Collision Course: Don’t Look Up and the Politicization of Science in America

By David F. Eisler

On last Christmas Eve, Netflix released the star-studded satirical disaster movie Don’t Look Up about two American astrophysicists named Dr. Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) who face ignorance, apathy, and political hostility as they attempt to persuade the government to act after they discover a planet-killing comet on a collision course for Earth. Perhaps capitalizing on the current cultural moment where a Twitter account like the “Sweet Meteor o’Death” has more than 130,000 followers and the apocalypse itself has become a major subject of academic research, Don’t Look Up annihilated its competition to become the top streamed movie on any platform, racking up more than one hundred million viewership hours in only three days.

The film’s message isn’t exactly subtle: listen to the scientists, or we’re all going to die. That the comet is a metaphor for climate change isn’t just a narrative interpretation, it’s one of director Adam McKay’s primary intentions. The film lampoons everything about the American response to the comet (with only a handful of nods to the rest of the world): cynical politicians and greedy tech tycoons, pop stars hoping to “raise awareness” through sold-out concerts, and TV morning show hosts who mask the reality of their impending doom with plastic smiles and celebrity gossip. Not to mention the average American citizens whose “belief” in the reality of the comet is inexorably tied with their political allegiance until the moment the hurtling mass of ice and rock begins to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Satire? Yes. But the movie is also a perfect example of how representations of scientists in literature, television, and film have come to reflect — and possibly even contribute to — the politicization of science in American society.

Don’t Look Up comes at a tense time in American cultural history, a time when Americans’ trust in science has become more entangled with political identity than at any point since researchers began collecting survey data in 1974 (Gauchat 2012). The sources of this politicization have become a hot topic in recent academic debates, particularly in the fields of sociology and political science, and the consequences can be disastrous: outbreaks of long-defeated diseases due to anti-vaccination movements, preventable deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic because mask-wearing became a political statement, and the alarming specter of global climate change, to name a few. Addressing these challenges demands a degree of trust in the scientific process, but that trust has been undermined by the transformation of science into a political issue whose insights and results are questioned based on partisan ideology.


The inaugural “March for Science” in Washington, DC, April 2017, wich started a worldwide series of protest rallies celebrating science, its achievements, and value for the common good.

While trust in science and scientists remains high on the aggregate level relative to other institutions in the United States, a partisan split has taken root since the mid-1970s, with conservative Republicans expressing a growing skepticism compared with those who identify as liberal or moderate (Gauchat 2012; Krause et al 2019; Rekker 2021). The rejoinder that Republicans are anti-science was already gathering momentum during the George W. Bush presidency (Mooney 2005), and while the magnitude of the gap in trust between affiliates of each political party may not seem large on paper, the current political climate has introduced a volatility that leads to vocal and often hostile disagreements over important scientific issues such as vaccinations, genetically modified foods, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), climate change, and measures against the spread of COVID-19. Although data from the 2016 General Social Survey showed only a five percent difference between those who identify as Democrats (41 percent) and Republicans (36 percent) when it comes to having a “great deal of confidence in the scientific community,” that gap jumped to 11 percent in the two years that followed as Democrats’ trust increased while Republicans’ trust stagnated (American Academy of Arts and Sciences 2018; Krause et al 2019).

This is where Don’t Look Up finds its sweet spot. Satire only works as a form of artistic expression if there is an underlying truth to its premises, a reflection of some recognizable reality. Don’t Look Up thus taps into the paradox of contemporary American attitudes toward science: cautious deference to scientific authority mixed with hostile skepticism when scientific facts conflict with individual and political worldviews. The inability of the scientists to influence those with power (whether political, cultural, or even monetary) to support an operation to deflect the comet should be a hyperbolic exaggeration, since we would like to imagine that the inevitable destruction of all life on Earth is something most of us would prefer to avoid. Yet it is hard to shake the feeling that what should be satire is merely a reflection of the politicization of science, especially recalling the climate change metaphor.

As a disaster movie featuring scientists who warn against the dire consequences of some impending catastrophe, Don’t Look Up has plenty of cinematic company: Jurassic Park (1993), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Contagion (2011), and many others. In fact, imaginative representations of scientists have a long cultural history; “From Faust to Strangelove” as Roslynn Haynes put it in her pioneering book on the subject in which she argued that fictional portrayals of scientists have been almost universally negative since the medieval period, preying on innate human fears of the unknown (Haynes 1994). As she explains elsewhere, “the fictional stereotypes thus generated and reinforced through the centuries of the scientist as mad, bad, obsessive, impersonal or foolish, were to remain current, almost universal, until the end of the twentieth century in both fiction and film in a way that is true of no other genre” (Haynes 2016, 128). It wasn’t until the 1990s, Haynes says, that “science began to achieve a more humane and realistic image. Scientists were depicted as eliminating deadly viruses, fighting to save endangered species, the environment and the planet, and communicating the urgency of dealing with climate change” (Ibid).

Taking a deeper look at how representations of scientists in film, television, and literature have changed over time provides an opportunity to address a broader question about how cultural productions create a space of reflection for American attitudes toward science. In Don’t Look Up, the scientists are depicted as the most reasonable and rational people in the room, yet they are also flawed and, at least in Dr. Mindy’s case, morally corruptible. How does that fit in with the overall trends since the early 1990s, or even earlier? What are we to make of these characterizations, and how do they correlate with the changes in Americans’ trust in science?

These questions are only one half of the dynamic relationship between cultural productions and the society that produces them, though. Do imaginative works of literature, film, or television also influence the way people perceive the kinds of characters depicted in them? When it comes to the representation of scientists, if the average person who watches The Big Bang Theory or streams the latest Marvel movie is routinely presented with images of scientists as obsessive, anti-social, ethically dubious, ineffectual, or downright evil over and over again, do their views on real scientists change as a result?

There is some evidence to suggest that they do. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson has conducted several empirical studies on how reading climate fiction can shape a person’s attitude toward the climate crisis. A similar study took a direct approach for citizens in the United Kingdom, showing that individuals who watched The Day After Tomorrow had increased concerns about climate change, though these viewers “experienced difficulty in distinguishing science fact from dramatized science fiction” (Lowe et al 2006). Other scholars have argued that fictional texts about climate change also contribute to the discourse of global climate change risk (Mayer 2016), or that biopic films of real scientists represent a rich source for understanding public attitudes toward science (Elena 1993). Some of the more successful works that, on the surface, depict scientists in a more positive light have nonetheless played on society’s fears of science gone rogue — from an uncompromising geneticist who brings dinosaurs back to life in Jurassic Park (1993), a nuclear physicist who becomes a supervillain after pushing a fusion reactor one step too far in Spiderman 2 (2004), to basically anything adapted from a Michael Crichton novel. Often, positive representations of scientists go hand in hand with the adventurer trope — think archaeologist Indiana Jones (he is Doctor Jones, after all). Gender stereotypes take this even further. While Natalie Portman plays an astrophysicist in Marvel’s Thor films who is reduced to a love interest and conduit for others’ heroism, Dennis Quaid’s character in The Day After Tomorrow can’t just be a paleoclimatologist; he must also trek through miles of dangerous snow-covered terrain in blizzard conditions to rescue his stranded son in a show of performative masculinity. Taken together, these studies and observations suggest that there may be a deeper connection between Americans’ complex trust relationship with science and the imaginative portrayal of scientists within science-driven storylines, most of which, it should be noted, end in disaster.

Analyzing the ways in which cultural productions have contributed to the politicization of science in American society is a tricky task. One way to tackle the question is to go beyond the content of these films, series, and books and look at how they are received and discussed in articles, reviews, and other critical responses. In these cases, what’s important is not only what the reviews are saying — that is, how critics for different media outlets are interpreting the texts — but also who they are saying it to. This is because media outlets have also become caught in the whirlwind of political polarization. “When it comes to getting news about politics and government,” a team of researchers for the Pew Research Organization wrote in a landmark 2014 report, “liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds.” Based on their survey data, the researchers were able to place media outlets on a scale that reflected the average political orientation of their audience, from Slate and The New Yorker on the left to Breitbart and Sean Hannity on the right.1 Although the survey was focused on the consumption of news and current events, it seems reasonable to extend the conclusions to include discussions of cultural productions as well.

For Don’t Look Up, the film’s rather mixed critical response fell into what has now become a predictable pattern of politicized rhetoric, with the debate centering around whether the film’s heavy-handed treatment of the comet’s threat to the planet as a climate change allegory diminished its effectiveness as a movie. Many of the film’s reviewers faulted director Adam McKay for getting too preachy with the disaster narrative, resenting the implication that most people are oblivious to the looming catastrophe because they are stuck in the daily chaos of their individual lives, whether binge-watching yet another season of their favorite series or doomscrolling on social media. Richard Brody, writing for The New Yorker, called the film “an on-target political cartoon expanded to the scale of a grandiose mural, with all the pomposity and monotony that such an inflation suggests,” while also complaining that, perhaps to avoid alienating half of its potential audience, the movie takes a “cynically apolitical view of politics [that] contributes to the frivolous and self-regarding media environment that it decries.”

Brody hasn’t been the only critic to find flaws with the film, though he notes that this view pits him against the climate scientists who saw Don’t Look Up as “an accurate representation of the obstacles they face in attempting to persuade politicians, the public, and even journalists of the urgency of the crisis.” This trend was also noticed by the New York Times in an article that summarized a significant portion of the conversation as “sniping between reviewers who didn’t like the film and scientists who did.” Brody took some exception to this discussion, commenting that “if the scientists don’t want film critics to quibble with the science, the scientists should stop meddling with the art.”

The likely readers of these New York Times and New Yorker reviews, at least according to the Pew Research report mentioned earlier, would tend to skew more progressive in their political views. What about conservative audiences? John Nolte, a film critic for the conservative Breitbart, wrote about Don’t Look Up based only on the movie’s pre-release buzz, priming his audience to ignore it as nothing more than liberal propaganda. He begins his article by saying that “We all know that somewhere around 95 percent of movie critics are far-left extremists and careerists” before calling Don’t Look Up the “Holy Grail of left-wing movies…pushing the debunked Global Warming Hoax, the very hoax left-wing fascists have devoted most of their corruption and hope into as a means to bring about their Fourth Reich Utopia.” When he finally does watch the movie, Nolte changes his tune completely. He says that the film “will accidentally please establishment-hating Trump fans,” calling it a “brutal attack on the media, D.C., Big Tech, the FBI, and the ethically-compromised scientific community.” Nolte contends that “The movie’s really about how our American establishment lies and lies and lies… How the media use shiny objects to distract us… How the scientific community sells us out for empty media fame and corporate grants… How the FBI is politically compromised… How Big Tech is run by nerd-sociopaths with too much power…” (emphasis and ellipses in original). Summarizing his take on the film, Nolte aims for the scientific jugular: “You can see this $75 million Netflix offering as a metaphor for a corrupt scientific community that tells us it’s unsafe to attend church but perfectly safe to join left-wing protests and flood the country with unvaccinated illegal aliens.”

What’s crucial here is not just that this conservative critic’s interpretation of the movie differs quite dramatically from, well, everyone else’s. The point is that his audience gets that message. He reframes the film within the context of his readers’ presumed political views, even pandering to their anti-elitism by commenting that “Every intelligent person knows the establishment is using Global Warming (which is a hoax) as a shiny object to scare us into giving them more power over our lives. Don’t Look Up could just as easily be called Don’t Look at Science’s Dismal Environmental Track Record.”

The political views of the average Breitbart reader likely have little overlap with the average New York Times reader. That these readers are getting different, even contradictory messages about the same film suggests that the film’s meaning is shaped not only by its own narrative content but also by how that content is interpreted and repackaged within the field of reception. Audiences come to these articles and reviews with inherent political dispositions and are then presented with interpretations that may only reinforce their polarized worldviews.

Don’t Look Up is a special case in that the film itself deals with the politicization of science (a point that both progressive and conservative critics agree on, even if they disagree about what that actually means). But we could extend this approach to a much wider range of narrative representations of science and scientists, investigating the ways in which characterizations of scientists in literature, television, and film reflect the complex and ambiguous role of science in the American cultural imaginary as well as how these representations themselves have contributed to the politicization of science in American society. Such a project could be an important start toward a better understanding of the reciprocal relationship between cultural productions and society. At least until that Sweet Meteor O’Death makes another pass through the solar system.


Footnotes

1. The specific ideological values for each media organization may be outdated since they are based on surveys conducted in 2014. Nonetheless, the general conclusions likely remain valid.


References

American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2018. Perceptions of Science in America. Cambridge, MA:  American Academy of Arts of Sciences.

Elena, Alberto. 1993. “Exemplary Lives: Biographies of Scientists on the Screen.” Public Understanding of Science, Vol. 2, No. 3, 205-223.

Gauchat, Gordon. 2012. “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.” American Sociological Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, 167-187.

Haynes, Roslynn D. 1994. From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Haynes, Roslynn D. 2016. “Bringing Science into Fiction.” Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Vol. 64, No. 2, 127-148.

Krause, Nicole M., Dominique Brossard, Dietram Scheufele, Michael Xenos, and Keith Franke. 2019. “Americans’ Trust in Science and Scientists.” Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 4, 817-836.

Lowe, Thomas, Katrina Brown, Suraje Dessai, Miguel de França Doria, Kat Haynes and Katharine Vincent. 2006. “Does tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change.” Public Understanding of Science, Vol. 15, No. 4, 435-457.

Mayer, Sylvia. 2016. “Science in the World Risk Society: Risk, the Novel, and Global Climate Change.” Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Vol. 64, No. 2, 207-221.

Mooney, Chris. 2005. The Republican War on Science. New York: Basic Books.

Pew Research Center. 2014. “Political Polarization and Media Habits.” October 21, 2014.

Rekker, Roderik. 2021. “The Nature and Origins of Political Polarization of Science.” Public Understanding of Science, Vol. 30, No. 4, 352-368.

Images

Header: “Comet Crash,” illustration by Ben Crowder. 2009. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

“March for Science,” photo by Becker1999. 2017. Licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

About the Author

David F. Eisler is a postdoctoral researcher in the fields of literary and cultural studies. His first book, Unburdened: Civil-Military Relations and American War Fiction, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press. Previously, David was a member of the Graduiertenkolleg “Authority and Trust” at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, where he completed his PhD. David also serves as an Associate Editor with Amerikastudien/American Studies, the official journal of the German Association for American Studies. Like the Sweet Meteor O’Death, you can also find him on Twitter @David_Eisler.


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