Communication Currents

Decades Away or The Day After Tomorrow?

February 1, 2012
Environmental Communication

For scientists interested in communicating scientific information to non-scientific audiences, popular films invite a dilemma. On one hand, popular films can heighten public awareness of significant scientific or technical issues. On the other hand, many popular films often play “fast and loose” with scientific knowledge in order to create eye-popping special effects and an engaging plot. This dilemma highlights a fundamental question for science communication efforts: how can scientists marshal the increased public attention that accompanies a popular film to help communicate important scientific matters to non-scientists without undermining their scientific credibility? 

The 2004 summer blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow, highlights such a communicative quandary. This is best illustrated by Gretchen Cook-Anderson of NASA, who notes, “whether its premise is valid or not, or possible or not, the very fact it’s about climate change could help to spur debate and dialogue.” 

Despite a broad scientific consensus that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, will result in harmful global warming, scientists struggle to communicate the importance of promptly curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The slow pace of global warming increases this communicative difficulty. The policies necessary to effectively curb global warming could have immediate, and more readily apparent, economic consequences. As science writer Bill McKibben suggests, “[i]t’s always been hard to get people to take global warming serious because it happens too slowly.” Hence, the challenge for scientists is to effectively demonstrate the urgent need for action. 

Although The Day After Tomorrow illustrates some scientifically supported effects of global warming, such as melting polar ice caps and increasingly erratic weather patterns, the film’s central depiction of climate change resides in a flash-freezing super-hurricane that turns North America into a giant glacier. While the menacing super-hurricane provides the requisite dramatic effect, such a meteorological phenomenon defies any scientific reality.

In response to The Day After Tomorrow, many scientific organizations developed websites to educate audiences as to the realities of global warming, differentiating between the film’s factual, scientific basis and its “Hollywoodized” depictions of climate change. Each website takes seriously potential questions audiences may have about the scientific plausibility of events depicted in the film. In addition to these efforts, more political organizations, such as, capitalized on the attention generated by The Day After Tomorrow to indict President George W. Bush’s environmental record. However, these uses of the film to publicize the dangers of climate change provide global warming skeptics—individuals who question the scientific validity of anthropogenic climate change or its harmful consequences—with numerous opportunities to characterize climate change science as either problematic or driven by political agendas.   

Even though questions of the reality and causes of global warming are largely settled within the scientific community, the desire for balance in news media coverage provides global warming skeptics with a relatively disproportionate share of attention in public discussions of climate change. As a result, global warming skeptics receive a great deal of public traction when they suggest that climate change science possesses too many uncertainties to justify policies that may lead to economic hardship. Global warming skeptics argue that scientists often gloss over these scientific uncertainties by exaggerating the consequences of climate change. By publicly appealing to accepted scientific values as disinterestedness and skepticism, global warming skeptics propose that any public endorsement of The Day After Tomorrow by scientists illustrates a preference for hyperbole over sober, scientific rigor. As a result, skeptics suggest such overstatements reveal a lack of scientific credibility. In other words, the film’s more dramatic portrayals of climate change amplify the skeptical claim that global warming arguments rely on alarmist and fatalistic discourses to hide failings in climate science.         

However, scientists navigate this communicative dilemma by framing The Day After Tomorrow as ‘not untrue.’ This construction is reflective of the Ancient Greek rhetorical concept of litotes. This rhetorical gesture provides scientists with the flexibility to embrace the film by taking issue with specific depictions of climate change without indicting the underlying premise. By adopting a posture that suggests the film is ‘not untrue,’ scientists attempt to capitalize on the heightened public awareness provided by the film while educating audiences about the scientific realities of climate change. Describing the film as ‘not untrue’ enables scientists to maintain their public credibility by understating the film’s scientifically invalid depictions of global warming. 

Because skeptics argue that more research on global warming is necessary to decrease perceived uncertainties before undertaking costly policy measures, any ambiguity from scientists that illustrates some level of scientific uncertainty becomes evidence for further study and delay in policy action. This use of litotes, however, enables scientists to displace questions of uncertainty onto the conventions of a Hollywood film by suggesting the dramatics should not mask the larger truth that global warming is a real danger. Thelitotes figuration provides scientists a critical distance that recasts criticisms of the film back onto the skeptics by exposing the attacks against the film, and by extension global warming science, as having a broader, non-scientific agenda.

About the author (s)

Ron Von Burg

Christopher Newport University

Associate Professor