Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Paradox of "Don't Look Up"

OK, I already watched “Don’t look up,” the Netflix movie that presents a caricature of the relationship between scientists, politicians, business tycoons and the media in the hypothetical event of the extinction of Planet Earth. It is a bad movie with very famous actors and actresses (my opinion, but also the opinion of the experts on cinema that I read).

The paradox is that so many people has taken the caricature seriously. The social media and the traditional media are these days full of pieces of very serious journalists or even scientists stressing the “lessons” that can be learned from the film. Most (not all) of them acknowledge that “Don’t Look Up” is not a realistic description of what would happen in similar circumstances (if similar circumstances could ever happen), but after this brief acknowledgement, they go on with some very serious thoughts about the need of evidence-based policies, of a rigorous media, of scientists that communicate well, of honest politicians… I read in a local newspaper, for example, that “it is one of the works of fiction that best describes what we call the world of today.”

It is a paradox because although the film doesn’t have any more rigour than a cartoon to make children laugh, the really interesting story (the meta-film, perhaps) is that, in a way that maybe Orson Welles would have enjoyed, it has been taken seriously by relevant sectors of the scientific, political and media community.

In the Spanish newspaper El Pais (also in its English version) there is a very good piece by Javier Salas, who usefully reminds the reader that the film is a comedy, and that in the real world, it wouldn’t be precisely lone scientists like the character interpreted by Leonardo Dicaprio to warn us about an apocalyptic event. The human species, as explained by Salas, has actually developed quite sophisticated global public goods that work very differently from what is explained in the movie. It could be added that most politicians in democratic countries and international institutions are not like the character interpreted by Merryl Streep, and even when they are (like it happened with Trump), there are still relatively well-functioning checks and balances that address the issue, and perfectly dressed scientists like Anthony Fauci who remain in their positions even after the democratic mechanisms dispose of the disfunctional president. It could also be added that there are media institutions like the CNN or the BBC (or El Pais) who do a pretty decent task of communicating the scientific truth and who are not neutral between posttruth and democracy. It could also be added (and many examples could be given of it) that there is a fluid relationship between the realms of politics and science, with many scholars (for example, in my discipline, economics) crossing the boundary between both from time to time in one form or another. Needless to say, this does not mean that we leave in a perfect world, but we are not going to find clues about how to seriously improve upon it in this absurd movie.

It is a paradox that some people who pretend to see in the movie a criticism to some negative trends in our society, have given an example of seing in it exactly what one wants to see (also called confirmation bias). Others have complained about the banalization of politics when by taking the movie seriously they have been the first to contribute to the phenomenon. I admit that it is also a paradox that I am wasting my time commenting on this.

I agree with what the young Spanish economist Monica Martínez Bravo has said in a tweet: "What we need is to figure out how to "speak to" the skeptics, those that feel "left-behind" by the political and economic system and find appealing incompentent/populist leaders. Not sure this movie will help on that..."

And to speak to the skeptics some more action will be needed out of the comfort zone, but using the real world as a starting point. To me the movie though has a couple of optimistic messages for middle aged men: Jonah Hill can lose weight and Leonardo Dicaprio can be ugly. And that’s it. Happy new year!

No comments:

Post a Comment