My younger sister collected all kinds of pets when she was growing up. One of those was a cheerful little parakeet. She used to let the bird fly around the house in the afternoons, where it would often alight on the piano while I was practicing, and chirp along with my sorry mutilations of the life's work of great classical composers. Unfortunately, my sister also kept a pair of gerbils in her room who were quite adept at lifting the cover of their cage and escaping. One afternoon, my sister discovered the half-eaten remains of the poor little parakeet in the gerbils' cage. Apparently, while the rodents were attempting to escape, the bird got pulled in and trapped in the cage. The gerbils reacted like any animals do when their fortress has been breached: they killed the interloper. And since they were tired of subsisting on dry pellets and water, why not make a feast of the unexpected bounty? Brutal, yes, from my sister's horrified perspective, but also eminently sensible from the perspective of the gerbils.
Human beings have a tendency to romanticize, even personify, Nature, imbuing it with characteristics that it simply doesn't possess. In the late 18th century, the French court of Marie Antoinette became enamored of the teachings of Rousseau, convinced that "getting back to nature" equated with attaining some kind of moral virtue. But they ultimately lost their heads to the "natural instincts" of bloodthirsty Revolutionary mobs. (Historian Simon Schama actually holds Rousseau's influence accountable for contributing to the outbreak of the French Revolution in Citizens.) That's the flip side of Mother Nature: the natural world is beautiful, yes, but it is also extremely violent. "Nature, red in tooth and claw" is a well-worn cliche for a reason. And "virtue" is a human quality. The truth is, Nature is neither good nor evil; mostly, Nature is just indifferent to the petty concerns of the billions of tiny lives dependent on her good humor. When Mother Nature shrugs, an earthquake ensues, and thousands may perish as she rearranges the folds of her garments. She barely notices.
Now, it seems that Nature is going to kill us all -- not in revenge for our thoughtless, polluting ways, but certainly as a direct consequence of our actions. According to the new documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, we are fast approaching a catastrophic "tipping point" where our actions will alter the Earth in such a way as to make human life unsustainable. For those who have been living under a rock the last week or so, the film follows former Almost-President-of-the-United-States Al Gore around the country as he gives his Powerpoint presentation about global warming.
You're probably stifling a yawn right now, and small wonder. But Jen-Luc Piquant and I were privileged to attend a special screening in Silver Spring, Maryland, courtesy of our good friend, Mondo-Bob, who is a film and theater critic by trade. Mondo-Bob was admittedly skeptical when he heard about the film, but ended up loving it so much that he's become one of its most ardent proponents. His energy and enthusiasm are relentless, sufficient to get us to rouse ourselves early enough on a Sunday morning to attend a 10 AM screening of a movie about a man giving a Powerpoint lecture on global warming.
It turns out that Mondo-Bob's enthusiasm is, for the most part, justified. The film is far more interesting than its premise would lead one to expect, and as many reviewers have pointed out, we are shown a carefully packaged, humanized Al Gore who is eminently likable. He comes across as a trailblazing idealist, and his passion on the dangers of global warming is both sincere and contagious. During his 2000 presidential campaign, he was stiff and humorless, but here, he is relaxed, confident, and very funny. He's been giving this Powerpoint presentation for years, and the practice has paid off: he's refined and polished it to perfection.
One example of a tiny change that made a huge difference was an amusing animation of a frog. Put a frog into a pot of boiling water, and the creature will react immediately and jump out. Put it into a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it up, and the frog won't be able to detect the pending danger. Gore uses it to illustrate how hard it is for human beings to become overly concerned over a catastrophe that occurs over hundreds of years. Originally, the animation showed the frog being cooked to death by its own inaction, until someone pointed out, "Al, people are really upset by that. You have to save the frog." The frog now gets to live in the reworked presentation, and its last-minute unexpected rescue provides one of the more amusing moments in the film.
True, there are minor quibbles. The scientific data, for the most part, is presented matter-of-factly, but there is a little massaging of the facts here and there, putting an appropriate "spin" on them in the interests of driving home Gore's points a bit more strongly. It's subtle: a clever juxtaposition of images, perhaps, or the omission of certain contexts when comparing the gas mileages of cars made in the US versus those made in China. Sometimes pictures can mislead: the before-and-after images of glaciers melting around the globe are sobering -- nay, downright terrifying -- but in the interests of full disclosure, would it have killed Gore to point out that the images weren't necessarily taken at the same times of year? That kind of open acknowledgment would have helped deflect the inevitable criticism, and wouldn't have diluted his main point all that much. The glaciers around the world are melting, and while climatologists might argue over the exact nature of the impact of this melting, everyone agrees it's a Very Bad Thing.
My greatest concern has nothing to do with the merits of the film itself, and more to do with the fact that the only people likely to go see it, are those who already accept the scientific conclusions on climate change. I understand why the director chose to build the film around Gore, and why he wove in all those personal details: it makes both the man and the science more likable and accessible, so that audiences are more receptive to his points. But the 2000 presidential election was the most polarizing in recent US history, and the aftershocks are still apparent in the current political climate. Gore is a lightning rod for controversy in that respect: the very people who most need to see this film, are the ones who would never, in a million years, listen to anything Gore had to say, regardless of how thoughtful, well-reasoned, or scientifically supported his conclusions may be.
Gore's dilemma is similar to that faced by anyone involved in trying to engage the general public's interest in science: how do you reach an audience whose inclination is to stubbornly resist your message (often for admittedly irrational reasons)? In an earlier post, I mentioned the awarding of the Aventis Prize for science writing to David Bodanis. Just before the winner was announced, the Telegraph printed an article about how the short list might offer clues as to why so few children in the United Kingdom are learning science. The latest statistics from the Royal Society show exam entries for 15-year-olds falling by a whopping 70% since the mid 1980s. (Isn't a little comforting to hear that lousy test scores in math and science aren't limited to the SATs in the US?)
What I found most interesting in the article were the comments by broadcaster Nick Ross, who chaired the panel of judges and confessed to "loathing" science at school before becoming fascinated with the subject much later in life. Jen-Luc and I immediately spotted a kindred spirit. Quoth Mr. Ross: "It's not the facts that are most important, it's the way they are put together. Science is a way of being smartly skeptical. It's a process, rather than a collection of facts." Perhaps not surprisingly, he advocates our own approach of showing how science really works and telling the stories of the scientists themselves -- which is also the approach adopted by the director of An Inconvenient Truth.
There's no denying the effectiveness of that approach, but of course, facts are also vitally important. Ross admitted that some of the books nominated for the Aventis Prize that the non-specialist judges liked most, the specialists on the judging panel liked the least because of concerns about accuracy. And those nominations the non-specialists felt were a bit too dry and heavy on the jargon were favored in turn by the specialists. Jargon is a mainstay of scientific communication, and it serves a useful purpose as a kind of shorthand for those "in the know." But jargon is, by its very nature, exclusionary, and the entire point of communication is to be inclusive. It's a thorny issue: how much detail is it possible to include before one loses one's audience altogether? And how much detail can you sacrifice in the interests of broader communication before the simplification becomes so extreme that you're quite simply wrong?
For those of us who constantly strive to bridge the gap between the two sectors, it's almost like a type of duality. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is often misunderstood by non-scientists to mean that we can't know anything for certain about the subatomic world. In fact, the principle applies to sets of very specific, connected properties, most notably position and velocity. The more accurately we know where an electron is located, the less we can know about its velocity, and vice versa. Similarly, it seems that the more scientifically accurate a piece of writing is, the less broadly accessible it will be. And the more broadly accessible that piece is, the less scientifically accurate it will be -- not necessarily outright wrong, mind you, just lacking in the fine points and tiny details that specialists would deem critical to any discussion about the subject, but which make a non-scientist's eyes glaze over in unmitigated boredom within nanoseconds.
(Speaking of bad science writing, Jen-Luc Piquant was highly amused by this LabLit essay about the sinister side of scientific jargon -- namely, the fondness for the passive voice in scholarly papers -- in part because she learned that three graduate students at MIT wrote a program to generate random technical papers in computational science. She's been pumping out papers right and left and inundating various journals with the fruits of her "labors," in hopes of finally having her brilliance as a Cyber-Crackpot recognized by The Establishment. Let's hope the peer reviewers are paying attention, is all I can say. Otherwise we'll have another Alan Sokol scandal on our hands.)
In that respect, I think Gore strikes a good balance in An Inconvenient Truth. We can quibble all we like about minor instances of massaging the data to make an emphatic point, but the underlying core message, and the science that supports it, is certainly very sound indeed. And frankly, maybe we need to be a bit more willing to use the tools of propaganda in such a crucial debate. After all, those tools have proved highly effective for those who have exploited them in the past, and our very survival may be at stake. The Gore film has attracted its share of critics, at least one of whom poked fun at the many meditative profile shots of Gore, claiming he looked like he was campaigning for Druid-In-Chief. (In all honesty, Jen-Luc could have done with a few less of those shots as well.)
And so the inevitable backlash begins. Is it merely coincidence that this past Sunday, the Washington Post ran a feature article about former NASA scientist Roy Spenser and his Web site spoofing the global warming "alarmists"? I'd say it's about as much a coincidence as the fact that Spenser gets paid to write for TCS Daily, a Web site partially funded by ExxonMobil. (Interestingly, even Spenser, when pressed, admits that human activities have "likely" contributed to climate change, so he's more honest than most naysayers.) Even more insidious is the onslaught of paid anti-climate-change advertisements that will be blanketing the airwaves this week, courtesy of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of which makes the following ludicrous statement: "Carbon dioxide. They call it pollution. We call it life." By now the entire blogosphere has probably seen both DarkSyde's commentary on Daily Kos and Chris Mooney's hilarious spoofs of that tagline, but far be it for me to buck the linkage trend. Per Mooney: "Water. They call it drowning. We call it life."
The point is, the opposition to global warming exhibits no shame, leaves no stone unturned, in its attack on the underlying science -- solely because the science is telling us something we don't want to hear. Once we accept what the science is telling us, we will be forced to make drastic changes we are simply unwilling to make. The scientific community should be equally ruthless in combating those attacks, just like my sister's gerbils ruthlessly attacked the interloper in their midst. (You can bet the gerbils didn't indulge in any namby-pamby handwringing about the "fairness" of their actions, either.) If that means using the odd propagandistic technique to great effect, so be it.
I think it's great that An Inconvenient Truth was made and that it is getting decent distribution. But unless we can bring our most convincing arguments and powerfully persuasive tools to bear on this critical issue, we will forever be preaching to the converted. And we ignore the consequences of our actions, eventually that tipping point will become irreversible. It's not nice to ignore Mother Nature.