Hollywood’s primer on climate denial illustrates 5 myths that fuel rejection of science
Every disaster movie seems to open with a scientist being ignored. “Don’t Look Up” is no exception – in fact, people ignoring or flat out denying scientific evidence is the point.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play astronomers who make a literally Earth-shattering discovery and then try to persuade the president to take action to save humanity. It’s a satire that explores how individuals, scientists, the media and politicians respond when faced with scientific facts that are uncomfortable, threatening and inconvenient.
The movie is an allegory for climate change, showing how those with the power to do something about global warming willfully avoid taking action and how those with vested interests can mislead the public. But it also reflects science denial more broadly, including what the world has been seeing with COVID-19.
The most important difference between the film’s premise and humanity’s actual looming crisis is that while individuals may be powerless against a comet, everyone can act decisively to stop fueling climate change.
Knowing the myths that feed science denial can help.
Myth #1: We can’t act unless the science is 100% certain
The first question President Orlean (Meryl Streep) asks the scientists after they explain that a comet is on a collision course with Earth is, “So how certain is this?” Learning that the certitude is 99.78%, the president’s chief of staff (Jonah Hill) responds with relief: “Oh great, so it’s not 100%!” Government scientist Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) replies, “Scientists never like to say 100%.”
This reluctance to claim 100% certainty is a strength of science. Even when the evidence points clearly in one direction, scientists keep exploring to learn more. At the same time, they recognize overwhelming evidence and act on it. The evidence is overwhelming that Earth’s climate is changing in dangerous ways because of human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, and it has been overwhelming for many years.
When politicians take a “let’s wait and see” attitude toward climate change (or “sit tight and assess,” as the movie puts it), suggesting they need more evidence before taking any action, it’s often a form of science denial.
Myth #2: Disturbing realities as described by scientists are too difficult for the public to accept
The title phrase, “Don’t Look Up,” portrays this psychological assumption and how some politicians conveniently use it as an excuse for inaction while promoting their own interests.