Back to Prindle Institute

‘Don’t Look Up’ and “Trust the Science”

photograph of "Evidence over Ignorance" protest sign

A fairly typical review of “Don’t Look Up” reads as follows: “The true power of this film, though, is in its ferocious, unrelenting lampooning of science deniers.” I disagree. This film exposes the unfortunate limits of the oft-repeated imperative of the coronavirus and climate-change era: “Trust the Science.” McKay and Co. probe a kind of epistemic dysfunction, one that underlies many of our most fiercest moral and political disagreements. Contrary to how it’s been received, the film speaks to the lack of a generally agreed-upon method for arriving at our beliefs about how the world is and who we should trust.

As the film opens, we are treated to a warm introduction to our two astronomers and shown a montage of the scientific and mathematical processes they use to arrive at their horrific conclusion that a deadly comet will collide with Earth in six months. Surely, you might be thinking, this film tells us exactly whom to believe and trust from the outset! It tells us to “Trust the Scientists,” to “Trust the Science!”

Here’s a preliminary problem with trying to follow that advice. It’s not like we’re all doing scientific experiments ourselves whenever we accept scientific facts. Practically, we have to rely on the testimony of others to tell us what the science says — so who do we believe? Which scientists and which science?

In the film, this decision is straightforward for us. In fact, we’re not given much of a choice. But in real life, things are harder. Brilliantly, the complexity of real-life is (perhaps unintentionally) reflected in the film itself.

Imagine you’re a sensible person, a Science-Truster. You go to the CDC to get your coronavirus data, to the IPCC to get your climate change facts. If you’re worried about a comet smashing into Earth, you might think to yourself something like, “I’m going to go straight to the organization whose job it is to look at the scientific evidence, study it, and come to conclusions; I’ll trust what NASA says. The head of NASA certainly sounds like a reliable, expert source in such a scenario.” What does the head of NASA tell the public in “Don’t Look Up”? She reports that the comet is nothing to worry about.

Admittedly, McKay provides us a clear reason for the audience to ignore the head of NASA’s scientific misleading testimony about the comet. She is revealed to be a political hire and an anesthesiologist rather than an astronomer. “Trust the Science” has a friend, “Trust the Experts,” and the head of NASA doesn’t qualify as an expert on this topic. So far, so good, for the interpretation of the film as endorsing “Trust the Science” as an epistemic doctrine. It’s clear why so many critics misinterpret the film this way.

But, while it’s easy enough to miss amid the increasingly frantic plot, the plausibility of Trust the Science falls apart as the film progresses. Several Nobel-prize winning, Ivy-league scientists throw their support behind the (doomsday-causing) plan of a tech-billionaire to bring the wealth of the comet safely to Earth in manageable chunks. They assure the public that the plan is safe. Even one of our two scientific heroes repeats the false but reassuring line on a talk show, to the hosts’ delight.

Instead of being a member of the audience with privileged information about whom you should trust, imagine being an average Joe in the film’s world at this point. All you could possibly know is that some well-respected scientists claim we need to destroy or divert the comet at all costs. Meanwhile, other scientists, equally if not more well-respected, claim we can safely bring the mineral-rich comet to Earth in small chunks. What does “Trust the Science” advise “Don’t Look Up” average Joe? Nothing. The advice simply can’t be followed. It offers no guidance on what to believe or whom to listen to.

How could you decide what to believe in such a scenario? Assuming you, like most of us, lack the expertise to adjudicate the topic on the scientific merits, you might start investigating the incentives of the scientists on both sides of the debate. You might study who is getting paid by whom, who stands to gain from saying what. And this might even lead you to the truth — that the pro-comet-impact scientists are bought and paid for by the tech-billionaire and are incentivized to ignore, or at least minimize, the risk of mission failure. But this approach to belief-formation certainly doesn’t sound like Trusting the Science anymore. It sounds closer to conspiracy theorizing.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, in a particularly fascinating scene, rioters confront one of our two astronomers with the conspiracy theory that the elites have built bunkers because the they don’t really believe the comet is going to be survivable (at least, not without a bunker). Our astronomer dismissively tells the mob this theory is false, that the elites are “not that competent.” This retort nicely captures the standard rationalistic, scientific response to conspiracy theories; everything can be explained by incompetence, so there’s no need to invoke conspiracy. But, as another reviewer has noticed, later on in the film “we learn that Tech CEO literally built a 2,000 person starship in less than six months so he and the other elites could escape.” It turns out the conspiracy theory was actually more or less correct, if not in the exact details. This rationalistic, scientific debunking and dismissal of conspiracy is actually proven entirely wrong. We would have done better trusting the conspiracy theorist than trusting the scientist.

Ultimately, the demand that we “Trust the Science” turns out to be both un-followable (as soon as scientific consensus breaks down, since we don’t know which science or scientists to listen to), and unreliable (as shown when the conspiracy theorist turns out to be correct). The message this film actually delivers about “Trust the Science” is this: it’s not good enough!

The Moral and Political Importance of “Trust the Science”

Let’s now look at why any of this matters, morally speaking.

Cultures have epistemologies. They have established ways for their members to form beliefs that are widely accepted as the right ways within those cultures. That might mean that people generally accept, for example, a holy text as the ultimate source of authority about what to believe. But in our own society, currently, we lack this. We don’t have a dominant, shared authority or a commonly accepted way to get the right beliefs. We don’t have a universally respected holy book to appeal to, not even a Walter Cronkite telling us “That’s the way it is.” We can’t seem to agree on what to believe or whom to listen to, or even what kinds of claims have weight. Enter “Trust the Science”: a candidate heuristic that just might be acceptable to members of a technologically developed, scientifically advanced, and (largely) secularized society like ours. If our society could collectively agree that, in cases of controversy, everyone should Trust the Science, we might expect the emergence of more of a consensus on the basic facts. And that consensus, in turn, may resolve many of our moral and political disagreements.

This final hope isn’t a crazy one. Many of our moral and political disagreements are based on disagreements about beliefs about the basic facts. Why do Democrats tend to agree with mandatory masks, vaccines, and other coronavirus-related restrictions, while Republicans tend to disagree with them? Much of it is probably explained by the fact that, as a survey of 35,000 Americans found, “Republicans consistently underestimate risks [of coronavirus], while Democrats consistently overestimate them.” In other words, the fact that both sides have false beliefs partly explains their moral and political disagreements. Clearly, none of us are doing well at figuring out whom we can trust to give truthful, undistorted information on our own. But perhaps, if we all just followed the  “Trust the Science” heuristic, then we would reach enough agreement about the basic facts to make some progress on these moral and political questions.

Perhaps unintentionally, “Don’t Look Up” presents a powerful case against this hopeful, utopian answer to the deep divisions in our society. Trusting the Science can’t play the unifying role we might want it to; it can’t form the basis of a new, generally agreed upon secular epistemic heuristic for our society. “Don’t Look Up” is not the simple “pro-science,” “anti-science-denier” film many have taken it to be. It’s far more complicated, ambivalent, and interesting.

‘Don’t Look Up’: Willful Ignorance of a Democracy in Crisis

image of meteor headed toward city skyline

Don’t Look Up spends over two hours making the same mistake. In its efforts to champion its cause, the film only alienates those who most need to be moved by its message.”

Holly Thomas, CNN

“it’s hard to escape the feeling of the film jabbing its pointer finger into your eye, yelling, Why aren’t you paying attention! … The thing is, if you’re watching Don’t Look Up, you probably are paying attention, not just to the news about the climate and the pandemic but to a half-dozen other things that feel like reasonable causes for panic. … So when the credits rolled — after an ending that was, admittedly, quite moving — I just sat there thinking, Who, exactly, is this for?”

Alissa Wilkinson, Vox

“[The film’]s worst parts are when it stops to show people on their phones. They tweet inanity, they participate in dumb viral challenges, they tune into propaganda and formulate conspiracy theory. At no point does Don’t Look Up’s script demonstrate an interest in why these people do these things, or what causes these online phenomena. Despite this being a central aspect of his story, McKay doesn’t seem to think it worthy of consideration. There’s a word for that: contempt.”

Joshua Rivera, Polygon

And so on, and so on. Critics of Adam McKay’s climate change satire all point to the same basic defect: “Don’t Look Up” is nothing more than an inside joke; it isn’t growing the congregation, it’s merely preaching to the choir. Worse, the movie flaunts its moral superiority over the deplorables and unwashed masses instead of shaking hands, kissing babies, and doing all the other politicking necessary for changing hearts and minds. When given the opportunity to speak to, it speaks down. In the end, this collection of Hollywood holier-than-thou A-listers sneers at their audience and is left performing only for themselves.

But what if the critics have it all wrong? What if the movie’s makers have no intention of wrestling the various political obstacles to democratic consensus? Indeed, they seem to have absolutely zero interest in playing the political game at all. Critics of “Don’t Look Up” see only a failed attempt at coalition-building, but what if the film’s doing precisely what it set out to do – showing us that there are some existential threats so great that they transcend democratic politics?

“Don’t Look Up” takes a hard look at the prospects of meaningful collective action (from COVID to the climate and beyond) with democratic institutions so corrupted by elite capture. (Spoiler: They’re grim.) Gone is any illusion that the government fears its people. In this not-so-unfamiliar political reality, to echo Joseph Schumpeter, democracy has become nothing more than an empty institutional arrangement whereby elites acquire the power to decide by way of a hollow competition for the people’s vote. This political landscape cannot support anything as grand as Rousseau’s general will – a collection of citizens’ beliefs, convictions, and commitments all articulating a shared vision of the common good. Instead, political will is manufactured and disseminated from the top down, rather than being organically generated from the ground up.

The pressing question “Don’t Look Up” poses (but does not address) is what to do when democracy becomes part of the problem. If our democratic processes can’t be fixed, can they at least be laid aside? With consequences as grave as these, surely truth shouldn’t be left to a vote. When it comes to the fate of the planet, surely we shouldn’t be content to go on making sausage.

Misgivings about the democracy are hardly new. Plato advised lying to the rabble so as to ensure they fall in line. Mill proposed assigning more weight to certain people’s votes. And Rousseau concluded that democracy was only rightly suited for a society composed entirely of gods.

Like these critical voices, Carl Schmitt similarly challenged our blind faith in democratic processes. He remained adamant that the indecisiveness that plagued republics would be their downfall. Schmitt insisted on the fundamental necessity of a sovereign to address emergency situations (like, say, the inevitable impact of a planet-killing comet). There has to be someone, Schmitt claimed, capable of suspending everyday political norms in order to normalize a state of exception – to declare martial law, mobilize the state’s resources, and organize the public. Democracies which failed to grasp this basic truth would not last. The inability to move beyond unceasing deliberation, infinite bureaucratic red tape, and unending political gridlock, Schmitt was convinced, would spell their doom. In the end, all governments must sometimes rely on dictatorial rule just like ancient Rome where time-limited powers were extended to an absolute authority tasked with saving the republic from an immediate existential threat.

This is the savior that never appears. The tragedy of the movie is that our protagonists know the truth, but cannot share it. There remain no suitable democratic channels to deliver their apocalyptic message and spur political action. They must sit with their despair, alone. Like Dewey, Kate Dibiasky and Dr. Mindy come to recognize that while today we possess means of communication like never before – the internet, the iPhone, Twitter, The Daily Rip – (so far) these forces have only further fractured the public rather than being harnessed to bring it together.

By the end, when the credits roll, the film leaves us in an uncomfortable place. In documenting the hopelessness of our heroes’ plight, is “Don’t Look Up” merely highlighting the various ways our democracy needs to be repaired? Or is it making the case that the rot runs so deep, democratic norms must be abandoned?

Whatever the answer, it’s a mistake to think “Don’t Look Up” fails to take the problem of political consensus seriously. It simply treats such division as immovable – as inescapable as the comet. The question is: what then?