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Evaluating the Impact of The Day After Tomorrow

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

June 16, 2004

Can a Blockbuster Film Shape the Public’s Understanding of a Science Controversy?

In 1995, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) went on a public relations offensive, not in reaction to the protests of environmental organizations opposed to genetically-modified crops or religious leaders’ concerns over cloning research, but in anticipation of the release of The Lost World, the film sequel to Michael Crichton’s 1992 blockbuster Jurassic Park. BIO worried that the film series, with its depictions of greedy corporate scientists and dinosaurs run amok, sensationalized the motivations behind biotech research, and that the movie might turn the public against important biotech research.

“Nearly everyone in the book [The Lost World] with a briefcase or a lab coat is an insensitive myope, a thoughtless theorist or an evil genius,” wrote Eric Christensen of BIO in a newsletter to the industry. “The only characters who aren’t inherently evil are the dinosaurs who survived ‘Jurassic Park.'” Christensen alleged that the Jurassic Park series unfairly portrayed science as used solely for profit. BIO planned to counter the feared massive audience effects with a carefully orchestrated PR campaign, delivering fact sheets to news organizations and schools; holding media briefings where genetically engineered foods would be served, and soliciting letters to the editors of local and national newspapers (Day, 1995).

A few years later, in 1999, when Michael Crichton was invited to address the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), he told scientists and industry members to relax, and quit worrying about the possible public impact of science fiction blockbusters. All professions look bad in movies, explained Crichton: doctors are uncaring, lawyers are unscrupulous, cops are crooks, and politicians are corrupt. Such characterizations make for good plots. In Jurassic Park there are both “good” and “bad” scientists, just like in real life. Scientific inaccuracy is also to be expected, since a movie about modern day dinosaurs is crafted as fantasy. As to negative portrayals of science, such images are inevitable since when audiences go to the movies they want to be scared and frightened. Science fiction, according to Crichton, serves an important functional role in society. Science and technology in the news media is usually greeted in boosterish terms, whereas films and novels are important outlets for the expression of society’s anxieties about rapid scientific and technological advance.

So who is right, Crichton or Christensen? The questions raised are neither new nor simple. The debate over Jurassic Park reflects an enduring concern among scientists that the media, especially television and film, often distorts science, leading to negative consequences for public understanding and decision-making. Such concerns are raised again this summer as the much anticipated blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow opened in theaters Memorial Day weekend. Although over the past decade scientists have been motivated to comment or respond to various film depictions of science-ranging from the genetics of Gattaca to the near-earth objects of Armageddon-perhaps no movie since Jurassic Park has generated as much debate as the recent global warming disaster film.

In this column, I review the current debate over the possible impact of The Day After Tomorrow, placing the film in political and social context, attempting to shine light through the fog of hype, speculation, and rhetoric. I also offer some thoughts into what areas of society the movie’s influence might stretch, and propose several methods for systematically evaluating the impact of future blockbuster films that focus on controversial science.

The Day After Tomorrow Controversy

The Day After Tomorrow is produced, written, and directed by Roland Emmerich, best known for Independence Day and a remake of Godzilla. Emmerich’s trademark is the spectacular destruction of global landmarks. (Think of the laser beam annihilation of the White House in Independence Day, or Godzilla’s attack on the Brooklyn Bridge.) The Day After Tomorrow turns on the premise that global warming caused by pollution has shifted the ocean currents, resulting in ultra-dramatic and almost immediate weather disasters. Movie audiences witness among many mishaps: a tidal wave flood Manhattan; tornadoes wipe out Los Angeles; giant hail pummel Tokyo; snow blanket India, and an ice sheet encase Scotland.

For all of the film’s exaggerations, as Andrew Revkin of the New York Times recently notes, the underlying premise of the events is grounded in the established theory that rising global temperatures could lead to abrupt cooling by disrupting the currents of the North Atlantic. (For a synopsis of this scenario, see William Calvin’s widely read 1998 Atlantic Monthly article “The Great Climate Flip Flop.”)

Yet scientists also point out that the extreme changes in weather that occur as a result of the ocean current disruptions are the fanciful depictions of a blockbuster movie plot. Indeed, the main antagonist in the film—a cold weather system that instantly freezes helicopters, buildings, and humans—has been declared by scientists to be impossible. To their regret, many scientists argue that there is really little science in the movie for audiences to learn about. (For more on scientists’ reaction to the movie, see Chris Mooney’s May column .)

But if the science might be missing, a more important characteristic of the film is that it resonates with contemporary political themes. Dennis Quaid, the protagonist scientist of the movie, warns a skeptical Vice President early on in the film that “if we don’t act now it will be too late.” Later, when politicians come to realize the imminent danger of the movie’s events, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences Administration complains to the Presidential cabinet that maybe if they had listened to science earlier, they wouldn’t be in such a pickle. (The warnings and frustrations of the movie’s scientists are in line with many of the statements made by real-life scientists at a recent AAAS-sponsored policy briefing on climate change held in Washington, D.C. For more, see a report in the Washington Post, and Chris Mooney’s June column.)

Director Emmerich has gone on record in recent interviews voicing his green leanings, as well as his criticism of the Bush administration’s environmental policies. “I've been here [the U.S.] 14 years and I’m flabbergasted that this government still hasn't signed the Kyoto Treaty or introduced hybrid SUVs,” Emmerich recently told the Toronto Star. “Instead, even when 999 out of 1,000 scientists agree that global warming exists, and the one scientist who doesn't agree is bankrolled by an oil company, you have an administration that listens to the one scientist, not the 999 others.”

Environmentalists, conservatives, industry leaders, and legislators have all used the blockbuster as a vehicle for mobilizing public attention to the issue, crafting strategic and carefully framed talking points and messages that play on the movie’s images. Pro-environment groups such as Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and MoveOn.org have set up Web pages to lure interested netizens seeking more information about climate change. The Web sites attempt to mobilize visitors to send e-mails and place phone calls urging policymakers to adopt pro-environment policies. MoveOn.org sent out email alerts to its electronic action network asking for 8,000 volunteers to hand out leaflets at theaters across the country. MoveOn.org also sponsored a special town hall meeting with former Vice President Al Gore, a few blocks from The Day After Tomorrow's New York City premiere.

In his statements, Gore has said that he finds the science of the movie over-the-top, but also considers the movie important since it focuses attention on the fact that global warming is a real problem, and that the Bush administration is doing nothing to stop it, a message repeated in MoveOn.org’s movie theater fliers. Senator John McCain hopes the film might generate additional legislative support for his Climate Stewardship Act, a Senate bill co-sponsored with Senator Joseph Leiberman that requires gradual reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions.

Not to be outdone, conservative groups have promoted their climate skeptics to the media. The Cato Institute’s Patrick J. Michaels, for example, has published virtually identical op-eds in the the USA Today and the Washington Post dismissing both the film’s science and its political message. “As a scientist, I bristle when lies dressed up as ‘science’ are used to influence political discourse,” writes Michaels in the USA Today. “This film is propaganda designed to shift the policy of this nation on climate change.”

Industry representatives have voiced concerns that the exaggerated science of the film will mislead an ignorant public, promoting support for policy that might run counter to industry interests. In a press release by the National Association of Manufacturers, the group first discredits the film by quoting George Taylor, the state climatologist for Oregon: “They took a bunch of pieces of bad climate science and made a movie out of them. A lot of people will see this movie and mistake science fiction for science fact. Hollywood should not be the source of information on climate science.” The Association then follows with their own assertion that “Gore and others are using the film to push for extreme environmental policies such as the Kyoto Protocol and the McCain-Lieberman climate change bill-that will do enormous economic harm without any environmental benefit.”

The political mobilization around the film event has helped generate a sizable spike in overall media attention to the issue of climate change. Using the Lexis-Nexis electronic database, I tabulated the monthly combined number of climate change-related articles appearing in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the USA Today, and the Washington Post over the past twelve months. Media attention to climate change for the twelve month period was greatest for May 2004, the month of the movie release (66 total articles). The average for the 12 month period was 50 total articles appearing per month, meaning that the Day After Tomorrow helped account for a 32% increase in media attention to climate change over the previous 12 month average. In a time of many competing events and issues—notably the conflict in Iraq and the upcoming Presidential election—the film has served an important media agenda-setting function by reinvigorating focus on the climate change debate.

Evaluating the Public Impact of a Blockbuster Film

Patrick J. Michaels, in his USA Today and Washington Post opinion-editorials, articulates an assumption that many observers share about the impact that sensationalized film depictions might have on public perceptions of science and technology:

This isn’t Hollywood’s first attempt to scare people into its way of thinking. How about Jane Fonda in the 1979 anti-nuclear-power flick, The China Syndrome? Twelve days after its release, the accident at Three Mile Island occurred. Despite the fact that it released only tiny amounts of radiation, the politics of that hysteria effectively killed any new nuclear plant. Analogize the Western drought to Three Mile Island, and you get the idea. Or how about the 1983 movie The Day After, whose purpose was to strengthen the nuclear-freeze movement. It failed. The Day After Tomorrow is only one more day than The Day After, and it deserves the same fate. Lies cloaked as science should never determine how we live our lives.

But is it really as simple as Michaels argues? Can a sensationalized film portrayal of a controversial scientific topic inject into the public fear, distrust, and misperception? And how can we think systematically about the role that film depictions of science and technology play in society and in politics? Using the recent controversy over The Day After Tomorrow as a case study, I conclude this column by breaking the focus of these questions down into the film’s relevance to four sectors of society: a) interest groups and policymakers; b) journalists c) the general public; and d) scientists.

Interest groups and policymakers. Climate change is a unique social problem in that it presents special challenges for mobilizing collective action. Even though many scientists are currently raising alarm about the need for policy changes, it is very difficult to capture and maintain public attention to the issue. It’s especially difficult for the public to observe the consequences of climate change on a day-to-day basis. Instead, attention to climate change waxes and wanes based on the emergence and subsequent disappearance of dramatic focusing events, including droughts, hot summers, or mild winters; political developments, such as an international summit; or dramatic images such as a picture of a melting artic ice sheet appearing on the front page of national newspapers.

Policy advocates on both sides of the issue use these events as “windows of opportunity” to mobilize attention and support for preferred policy options. In the process they seek to strategically frame climate change in ways that resonate with the focusing event, promoting interpretations of the issue that favor their preferred policy outcomes. (For more on framing science, see my recent column on the stem cell controversy.)

In the case of The Day After Tomorrow, environmental groups have used the focus on climate change brought about by the film to issue a symbolic call to arms. Their basic message is that scientists agree that human activities cause climate change, and if we don’t act soon, we face innumerous serious consequences including drought, flooding, heat waves, health threats from smog, devastation of coral reefs, and other natural resources. “Global warming just isn’t a movie, it’s your future,” proclaim environmental groups in their theater fliers. Importantly, however, environmentalists also emphasis that it is not too late to take meaningful steps to stem global warming, linking the movie to the need for passage of the Climate Stewardship Act. Via Web sites and public outreach, environmental groups try to make it easy for the public to contact Congress registering their support for the bill.

Environmentalists have also used the opportunity to deconstruct and criticize the Bush administration’s position on climate change. “There are two works of fiction that we have to deal with. One is the movie and the other is the Bush administration’s presentation of global warming,” former Vice President Al Gore told reporters at the MoveOn.org town meeting. “The Bush administration is in some ways even more fictional than the movie — in trying to convince people that there is no real problem, that there is no real degree of certainty on the part of scientists about the issue and sort of accepting the big polluters’ argument that nothing should be done to change the current practices of dumping pollution in an unrestrained way into the atmosphere. This is the kind of dishonest behavior that can lead to an unhealthy debate in our democracy not dissimilar from the kind of misleading impressions that were created in the run up to the Iraq war.”

As previously mentioned, conservatives and industry groups have adopted a very different tact in framing the movie. The main communication strategy has been to highlight the obvious exaggerations depicted in The Day After Tomorrow, and then use these fictionalized distortions to discredit real-world advocates of strong policy measures related to climate change. According to conservatives, the film is no different from the so called propaganda of environmentalists. Moreover, taking seriously either the film or environmentalists could lead to dangerous measures such as the “radical” and “extreme” Kyoto Protocol and Climate Stewardship Act, policies that according to conservatives have few benefits but drastic economic consequences. According to this argument, residual uncertainty surrounding climate science means that the status quo should be maintained, and that the fragile market should not be regulated until the science is 100% certain, or in their terms “sound.”

Journalists. Advocates in the climate change debate lobby journalists in order to influence news coverage. Yet, despite the best efforts of interest groups, their attempts are often mitigated in part by the preferences and norms of reporters. As I reviewed in my recent column on coverage of the stem cell controversy, and as McComas and Shanahan (1999) conclude in their study of media coverage of climate change, journalists for the most part are attracted to drama and conflict as central narrative devices in covering science. Media coverage of science increases when the potential for reporting on conflict and drama is maximized. In other words, press attention spikes when there is clear disagreement between political actors, when debate takes place in overtly political contexts such as Congress or the White House, or when natural events such as droughts or heat waves bring an otherwise remote scientific issue like climate change into dramatic and tangible focus. The result is that coverage is often “episodic,” peaking in attention around a dramatic event, and then relatively disappearing for long periods of time, despite the unresolved nature of the problem, and the almost constant release of new scientific studies and findings. Science becomes framed by journalists as a political game, with heavy focus on the contest between interest groups and political actors, with journalists emphasizing who is ahead or behind in winning the policy debate.

In covering controversial science, the objectivity norm also shapes the nature of reporting. Journalists rely on the perception of neutrality in policy debates as a way to boost their credibility with audiences, and as a way to maintain access to sources on both sides of an issue. Often this preference for the appearance of neutrality leads to the heavy reliance on “balancing,” typified by a news article that opens with a claim from one party in a debate, and closes with a counter claim from the opposing viewpoint.

In coverage of science, the preference for balancing along with the journalistic desire for conflict often leads to news articles that gives the false impression of “dueling scientists,” when in fact there is scientific consensus around many issues related to climate change. This preference for balancing has led to a strong media impact for several maverick scientists, the so-called “climate skeptics” or “contrarians.” Moreover, as McRight and Dunlap detail in a recent study, GOP control of Congress has boosted the credibility of these climate skeptics with the media. Congressional conservatives have stacked expert testimony rosters with science contrarians, regardless of their credentials in producing peer-reviewed research.

In terms of media coverage related to The Day After Tomorrow, we can see both of these journalistic tendencies at play. As previously noted, the film’s release, with its many dramatic and narrative qualities, has led to a sharp spike in media attention to the issue of climate change. Moreover, pending an empirical evaluation of coverage, it appears that climate skeptics have enjoyed nearly as much voice in coverage as climate scientists. This is as much attributable to the heavy public relations activities of conservatives and industry groups who have promoted these skeptical voices to the press, as it is the balancing routine of journalists.

The general public. Most of the debate about the film has focused on the possible audience impacts. Will The Day After Tomorrow, as conservatives contend, scare the public into supporting unnecessary regulations? Or will the movie, as environmentalists hope, serve as an “awareness raising” event or even as an urgent call to action? Understanding and assessing the movie’s influence on audiences is a complex task. Here I map out several dimensions of influence that the movie might have on audiences, and propose a method for evaluating the impact of future science fiction blockbusters.

One possible impact of the film is that it might serve as a vehicle for informal learning, and in this case there are several different dimensions of knowledge that might be transmitted to audiences. Most discussion has centered on whether or not audiences learn any science from the film, or as others fear, whether audiences might acquire scientifically misleading knowledge. Many scientists have correctly noted that there is little or no science to be learned from the film, and after viewing the film once, I can think of just the few following salient nuggets of science-related information, either valid or misleading, that might be gleaned:

Global warming may disrupt ocean currents, leading to global cooling (True).

Wolves are aggressive and evil animals that hunt humans when hungry (Not True).

Penicillin is used to treat infection (True).

Scientists drill in the Artic in order to obtain ice cores that offer information about climate change (True.)

Scientists use advanced super-computer generated models to predict future climate changes (True.)

Climate change could lead to cataclysmic storms that would blanket the Northern Hemisphere in ice within a matter of days, and deep freeze almost instantaneously buildings, helicopters, and people (Not True.)

Burning a lot of library books in a large fireplace could generate enough heat to protect humans sitting in close proximity to the fire against the instant freezing effects of a cataclysmic storm (Probably not true.)

Learning “facts” about science is not the only type of informal learning that could potentially occur. Audiences also might learn about the role science and scientists serve in the political world. If citizens are going to participate and be engaged with policy matters related to science, they likely need to know who regulates and funds science, and how science is used by policymakers. In the film, audiences learn that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducts climate-related research. Also true to real life, they learn that scientists warn elected officials about the risks of climate change, but that officials sometimes don’t listen, or they discount the risks in light of economic considerations and industry influence.

The film therefore might shape audience attitudes indirectly through its link to forms of knowledge, but it might also shape public opinion directly via powerful images, symbols, depictions, stereotypes, and moral lessons. One powerful stereotype in science fiction is the image of the scientist. In many movies, scientists are portrayed as evil, socially irresponsible, and mentally unstable, a reflection of the famous Dr. Frankenstein character. Scientists are also sometimes portrayed as powerless, easily manipulated or dominated, or pawns doing the dirty work for industry and the military. These stereotypes of scientists can be seen in movies such as The China Syndrome or Silkwood. Scientists are also often shown as eccentric, antisocial, or workaholic. Often these scientists are “geeks.” (For more on the image of scientists in film and the possible audience effects, see Nisbet et al., 2002).

In the Day After Tomorrow, the good news for scientists is that they are portrayed for the most part as heroes. The scientist-father played by Dennis Quaid is handsome, athletic, and courageous. He drives a hybrid car, lives in a utilitarian suburban home, shares a strong bond with his co-workers, and risks his life early on in the film to save his colleague from a collapsing ice sheet. In the climax to the movie, he snowshoes between Philadelphia and New York City—braving the storm of the millennia—to save his son, an equally good-looking and courageous high school teen who loves science, and competes on an academic quiz team. The only downside to Quaid’s character is that he is a workaholic. He is completely devoted to climate science while missing out on his family life, a trait he resolves to correct by the end of the movie.

If scientists are the heroes of the film, it is politicians who are caricaturized. As mentioned previously, a Dick Cheney-like Vice President is dismissive of scientists’ claims, and instead favors economic growth instead of regulatory changes, right up to the moment that it is too late.

Like any story, the movie offers a strong moral lesson, reflecting the warnings of writers such as Bill McKibben. The Day After Tomorrow hammers home an image of a fragile global environment, vulnerable to irrevocable change through human consumption and industrial development unless the urgent warnings of scientists are heeded by politicians. The threat, according to the movie, spans national boundaries, and inevitably requires international cooperation, a lesson accented by director Emmerich as he depicts Americans fleeing the U.S. to cross over into the less severe weather of Mexico. The closing image of the movie is a shot of the Earth as glimpsed by astronauts orbiting in the International Space Station, the Northern Hemisphere encased in snow and ice, the industry and cars of the developed countries shut down, prompting the astronauts to remark that they have never been able to see the Earth so clearly.

Beyond shaping knowledge and perceptions, the film might also impact public behavior. Audiences in anticipation of the film release and/or after viewing the movie might be motivated to pay closer attention to news coverage of climate change. Or, as environmental groups hope, they may even be inspired to find out more information via a Web search. The public might also be motivated to discuss the film and the issue of climate change with others. These behaviors are likely to shape additional learning, or even channel individuals into direct participation related to the issue, by donating money to an advocacy group, contacting an elected official, or adopting more environmentally friendly behaviors.

From a social science perspective, how can we say with certainty if the movie has any of these effects or serves any of these functions for audiences? Does the The Day After Tomorrow impact the public’s understanding of science, or do audiences simply treat the film as just another work of fiction, popcorn fun among a summer full of movie fantasies? As we like to say around the office, it’s an empirical question.

A proposal I have been floating over the past few years is to conduct a field experiment around a science-related blockbuster film. The basic design would work like this: A month or so before the release of a blockbuster movie, a suitable representative sample of Americans would be surveyed (let’s say N=2000). If the topic depicted in the movie were climate change, respondents would be asked about their knowledge and attitudes related to the issue. They would also be asked about their general level of attention to the issue via the mass media, and the nature and level of personal discussion or contact with the issue. They might also be asked if they had engaged in any political activity related to climate change, such as donating money, or contacting an elected official. Several weeks after the release of the film, the same sample of respondents would be re-interviewed and asked the same questions, along with questions about how many times, if any, they had seen the film.

Respondents would then be compared relative to knowledge, attitudes, and behavior, based on whether or not they had seen the film, and across levels of other forms of informational engagement on the issue, such as increased levels of attention to news coverage or increased frequency of discussion. There might also be a third wave of interviews several months later to measure the lasting impact of the film. A field experiment design like this would maximize the generalizability of findings, while allowing increased certainty about the “causal” effects of such a film. Perhaps if Michael Crichton’s best-selling Prey, a novelized and somewhat sinister account of nanotechnology, were released in the future as a blockbuster film, a field experiment of this type could be carried out around the movie event. The total cost of the project might only run around $100,000.

Scientists. Although scientists often think themselves immune to outside influences, is it possible that science fiction films shape the course of scientific research? David Kirby, a geneticist retraining as a post-doc in the sociology of science, has turned up some interesting case study evidence that films can indeed shape the trajectory of scientific research. Kirby’s basic argument is that scientific ideas are contested. Establishing scientific knowledge means arriving at consensus among scientists. The social pull and tug over the validity of scientific theories is rarely just limited to scientific meetings or journals, or even other traditional yet informal venues such as the news media or television documentaries. According to Kirby, anytime a scientist discusses or visualizes science-related information, the act can serve as a form of persuasive communication that can subsequently shape consensus among scientists, especially on controversial and still uncertain topics.

In a study appearing in the journal Social Studies of Science, Kirby interviewed several scientists who had served as science consultants on various science fiction films during the 1990s. He arrives at some interesting conclusions. For example, specific to the impact of Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Kirby details how the film helped push the far-from-consensus views that birds evolved from a dinosaur ancestor rather than from another branch of reptiles, and that dinosaurs were in fact warm-blooded, were communal in nature, used forms of sophisticated communication, and nurtured their young. These themes played a major role in the film’s plot, promoting the views of Jack Horner, the paleontologist who served as an advisor on the movie project. (Horner in fact was the inspiration for Dr. Alan Grant, the film’s main protagonist.)

Even though many scientists disputed the accuracy of these portrayals (see notably a NY Review of Books article by Stephen Jay Gould), the success and popularity of Jurassic Park amplified attention to Horner’s theories about dinosaurs, and likely resulted in a substantial increase in funding for research in the area. Kirby details other film influences on science, notably the challenges presented by movies such as Deep Impact, Armageddon, and Dinosaur to scientists who dispute the theory that dust from an asteroid crash caused the extinction of dinosaurs.

There should be little doubt that even scientists are somewhat vulnerable to the strong cultural and sociological influences of blockbuster films. In the case of The Day After Tomorrow, the film may help magnify attention and sponsor additional research related to the theory that global warming could induce global cooling by disrupting ocean currents. A possible greater influence may be the film’s depiction of a unified consensus among scientists that human activities are responsible for increased global temperatures, and that urgent policy changes are needed. Conservatives are probably especially worried that the film might help further erode the legitimacy of the claims of climate skeptics and their industry patrons.

References

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.