of trust, depth of social ties etc. can make a huge difference in how fertile the cultural soil is for the kind of disinformation typical of the our most fraught science-policy disputes. But perhaps the most important factor is leadership. Opinion-formers (as opposed to opinion writers who don’t have as much of an influence) can powerfully signal to their bases what should be paid attention to or devalued. In jurisdictions where leaders choose to take science inputs seriously, much better outcomes have been seen over the length of this pandemic compared to those where science was treated as ‘politics by other means’.

“Don’t Look Up” gives as yet another clear example of leadership failing to rise to the occasion, despite the best (and worst) efforts of the scientists providing the needed information. It really doesn’t have to be that way but it’s rarely (if ever) the scientists’ fault.

The post “Don’t Look Up” first appeared on RealClimate.

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