Here we go again…

[Note: Apparently Emma Marris didn’t like Sizzle either, and you can read her review in Nature. I’m definitely interested in seeing more reviews of the film from various sources as we get closer to the release date.]

After reading Chris Mooney’s hyperbolic review of Sizzle this morning I have to admit I was a little pissed off. While I panned the film Chris went head-over-heels for it; it seems that we saw two different films. Maybe we did. Although the topic of science communication is an undercurrent through the film (breaking to the surface in a few places) I did not think that framing was what Sizzle was all about. In somewhat pejorative conclusion of his review, however, Chris takes a different perspective;

Yet even without such big-time support, Olson-in-real-life has managed to produce a wonderful film, a remarkable achievement. In light of this, it would be a true shame if scientists, science bloggers, and science pundits make the same mistakes as the literal-minded scientist-documentarian portrayed in this film, and fail to realize what Olson (in real life) has accomplished.
Let’s hope they avoid that error. Let’s hope they can chill. Let’s hope they get real.

Keep your eyes peeled for the use of the phrase “literal-minded” in discussions of Sizzle; it’s basically being used to suggest that people who didn’t like the film wanted to be presented with a truckload of facts and figures (basically being the stereotype of the scientist Randy plays in the film). Indeed, as is common in the framing debates if you don’t like a certain brand of science communication then you “just don’t get it,” and your criticisms are short-sighted. Closing his reply to the Sizzle reviews, for instance, Chris suggests that those who didn’t like the movie watch it again. I’m sorry Chris, but I watched it three times (although Janet has me beat with seven) and I still feel it’s a quagmire of competing ideas that confuses more than enlightens.

Indeed, if you look carefully the reaction to Sizzle is already receiving some amount of spin, those who didn’t like it being scientists (the literal-minded types) who wanted graphs and figures and those who liked it being “less literal-minded types.” From what I’ve seen of the reviews I don’t think that this distinction really holds up. Yes, many of the people who didn’t like the movie were scientists, but the reasons why they didn’t are much more complex than “Where was the hockey-stick graph?” Looking at the negative reviews one of the biggest complaints was that the film did not provide a coherent story and ended up leaving viewers in a muddle. The fictional scenes provided filler between interviews and in a number of places (like asking tv celebrities to host the film and the club scene) really dragged. Such criticisms aren’t about data; they’re about the plot of a movie that I didn’t find very entertaining or funny. (Even among the positive reviews there is some acknowledgment that the film was just not put together all that well.)

If the film is about showing people why they should care about the reality of global warming, as the first hour and the conclusion of the film spend so much time trying to get across, it doesn’t do a good job at all. Given that the first hour is devoted to giving different authorities face time to discuss global warming, that the New Orleans visit is attached because it illustrates how climate change will affect poor people, and the end message that global warming is real but we can do something about it, I was under the impression that I was seeing a sort of “meta” film that was determined to educate the audience about global warming while entertaining them with a “making of” story (the audience basically seeing the raw material of a fictional film that never is actually made). The ending of the synopsis from the website also gave me this impression;

Through a series of interviews and an eventual road trip to New Orleans the movie delves to new depths in an effort to understand the confusion around global warming, which may be the most serious problem ever to confront humanity. Or not.

I was not expecting a fact-filled documentary full of charts and tables, but I was expecting that arguments for the reality of global warming would be in some way supported and not rest on arguments from authority alone. Aside from editing/directorial issues my negative review focused on the failure of the film to dispel some of the confusion the synopsis refers to. If that was not the purpose of the film then obviously I’ve misinterpreted things, but if that is the case then maybe the promotional material for Sizzle needs to be re-evaluated to make the real point of the film (whatever it is) clearer.

If the film is about science communication, about changing the way we engage the public, there are a few good ideas but in many areas things fizzle. We see the character Marion interrupting interviews to ask questions and say how he thinks human-caused global warming isn’t real, yet we seldom get to see any responses or explanations to his improvised questions. There’s a very brief moment in the second major part of the movie in which it’s suggested that when Marion asks a question the scientists speak more convincingly and effectively, but this is quickly forgotten as the crew heads to New Orleans for an emotional, but only loosely-connected portion of the film. Still, although science communication is a running theme it seems to be subtle, something that may well be lost on the public or people who are familiar with the debates about “framing” here on the blogosphere. We’ll know for sure when the public reacts to Sizzle.

Maybe I’m just confused. Is the movie primarily about how scientists aren’t communicating well with the public? If that’s so there are a few good moments but also a lot of unnecessary filler and the message isn’t made entirely clear. If the film is about the reality of global warming, how it is something that we can change and will certainly affect the poor of the world, this message is also present but also gets muddied in the shuffle. Maybe it’s about something else entirely, but many of those who reviewed the film seem to think that a fitting alternate title could be “An Incoherent Truth.” Rather than being accused of being too “literal-minded” to get it I think something that Chris wrote about framing during the last kerfuffle over the subject needs to be kept in mind;

And there’s just no other way to spin it–this is a painfully ironic communication failure on the part of those of us who wanted to introduce what I view as a very important communication tool to the science world. If we can’t explain something so useful to an important segment of our own audience, how can we possibly hope to use it to counter the other side?

I’m not going to call Sizzle a success or failure because it’s not even out yet. Maybe the public will eat it up, I have no idea. (If they do, non-scientist critics giving it rave reviews, then it definitely will offer some food for thought.) What I am trying to convey, however, is that a number of people who were interested in the film when they heard about it have brought up some (I think) well-reasoned criticisms yet are being told they didn’t look hard enough or aren’t watching it “the right way.” This problem has come up again and again with debates about communicating science here on the blogosphere; we’re talking past each other rather than creating a dialog about what works or doesn’t work. I hardly think Sizzle is a film without faults, and while it was a valiant effort I can’t bring myself to like it. Does not shouting “ZOMG! Sizzle is teh awesum!” mean that I just don’t “get it”? It might be easier for some to believe that, but I don’t think that’s the case at all.

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