#25) THE “DON’T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST” ANALYSIS OF “AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH” (SPOILER: IT ENDS WITH GEORGE LAKOFF)
March 29th, 2010
WARNING: THIS IS A LENGTHY ARTICLE – Please think of this “post” as something closer to a feature article in a magazine. Ryan Mitchell and I feel this is the most important piece we’ve posted on The Benshi to date. It is the written version of a talk I’ve been crafting over the past two years. And it is the application of the contents of my book to the real world.
For the past year I’ve been giving talks in which I present my analysis of “An Inconvenient Truth,” using the four chapters of my book to examine, not the scientific content of the movie (which from the first year of its release has been examined in great detail), but rather the way in which “the message” was delivered through the medium of film. For the past few weeks I’ve been planning to present my analysis in written form, but last week I was conveniently cued by Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm when he correctly pointed out the seeming contradiction between what I said in my book about “An Inconvenient Truth,” (which was positive) versus what I’ve been saying in the talk (that the movie was a failure).
Let me begin by making one clear statement: I am in no way, shape or form a “climate skeptic.” The message of this essay is not that “Gore was wrong,” but rather that the movie wasn’t as persuasive as it could have been.
THE SET UP BY JOE ROMM: MY SEEMING CONTRADICTION
As Joe Romm mentions, I described “An Inconvenient Truth” in my book as, “The best made and most important piece of environmental media in history.” I chose those words carefully. I avoided saying anything critical about the movie because I didn’t want climate skeptics taking bits out of context and suggesting I was on their side. But now that the book is published, it’s time to offer up the other half of my analysis.
We can begin by asking, “How can something be both well made and important, yet still a failure?” Well, I don’t mean this in any humorous sense, but let me just mention the names of the R.M.S Titanic and the Hindenburg blimp for starters. These things happen.
THE STARTING POINT: “I FAILED BADLY” — AL GORE, QUOTED IN THE NY TIMES, NOVEMBER 7, 2008
My intent is not to personally attack Al Gore with this essay. In fact, I held off doing this critique until he finally opened the door for it in November of 2008 (after I had completed writing my book) by saying the following, which was quoted in the NY Times:
“I feel, in a sense, I’ve failed badly, because even though there’s a greater sense of awareness, there is not anything anywhere close to an appropriate sense of urgency.”
I actually think the quote is somewhat of a monument to Mr. Gore’s sincerity and honesty. You can bet his handlers would never have advised him to be so honest and admit any shortcomings. But it’s an important and appropriate starting point because in that sentence he mentions both of the major goals he and his team had in making the movie.
GOAL #1: AWARENESS (= RAGING SUCCESS)
In the above quote, Al Gore mentions the word “awareness” and that is exactly what the movie accomplished. This is where the movie was a raging success, and this is the first half of my seeming contradiction. The movie had high production value and did succeed in putting the issue of global warming on the covers of magazines and on the evening news. For that, they rightly deserved the Oscar and Nobel Prize. But there was a second goal, and that’s where the movie did in fact “fail badly” as he said.
GOAL #2: URGENCY (FAILED BADLY)
The most straight forward “metrics” (ah, the mighty metrics) for assessing whether the movie changed the public’s sense of urgency are simply the long term polls that have been conducted by a number of groups. The most widely cited among these is the Gallup poll and it has basically shown a twenty year trend that has not changed significantly — i.e. about a third of the general public thinks global warming is an urgent issue. This hasn’t changed in twenty years.
Joe Romm presented one Gallup poll that showed a slight uptick in the public concern over global warming after 2006, but even if statistically significant, it wasn’t the sort of numbers to indicate any sort of mass movement.
So this is what Al Gore is referring to when he says he “failed badly.” He and his group had hoped to create a groundswell of support for “climate action” that would translate into legislation and widespread social change. So far that hasn’t happened. And thus his quote.
Given that the movie was the highest profile and most widely perceived delivery of his message, it makes sense to examine it and ask whether it was the most effective presentation and use of the what we know to be a potentially powerful medium.
DID THE MOVIE HAVE TO FAIL BADLY?
There are many people who would say that it’s silly to even look at the movie — there’s no way a movie could ever change public opinion. I talked about this in my book — about the potential importance of mass media. Given all the noise in our society today, can mass media still be effective? I cited Ken Auletta’s great New Yorker article in 2005 which posed the question of whether television commercials still work in this era of markets which are so fractionated it’s almost impossible to find the sort of metrics to measure effectiveness. He agreed that it’s harder than ever to quantify it, but closed his case by citing the insurance company Aflac that doubled its business in four years simply by producing television ads featuring an annoying duck. Bottom line, you still simply can’t put a limit on the potential power of mass media.
So we’re gonna go with the assumption that a truly powerful movie could have made a significant difference, but this one didn’t. And we’re going to pose the question of, “Why is that?”
To address this question, I’m going to use the four main chapters of my book to provide an ANALYTICAL, MECHANISTIC assessment of why the movie is not a piece of media to be held up as any sort of model of effective mass motivation. And I’m not talking about presenting a nebulous movie review like a film critic who says, “I don’t know — something about it just didn’t grab me.” No, what I’m offering here is a breakdown of these crucial elements that make for a powerful, compelling, and even PERSUASIVE piece of media. All of which were missing from, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Lastly, the overall criterion I am applying to my analysis of this movie is the same criterion of my book — that I am interested in BROAD communication, not ACADEMIC communication. It’s quite possible the movie was perfectly crafted for the academic community. Many in the science community continue to adore the movie for it’s presentation of data, data, data — the staff of life of scientists. But that’s not the audience I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the forever sought-after “person on the street.”
CHAPTER ONE: OVERLY CEREBRAL
The first chapter of my book urges the science community to not get swept up in the tendency to believe in information alone. Making a rational, fact-based case is essential, but we know that when it comes to the broad audience, only a small percentage are able to connect with messages that are highly informational. And yet that was the strategy of the movie — to simply have Al Gore present his slide show full of graphs. Conservatives were rather ruthless in their ridiculing of this by producing an animated film of penguins falling asleep during Gore’s lecture, but in truth, they weren’t that far from reality.
What’s more important is what the film didn’t have. In the first chapter of my book I urge science communicators to come down out of the head, down into the lower organs — the heart with sincerity, the gut with humor and intuition, and even down to the sex organs with sex appeal. The movie of course did not have any sexual elements, though it could have — that’s just a question of how bold the filmmakers were willing to be. They weren’t that bold.
The movie also didn’t have any significant humor. Yes, there were a few barbed jokes (I’ll address those when I talk about unlikeability). Perhaps the closest thing to “uplifting humor” was Al Gore’s use of a forklift (yes, bad pun, sorry), but otherwise it simply was NOT a movie that anyone went to for humor.
Most importantly, the movie lacked genuine “theme-based” emotion. The theme of the movie was global warming and it’s potential threats to humanity. Photos were shown of victims of Hurricane Katrina at the the end of the movie, but still images rarely have the emotional depth of moving images with voices. The only attempts at emotion involved the health issues of Al Gore’s sister and child. With regard to this, I’m very sorry to be so blunt, but both instances were overly contrived. They seem to come out of nowhere with sad music and were simply presented in an effort to “humanize” the normally wooden Al Gore. More importantly, they didn’t have any connection to global warming.
So the bottom line is that it was an almost totally cerebral movie. A lot of very cerebral people left the movie claiming to be emotionally devastated, but my “person on the street” would find such responses to be preposterous. It was just too informational.
CHAPTER TWO: OVERLY LITERAL-MINDED
In the second chapter of my book I presented the simple couplet of “arouse and fulfill,” which I picked up from a communications professor. Try watching the first ten minutes of the movie and see if you find it at all arousing. To the contrary, the opening of the movie is more or less depressive. It opens with maudlin music score as we learn about the disappointment and depression Al Gore suffered after his lost presidential campaign in 2000. Yes, this might actually be intellectually arousing to intellectual types, but not to the broad audience who does not have an intrinsic interest in him.
More importantly, watch those first ten minutes and ask yourself whether this is a good movie for kids to watch — do those first ten minutes speak to them in any way, shape or form?
CHAPTER THREE: FAILURE TO TELL A GOOD STORY
This is the most important thing I have to say. The movie did not tell “a good story.”
Now when I talk about “a good story” some may say, “What do you mean — it told the story of Al Gore’s journey.” That’s not what I mean.
I’m talking about narrative structure. I’m talking about the basic structure you will find as the underpinning of virtually all widely popular and successful stories ever told — and I mean BOTH fiction and non-fiction (in an upcoming Benshi interview I’m going to talk with a prominent documentary filmmaker about the essential role of storytelling in nonfiction as well as fiction — something most scientists don’t seem to grasp).
The obligatory need for good storytelling was drilled into our heads in film school. “Good stories” consist of well known structural parts, starting with at least three acts (i.e. a clear beginning, middle and end) and things like “the call to action,” “the crisis of confidence,” “the first culmination,” and a whole list of other dramatic elements. In a good story the audience is led through a journey of highs and lows, building to a clear climax and resolution.
None of that was present in “An Inconvenient Truth.” It was narratively flat — just a recounting of incidents mixed with a presentation of science.
THIS is the reason professional screenwriter Margaret Nagle in an interview earlier here on The Benshi said she felt the wildly inaccurate “The Day After Tomorrow” was probably more successful as a piece of mass communication about climate change than “An Inconvenient Truth.” The former was a traditional Hollywood movie (which, granted, made a hash out of the supposed science of climate change) that exploited all these elements of storytelling in reaching out to the broadest possible audience — the audience Al Gore’s group dreamed of motivating.
And now some people are saying, “Well, you’re talking about crazy Hollywood movies — this was a documentary, that’s different.”
It’s not different. All major journalists will tell you this. In fact, last year one major newspaper journalist basically said to me, “There’s nothing new in your book, the only hope is that the science community might listen to you since you have a Ph.D. in science — lord knows they’ve never been willing to listen to us journalists.”
So the movie was narratively flat. There was no central source of tension or conflict posed, which is the essential element for telling “a good story.” It was just one big “first act” of non-stop exposition — “here’s Al Gore, here’s what happened to him, here’s what he has to say about global warming, here’s what he thinks you should do.”
Did it have to be this way? I’ll answer this at the end.
CHAPTER FOUR: A LEAD CHARACTER WHO WAS NOT AS LIKEABLE AS ONE WOULD HAVE LIKED
I’m loathe to use the word “unlikeable” with Al Gore. He means well. We all know that. In fact, in the summer of 2007 when I was filming “Sizzle” and trading emails with Michael Crichton (in a failed effort to interview him), even he spoke highly of Al Gore despite completely disagreeing with him about global warming.
So with the fourth chapter it’s not about being unlikeable. Except, actually, with a lot of people it is. I grew up in Kansas, most of my relatives still live there, and I still have lots of friends there whom I get together with whenever I’m back. They are mostly moderate Republicans. They aren’t far right wingers. Not one of them could stand Sarah Palin — they found her insulting to their intelligence. But at the same time, they also can’t stand to even hear Al Gore’s voice. And it’s not a matter of not wanting to listen to a ten minute speech from him — it’s a matter of seconds before they reach for the dial.
More quantitatively (for the metrics crowd), we can point to a Quinnipiac poll in 2006 which shows that even in a political context — of possible presidential candidates for 2008 — Al Gore did not even score a likeability rating of over 50%.
So you had a lead character who began with a limited likeability, and then, much more serious and damaging, the film was filled with a bipartisan tone. Six and a half minutes into the movie Gore made the joke about his teacher seen in this clip (which … um … Paramount Pictures made us take down, so here’s the transcript of what he says):
Now why in the world would you include such a barbed joke in a movie that was supposedly trying to create broad interest and concern for the issue of global warming? In an instant he alienated about half of the American public — the Republicans (the butt of the joke) plus plenty of Democrats who simply don’t appreciate such divisive humor (and I’ve spoken to plenty of them who agree with this). It’s hard enough to get any support from across the aisle for something as polarizing these days as environmental issues without doing that.
DID THE MOVIE REALLY HAVE TO FAIL?
So those are the four criteria, and the movie falls short on all counts. But more importantly, could there have been a better way to “tell the story”? Yes.
HOW THE STORY COULD HAVE BEEN TOLD MORE EFFECTIVELY
The tragedy here is that the elements necessary for a compelling, intriguing, even suspenseful story were present in the movie. The film could have had the audience going along on a journey and seriously not wanting to leave until they got to the end of the movie. Here’s how it would have gone …
ONCE UPON A TIME ON A SMALL BLUE PLANET …
There are countless ways to tell a good story using the same basic materials. This is one. The movie could have opened with a view of planet Earth from space coupled with the sound of light, storybook music. A grandfatherly old voice says,
“Once upon a time on a small blue planet there was an atmospheric crisis that threatened all of humanity. But the nations of the world came together and solved the problem,and now that threat is set to go away by the middle of this century. The source of the potential crisis was the hole in the ozone layer, the solution was the Montreal Protocol of the 1980’s, and today we no longer hear much about this issue because it’s been effectively addressed.”
That little mini-story, told in a bit more detail, would have filled up the first act of the movie, ending somewhere around fifteen to twenty minutes in. And then the narrator would have said,
“But now this same planet faces a second, much larger atmospheric crisis having to do with gases that cause the greenhouse effect, and for some reason, these same nations don’t seem to be able this time to come together and solve this problem. WHY IS THAT?”
And there you have it — the starting point for a journey — the “jumping off point” — the “inciting incident” — the source of tension/conflict that would light a fire inside the heads of the audience, causing them to say to themselves, “Gee, that’s a good question — how come it isn’t working this time around?”
At that point you could bring in your host (preferably a non-political figure, and ideally someone who appeals to a broader demographic than older, white, affluent males) who could have taken us on a journey through the second act in which we ascend to the highest highs for a while as it looks like maybe the nations will eventually manage to come together and solve this as they did for the ozone hole, and then descended down into the depths of the lowest lows as it appears that the divergence of views between China, India, the U.S., the developing nations and everyone else is just too great to ever be surmounted. But then after we hit the lowest note, some other piece of insight or even data is brought back around to rekindle our flames of hope and lead us up to a final, inspiring climax where we realize the human spirit does have unlimited and untapped potential to overcome the greatest of threats.
The last bit sounds a little hokey, but guess what … most Americans don’t mind a little hokeyness if it’s done right. So long as it is indeed done right.
IT COULD HAVE BEEN A REPEATABLE AND ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE
So the saddest thing of all is that the essence of effective education is INCULCATION. This is the way we learn things effectively — through repetition. What do you think the great myths and fables are? They are great stories, told so well, that people enjoy hearing them over and over again, over the ages. And in so repeating, they slowly absorb the “messages” at a deep and intuitive level.
That is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “An Inconvenient Truth.” You want to get a good laugh with college students? Try asking them, as I do, how many want to throw “An Inconvenient Truth” viewing party. How many want to have their friends over to order some pizza and beer and watch the movie?
But it didn’t have to be that way. There could have been a movie that told a great story, was hosted by a non-polarizing figure who told jokes as funny as Jon Stewart’s material, yet had the ability to speak in a voice that could reach into the hearts of even deep southerners and multiple ethnicities, who exuded charm and likeability, showed respect for dissenting opinions, and told a tale that hooked the audience at “Why is that?” and didn’t let them go until the final resolution of “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
That could have produced a movie that people still wanted to watch four years later in order to hear their favorite jokes, to share the moments of emotion, and to follow a journey that takes them into the woods, momentarily fills them with a twinge of fear of being lost, but eventually leads them back out and sends them home with a feeling of satisfaction. This could have happened.
Q: SO THEN WHY DIDN’T IT HAPPEN? A: CHEAP, FAST OR GOOD — PICK TWO
The answer to the question of why it didn’t happen rests with the basic dilemma you face in making movies. I’ve actually watched this play out several times in the films I’ve been involved with over the years. In Hollywood, if you are making a movie and need to build something — oh, say for example a replica of Stonehenge (for those who’ve seen “Spinal Tap”), you go to your production designer who then tells you, “Cheap, fast, or good — pick two.”
What this means is we can make it for you cheap and fast — in fact, I personally can make it for you, overnight, just using a few boards and duct tape, but it isn’t going to be any good. Or we can make it for you cheap and good, but it will take a couple of years as we recruit our friends to work for free on the weekends, which means it won’t be fast. Or we can make it for you fast and good, but it’s going to cost you a couple million dollars as we fly in the best people to work round the clock for a couple days — meaning it won’t be cheap.
These are the basic elements traded off in making a movie, and this is where we see what happened with “An Inconvenient Truth.”
The movie was rushed into production. In the fall of 2005, after the devastation brought about by Hurricane Katrina, there was air of urgency in the environmental community — as if global warming, with the predictions of intensified hurricanes — was already upon us. It was easy to think that a new pattern of yearly hurricane chaos had arrived already. And thus some people felt the need to sound the alarms as loudly as possible.
Which means the people behind the making of the movie sprinted into production (it came out in the spring of 2006) and really sort of went with the bare minimum of an idea — namely “let’s just film Al Gore giving his talk, then add some other details to round it out.” There was no attention given to “can we bring in a team of the movie industry’s very best screenwriters, team them up with the climate scientists, and see if we can ‘FIND THE STORY’ for a compelling, intriguing, even suspenseful, WELL STRUCTURED three act story of the sort that people for years to come will enjoy watching and rewatching, telling and retelling?”
So the movie “failed badly” in broadening public support for the issue of climate action. Which leaves us with the question of, “How would you recommend doing it?” Here’s what I think.
SCIENTISTS LOSE: THE FAILURE TO SELF-PROMOTE
Effective “self-promotion,” which doesn’t have to mean exaggerating, over-hyping or lying, is a central part of gaining the public’s support. But scientists traditionally don’t understand or appreciate this. And here’s a prime example.
“Whatever happened to the ozone hole?”
Try asking a group of people this question, see what you get for an answer. I’ve been doing it lately. The answers are vague — “It got fixed?” “Bigger things came along?” “They plugged it?”
There’s no excuse for this confusion. The answer should be programmed into everyone: “The science community succeeded in addressing the problem.”
The fact is, scientists identified chlorofluorocarbons as the culprits, then the Montreal Protocol (which by the way, you might want to note, took place in the mid-80’s, BEFORE the advent of the internet) created a unified effort which changed societal behavior by reducing the production and release of the damaging chemicals. The result of these successful efforts is that the ozone hole was at it’s smallest in 2007 in more than a decade, and is on track to be repaired by mid-century.
Yes, I know there are all sorts of ways in which the ozone hole problem was much easier and totally different from global warming. I don’t care about that. That’s a scientist’s line of thought. We need communicators’ lines of thought. The simple facts are that the problem was identified, action was taken, and a solution is now underway. THAT is all the broadest audience needs to know for now — success is possible.
So why hasn’t the science community promoted the hell out of this success story?
THE BOTTOM LINE: IT’S ABOUT TRUST (NOT HOPE)
Here is my assessment of the situation. What the world of science needs is not “hope” (the standard object of environmentalists’ desires), but rather TRUST. The former is a largely irrational sentiment defined as, “The FEELING that what is wanted can be had.”
In contrast, “trust” is defined as, “confident expectation.”
Give that some thought. It’s an important distinction. For science to succeed, there has to be a level of trust.
Medicine is based on trust. You might HOPE that your terminal cancer diagnosis is not completely accurate, but the fact is, you go to the doctor and follow the advice given out of TRUST. And more importantly, the trust is based on hundreds, even thousands, of years of success stories. It’s based on medical science understanding and curing everything from smallpox to polio. If medical science had failed every time it faced a disease, then nobody would go to doctors. OR if the average person had no clue of the history of medical science, they would be just as terrified in visiting a doctor as visiting a snake oil salesman or witch doctor.
IT’S KNOWLEDGE OF THE PAST THAT BUILDS TRUST
So that leads me to my final question. Why didn’t “An Inconvenient Truth” open with, and even spend HALF of the movie focused on the success story that has been the ozone hole — the proof that climate scientists are very good at what they do — instead of burying the ozone hole “story” in the last few minutes of the movie? For many people, the movie was the first time they even thought in depth about the idea of damaging our atmosphere. The first message they should have been told is, “We know how to fix this sort of problem — we’ve done it before.”
You build trust, not by telling everyone you have the current situation under control, which was clearly a large gamble in 2006, but instead by pointing to your track record.
“TRUST US, WE’VE MADE IT WORK IN THE PAST, WE’LL MAKE IT WORK NOW.”
This, in my opinion, should have been the message of “An Inconvenient Truth.” But it wasn’t.
WHY DID THE MOVIE FAIL? GEORGE LAKOFF COULD TELL YOU
So I point to Chapter 2 in my book, the chapter titled, “Don’t Be So Literal Minded.” I talk about basic “science think.” In this case, it’s the tendency to think, “Why should we waste time talking about the past — everyone already knows that stuff — let’s talk about the future and what’s new.” It’s the assumption that everyone is as smart as you.
I’m sorry. The public isn’t as smart on this stuff as the academic community sometimes wishes. And more importantly, the public isn’t as rational. And you know what, even the science community isn’t always that rational.
What was needed in 2006 was a powerful “public relations” exercise of the scale of “An Inconvenient Truth.”
He talks about the Bush era term “tax relief.” His solution to this problem of “framing” is not to talk about the future and say that some day things will be better thanks to the taxes you pay.
No, what he recommends is a simple, straight forward, powerful positive messaging effort in which YOU frame the situation by saying, “Our parents invested in the future, ours as well as theirs, through their taxes.”
He goes on to explain in detail the past successes of the tax system, using those stories as a justification for today’s current taxes. And then, as I talked about earlier, he prescribes INCULCATION, by saying, “These are accurate views of taxes, but they are not yet enshrined in our brains. They need to be repeated over and over again, and refined until they take their rightful places in our synapses. It does not happen overnight. Start now.”
We must point to the past. We must value the stories of success. And most importantly for the science world, everyone needs to realize you use the stories of success not so much to build HOPE, but rather to build TRUST.