Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mark: Sizzle cooks up a recipe for change

A review of Randy Olson's new film: Sizzle: a global warming comedy.

Sizzle captures a profound and elusive truth: people change because of life experience not facts and figures.

In this global warming comedy, the leading role is offered to scientists, environmentalists and politicians, but none of them are up to the task. Instead, real people steal the show when they tell their life stories.

This doesn’t mean that scientists don’t matter. There is a nice supporting role for talking heads with charts. It’s to interpret, explain, and yes, frame people’s life experience.

This is a tough message for scientists to hear, and most will probably reject it. Perhaps because science training calls us to reject life experience and rely instead on rigorous analysis as our guide. Thus, we scientists are used to turning away from life as an unreliable teacher. It will be interesting to follow the Sizzle blog day, and see how most of the ScienceBlogs crew respond.

It’s a real surprise that Sizzle delivers a global warming lesson that's actually worth watching. It works because Sizzle is funny and real, and to use Randy Olson's highest praise, it's not boring.

How do you make global warming funny? Randy Olson casts himself as the scientist-stooge trying to deliver a serious and scary message about Global Warming to the disinterested and disrespectful…and that’s just his film crew. Again and again Randy gets smacked down by his cameraman, producers, and even his mother as he hilariously fails to persuade anyone of anything. His only victory comes when he questions a teary-eyed spokesperson from an environmental group over the iconic polar bear/Global Warming crisis. Her lame attempt to pitch a crisis story comes across as manufactured hype.

Ironically, the woman from the Natural Resources Defense Council rescues Randy with a very astute suggestion: get thee to New Orleans, ground zero for Global Warming.

In New Orleans, Sizzle strikes it rich. Real people tell real stories of heartbreaking loss and near-criminal government neglect. And the case is made that our Warming future looks bleak indeed. Nevermind the fact that Global Warming’s fingerprints on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina are probabilistic at best, New Orleans makes the case.

It’s life experience told first-hand that matters, and Sizzle delivers a punch in the gut about our future under Global Warming. That's worth watching.

There’s an important lesson in this Global Warming comedy, and it recapitulates Randy Olson’s journey from scientist to filmmaker as he uncovers the secrets of making science matter. Facts and figures put most people to sleep and make scientists look smart but irrelevant. Meanwhile, the real human drama of Katrina clobbers the Global Warming denialists.

Sizzle is timely, funny, and smart, but will the intelligentsia be clever enough to get it?

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