Saturday, October 24, 2009

ISFF ’09: Sizzle

Global warming skeptics must be evil. The Boston Globe editorial page has likened them to Holocaust deniers. Yet filmmaker Randy Olsen believed they were not sufficiently marginalized in the press, so he set out to deliver the coup de grace in a hybrid documentary-mockumentary. However, Olsen is a laudably honest documentarian, which led to some humorously uncomfortable scenes in Sizzle (trailer here), the closing night feature of the Imagine Science Film Festival.

Olsen envisioned Sizzle as the global warming Borat. As he interviewed scientists on either side of the controversy, his skeptical cameraman would disrupt the interview with his own questions. Meanwhile, the rich liberals supposedly financing his film are scouring Hollywood for a celebrity to serve as the film’s spokesperson. For a film produced by someone clearly to the left of the political spectrum, Sizzle’s satire of Hollywood-style liberalism has surprising bite. It is also very funny.

At first it seems like Olsen stacks the deck with his interview segments, choosing a particularly freaky USC professor as his first skeptical subject. However, he does include Dr. Bill Gray and Dr. Pat Michaels, two reasonably presentable academics, whose credentials Olsen admits are legit, allowing them an opportunity to at least get a word in edgewise. He also scrupulously includes a segment with Julia Bovey, an embarrassingly uninformed representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Actually, that leads to Sizzle’s signature motif: polar bears.

At one point, Bovey parrots their talking points about an allegedly precipitous decline in the polar bear population, but when pressed for numbers, she admits she does not have any, but trust her, its really awful. At this point, Olsen looks like a polar bear threw-up on him. Whether he is acting or genuinely reacting in disappointment, Olsen deserves credit for keeping the exchange in the film. Suddenly, those white bears are a symbol of the whole global warming shooting match, so he takes a detour to the zoo.

According to a zoologist, out of a population of 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears, four have been found to have drowned in the last year, or at most 0.02% of the population. However, they are the first polar bears ever discovered drowned, so that relatively small figure could have importance as a portent of things to come, the expert avers. Perhaps.

Olsen made a deliberate choice not to bury the audience with scientific data, which is understandable. However, simply claiming every reputable scientist agrees with him leaves the audience with an unsatisfied feeling. In fact, Olsen seems badly off target when emphasizing the disagreements within the skeptical camp as he defines it, in contrast to the implied monolithic uniformity of opinion amongst global warmers. After all, orthodoxy should always inspire skepticism. Yes, you will have even greater unanimity on say, the principles of gravity, yet any graduate physics student could prove it on the blackboard.

That is exactly the challenge Olsen should take up—a legitimate global warming debate. If Gray and Michaels truly do not have a scientific leg to stand on, it should be easy to dispatch them in a fair fight. Let the battle be joined with verifiable data. Break out the powerpoint slides Olsen so richly ridicules. However, there should be an agreed upon benchmark to determine the veracity of the Warmers’ predictions, which would also logically set up a sequel to follow-up on each sides’ claims.

There is something very weird about a science-based documentary using the term “skeptic” as an epithet. Still, when Olsen is putting the “mock” in mockumentary, its pretty funny stuff. Sizzle concluded the ISFF’s very diverse slate of films about or in some way related to science, including the standout Japanese science fiction film The Clone Returns Home. The festival wraps up with its awards ceremony this Sunday at Kenny’s Castaways.