2012: Or, How the New Hollywood Loves Scientists, Even Though It Still Hates Plausibility

By Chris Mooney | November 12, 2009 11:51 am

2012_PosterLast night I was privileged to attend a screening of the latest catastrohpic sci-fi blockbuster, Roland Emmerich’s 2012. And let me say, if you’re like me and love action-packed Hollywood world-enders, then you don’t want to miss this one. It is even bigger and better and crazier and more decadent than Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow.

Given Unscientific America‘s argument about how Hollywood depictions have hurt the place of science in our culture, I couldn’t help analyzing this film through that lens (once I finished suspending my disbelief, anyway). And I have to say, 2012 presents the latest evidence that anti-science sentiment in Hollywood is really declining: We’re seeing a lot fewer mad scientists in major Hollywood films today, and a lot more scientist heroes.

In 2012, the hero is Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is–and this cracked me up–a “deputy geologist” at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Well, at least they got the office name right, though geologists have their own agency. Later, Helmsley becomes the top science adviser to the president. And for good reason: He is the guy who makes the US government wake up and see the catastrophe that is coming; he is the guy who runs the models to try to figure out just when it will arrive and how bad it will be–even though these models aren’t perfect and often have to be revised, always in the it’s-even-worse direction (an interesting analogy with climate change models).

Helmsley’s virtue–a uniquely scientific one–lies in the fact that he fully and honestly admits as much. In one moment that anybody who cares about science in policy will love, Helmsley explains one of these recalculations to POTUS (Danny Glover) in the Oval Office, and admits, “I was wrong.” The president replies (these are not his exact words) “That’s the first time anybody has ever said that in this office.” Yup, that’s the virtue of having scientists in government.

Now, granted, even as 2012 idolizes scientists as truth tellers and civilization-savers, the scientific plot of the movie is not only bizarre but was, to me, incomprehensible. If I had only understood it better–something about solar neutrinos transforming into some other kind of particle at the center of the Earth, thus destabilizing the crust, causing everything to move, unleashing supervolcanos and tsunamis and gigantic earthquakes that rip continents asunder–I’m sure I would consider it rankly impossible.

But hey, that’s the new pro-science Hollywood for you. Don’t expect their sci-fi plots to be firmly grounded in events that could actually happen. But lay that care aside, and watch as they turn scientists into leaders and role-models for the next generation of U.S. children. In the end, I think the latter is far more important than any mere quibble over what it takes to produce a mass entertainment spectacle.

P.S.: See also Sheril’s related post on the 2012 phenomenon, “Apocalypse When?


Comments (25)

  1. Michael

    Hollywood is moving away from the wacky ‘mad scientist’ or the ‘we must preserve this monster killing machine for study’ kind of characterization, and it’s long over due.

    Of course, I can’t leave if I don’t take my perpetual stand and say that the IPCC and other alarmist models are just plain broken. The Earth, contrary to the global warming crowd’s desire and predictions, continues to cool down significantly, not warm up.

  2. I don’t think this is pro-science. I think it may perhaps be an honest attempt to come to terms with the feeling of powerlessness of non-scientists in the face of scientists’ claims to knowledge and the disasters that happen when scientists do not have complete knowledge.

    I believe it is a moral failing of science that it is possible to say glibly that we were (I was) wrong. We thought there were no side-effects that matter, but it turns out that there are side-effects that can kill a lot of people. Sorry. Someone who doesn’t lie awake worrying about what unexpected side-effects there will be of the technological uses of whatever knowledge they discover has little moral right to be called a scientist. I still think that finding ways to describe as well as we can the ways in which some old idea is mistaken is a good, I believe in being scientifically methodical, but the idea that everyone knows that it’s all wrong, but we still carry on regardless, is only bearable for those who believe we can fix any and every problem that comes along, no matter how big the problem is. The other question, of course, is whether there is any alternative.

    A distinct difference between disaster movies and the climate debate is the lack of human agency in the disasters. Solar neutrinos causing a catastrophe is not the same as human mistakes and profligacy causing disaster. This is a whitewashing of the role of science and technology in the problems we face as a result of mass industrialization. Neutrino warming is probably not a problem, and asteroid impact is not much more than a slight possibility, so they can be addressed quite lightly, but the near-certainties of very unpleasant changes in the environment are closer to home.

    Things are not simple, of course. I take it that we would not have come to the population we now have on earth if we had not methodically studied how to produce more food and implemented the technology, infrastructure, mass distribution, and social structures that have been necessary. There is a real question whether scientists carry more than their simple responsibility as citizens for political and economic systems that routinely allow industry to take no account of long-term costs. [If I profit from a company stock by owning it for a year, should there be any time-limit on my liability for future environmental or other unexpected costs of my profit? Sorry, this is off-topic, there are very many ways in which we might fix things but that will almost certainly fail so that one can get carried away. One gets desperate at feelings of powerlessness in the face of politicians’ arrogations of power.]

    I can’t bear to see this kind of movie. My 10-year-old daughter rolls her eyes whenever we talk about environment. Perhaps once a month it comes up, because many times a day I think about what the world will be like in 30 years time, and I cannot make myself say nothing at all to her. She rolls her eyes, but it scares her.

  3. Are any of the profits from that movie going to go to the actual descendants of the Mayans? IIRC, native representatives are pretty steamed at how their cultural traditions are being misrepresented with all this 2012 nonsense.


  4. 1. Michael Says:
    November 12th, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    The Earth, contrary to the global warming crowd’s desire and predictions, continues to cool down significantly, not warm up.

    I know – you’re so right. What’s up with the Earth?

    Not only is its recent cooling trend contrary to the IPCC predictions and the desires of those socialist alarmist Islamoatheist communofascist Naziostalinist global-climate-changical-warmingists, this cooling trend is also contrary to the observed warming trend.

    You’d think the Earth would be able to stay on message, you know? Doesn’t it know it’s cooling, or did it not get that memo?

  5. CW

    The other day, the ice in my glass was melting and I told my acquaintances … “look the inside of my glass is cooling.”

  6. Perhaps the focus on whether the earth is warming or cooling is not so clear. But do we doubt that in 30 years the earth will be more polluted in the many new ways we have introduced since Silent Spring? The pollutants that caused rivers to catch fire and turn most primary colors (it had to go so far!) were cleared away at considerable cost, but now we’re facing a different crop of pollutants that require that larger costs will have to be incurred. Can our considerably increased population and resource and energy use go unnoticed by the gods of entropy on even half-a-lifetime timescales?

    It seems to me that the complexity of the costs and benefits of the new pollutants is enough to make it difficult for scientists to say exactly when it will be too late to do anything about them. There is a lot of room for scientists to make errors about what side-effects there will be. Anyone who says it’s too late already may prove to be wrong in 20 years time, because of new technologies that will ameliorate the situation. Perhaps just the right piece of legislation will result in massive changes of energy generation and use, probably to the great profit of some emerging mega-corporation to take the mantle from GM, IBM, Microsoft, and Google. On the other hand, we can say definitively that it is *not* yet too late if wildfire resource wars emerge in 20 years time and 10 million people on earth have survived in 30 years time. That’s success, right? Perhaps only one person who reads this blog will survive, but there’s still someone left, so that’s OK. If you, reading this, think you will be the one survivor, I guess you are either confident that you are more able to be a survivor than everyone else who reads this blog — more aggressive, more resourceful, or more can-do or what-it-takes — or you are confident that you will win that particular lottery. Good luck.

    It seems to me that popular distrust of science, and my own, even insofar as I am a scientist, is rooted in a reasonable assessment that the likelihood of scientists being in error is proportional to the complexity of the systems that the technology they enable attempts to manipulate. Biotechnology and nanotechnology can be declared safe enough many times, and cranks who cry their fears dismissed, but I do not believe that all possible side-effects of these technologies are understood, especially when industry gets serious about making profits from them. I would like to believe that a can-do optimism will be able to deal with whatever side-effects might emerge, on whatever scale, but the appearance is that even if scientists can find solutions, politicians and society will not be willing to spend the time, effort, and money required to fix each and every problem. If there are gradually increasing problems, with gradually increasing costs attached, it’s hard to see how it can all end other than in a hard crash eventually. One can write differential equations with half-a-dozen parameters to describe the population dynamics of the past to one’s heart’s content, but one has very little chance of predicting the behavior of complex systems accurately. The thermodynamics of population crashes is a hard mathematics. I make no predictions of when a really hard crash might happen, but in my daughter’s lifetime seems to my fearful nature a distinct possibility.

    I often wonder whether it is the more fearful who are more in denial. They believe that catastrophe is coming more than scientists who believe that they can fix things. They believe that when it goes down they had better be prepared because society doesn’t deal well with people like them. Faced with the despair of “Live now, for in 30 years your children will die”, what can we do but drive our children to see the beauty of what they will not inherit? If one believes that anything can be fixed, one wants to get on and fix it. The middle classes, including many scientists, still believe that they are not powerless in society, that society works for them, so they vote for ordered change, while the poor and powerless buy guns, stockpile, rely on their relatives and God, and jealously guard their freedoms.


  7. V.O.R.

    I agree there aren’t as many mad scientist types seen in movies these days and yes, that’s a good thing. OTOH, as a mad scientist I’m worried the pendulum will swing too far in the other direction, and the potential for self-aggrandizing evil in science will be ignored.

    Not only could that mean a significant hit to the cutting-edge R&D our military-industrial complex thrives on – that’s a lot of jobs, people! – but if some gifted young person fails to take up a career in science we could be sacrificing a much-needed breakthrough in doomsday device research.

    The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ famous Clock stands at 5 minutes to midnight, which is closer than it’s been since the end of the Cold War. But frankly I think they are optimistic. Nuclear weapons require a massive investment in time and effort, and the public is too-well aware of the danger in a full-scale exchange. In this case I think the contrarian position is correct: Investigation into so-called “one-button” doomsday solutions should again be a focus of funding.

    And this ties back into the excellent point made above with regard to the source of the wold-ending disaster in movies. I’m all for disrupting God’s plan for the natural world, whatever it may be, and thus I do see some worth in “neutrino warming” or “asteroid impact” movies. Yet we need to see more human-caused disasters. I agree with Pter Morgan: Science’s potential role in world-wide catastrophe should be celebrated, not, as he says, “white-washed.”

  8. Erasmussimo

    First off, it’s no surprise to see the AGW deniers following their standard strategy: keep repeating the lies long enough and maybe somebody will fall for them. I have repeatedly explained to the deniers here why the earth is not cooling. I have presented the explanations from a variety of different angles. They have avoided offering a scientific response to my explanations, probably because there *is no* scientific counterargument against them. Instead, they simply ignore the science I present, wait a while, and then mindlessly repeat their claims. Talk about anti-intellectualism!

    Peter Morgan, you raise some interesting points. I agree that there really is a problem with scientists not fully understanding the implications of their discoveries. I will add another factor making this problem serious: the rapidity with which a new technology is applied worldwide. Cellphone technology is only a few decades old and yet billions of people now use cellphones. Look at the dramatic and widespread changes that microcomputers have wreaked upon society in the last 3 decades. It’s not just that technological change is accelerating — it’s also that the pace of adaptation of technological change is increasing. Suppose, for example, that some scientist comes up with a genetically modified alga that transforms sunlight directly into usable liquid fuel. We’d had that technology up, running, and generating billions of kilograms of fuel within a decade. And what if we later discover that this alga also releases as part of its metabolism a highly carcinogenic hydrocarbon, at such low levels that it was never noticed during development, but after a decades’ use of huge amounts of this alga, our bodies are all saturated with this carcinogen? This kind of scenario becomes more and more likely every year. I’m very much in favor of technological progress, but I think we have to acknowledge just how dangerous it can be.

  9. Passerby

    Erasmussimo and others, you can keep on arguing that there is 100% consensus, but reality does not always agree with you. Check out this Oct 2 Science article which indicates that temperatures have been stagnating for a decade now. I am not denying global warming, but it’s unscientific to ignore studies which may challenge well-founded notions. The Science article clearly concludes (based on a a study by the well-known Hadley Center) that there was no warming for the last decade, and 17 model predictions agreed with this conclusions.

    Does that mean global warming is fake? No, since ten years is not a very long time, but it does mean that it’s disingenuous denying the lack of warming in recent years and it reflects badly on people who would simply ignore this rather simple fact. All that we need to do is accept data for what it is. This is just good science.

  10. Davo

    Wait…Danny Glover, the bald, short, plump guy from “Junior”, the evil “Penguin Man” from Batman as POTUS?? That’s a stretch even for Roland Emmerich

  11. toasterhead

    9. Passerby Says:
    November 12th, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Does that mean global warming is fake? No, since ten years is not a very long time, but it does mean that it’s disingenuous denying the lack of warming in recent years and it reflects badly on people who would simply ignore this rather simple fact. All that we need to do is accept data for what it is. This is just good science.

    It’s not disingenuous to deny the lack of warming in recent years when there hasn’t been a lack of warming in recent years. Data from both NASA and the UK’s Met Office confirm that, although the rate of climate warming slowed in the past decade compared to past decades, it did not reverse.

    I’m all for accepting data for what it is. And the data clearly shows that the past decade of “stagnating” climate change has contained some of the hottest years on record. That’s not exactly “global cooling,” is it?

  12. gillt

    Danny DeVito played the penguin. Danny Glover was Sergent Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon.

  13. Erasmussimo

    Passerby, first I have never claimed that there is a 100% consensus — I doubt that you could find a 100% consensus on anything in science. What I do claim is that the national academies of science of every developed nation in the world have published statements declaring AGW a genuine problem.

    Yes, the data clearly show stable temperatures — not a temperature decline — over the last decade. The catch is that such a trend has no climatological significance. Suppose that you and I were discussing the health of the US economy. Suppose that you observed that it appears to be pulling out of the recession. Suppose further that I denied this, citing the fact that the stock market had fallen by 1% over the last 24 hours. Even though my statement is factually correct, it’s utterly meaningless in a discussion of the health of the overall economy. That’s because the stock market wiggles up and down and changes over the course of a day or a week or even a month don’t really tell us how the economy is doing overall. In the same manner, it is factually correct to look at the data over the course of the last few years and state that it shows little change. But that statement is meaningless in discussions of the earth’s climate, because climate changes over the course of many decades or even centuries, not in years. Thus, within the context of any discussion about AGW, statements regarding temperature changes over the last ten years are meaningless.

    Moreover, there’s another consideration: if you want to be scientific about this, you take into consideration ALL the data, not just a cherry-picked subset. An earlier post in this blog referred to an AP story a few weeks back in which some statisticians were given the temperature data for the last 100 years and asked to detect any statistically significant trends in the last ten years. Every one of them concluded that there is no statistically significant trend in the data for the last ten years.

    I repeat: within the context of any discussion of AGW, reference to temporally localized temperatures are meaningless. Such references are as meaningless as pointing out that, say, temperatures in Timbuktu have increased over the last ten years. There are always fluctuations in the data. The question is always “At what point are these fluctuations meaningful to climatological considerations?”

  14. Passerby

    Erasmussimo, then my question; how long do you have to wait before calling something significant (similar to what you asked)?
    And a more important question is, were the models successful in predicting (not explaining) the last ten years’ temperature stagnation?

  15. Passerby

    Toasterhead, when did I claim it cooled? All I am saying is to call a spade a spade and accept the stagnation (not cooling).

  16. Sorbet

    -It’s not disingenuous to deny the lack of warming in recent years when there hasn’t been a lack of warming in recent years.

    A language correction. “Warming” by definition implies a change in temperature, so stagnation cannot be defined as warming.

  17. Erasmussimo

    Passerby, the calculation of the “minimum significant time” for climate change is based on the total heat capacity of the oceans compared to the earth’s radiative loss rate. I’ve done the calculation several times in my comments on this blog, but I can never remember off the top of my head the intermediate numbers. Basically, if the sun suddenly increased its power output by, say, 10%, the earth overall would not immediately increase its average temperature by 10%. (Actually, even when it reaches equilibrium, it will be only 2.5% hotter, but that’s another consideration.) The earth’s temperature would rise slowly because the oceans would absorb the heat. It takes a LOT of heat to boil a pan of water, and it takes even more heat to raise the temperature of the oceans. These calculations do not yield a hard and fast number for the response time, because the response is asymptotic. However, when you consider the equation and the coefficients, you end up with the conclusion that we’re talking about centuries for a change of any magnitude to fully express itself. If you want to push it, you should be able to see a change of this magnitude to start to express itself in 30 years — but’s that’s a minimum. Certainly 10 years is way too short to produce any measurable effect of true climate change. To put it baldly, anything less than 30 years is weather, and anything more than 30 years is climate.

    This consideration also applies to climate models. A climate model really doesn’t concern changes over a time frame of less than 30 years. Asking a climate model to predict changes over the course of ten years is really no different from asking it to predict the temperature at the corner of 5th and Oak in Peoria on July 18th, 2034, at 10:33 AM.

  18. Tuatara

    Plausibility is boring. Show me the dragons!

  19. Passerby

    Agreed. All we are asking for here is to call a spade a spade and stagnation stagnation. I agree we don’t want the usual right wing loons to misinterpet us, but as I scientist I believe in making all data known with the usual qualifications (as noted in the Science article) and not just that which is favorable to our preferred outcome. Otherwise we would not be any different from the odious global warming deniers who cherry pick with abandon.

  20. Passerby

    Erasmussimo, could you point out where you did the calculations? Water certainly has one of the highest heat capacities of any solvent, partly due to its extensive hydrogen bonding network which can rearrange.

  21. toasterhead

    19. Passerby Says:
    November 13th, 2009 at 12:50 pm
    Agreed. All we are asking for here is to call a spade a spade and stagnation stagnation. I agree we don’t want the usual right wing loons to misinterpet us, but as I scientist I believe in making all data known with the usual qualifications (as noted in the Science article) and not just that which is favorable to our preferred outcome.


    Fair enough, but the facts I’ve seen don’t indicate stagnation. A slowdown, yes, but a warming trend of .07 degree Celsius is still a warming trend. There is a widespread meme in both mainstream and denier-media, prompted no doubt by a couple of brutal winters in several parts of the United States, that climate change has stopped or reversed or that the planet is cooling, and this is simply not true.

    I’m also all for making all data known, but it’s useless unless it’s put into context.

  22. Erasmussimo

    It would be easier for me to re-do the calculation here, but this time I’ll do it a little differently. Let’s start with the heat capacity of water: 4.19 J/gm-ºK. Next comes the mass of water in oceans: 1.35 x 10**24 gm. Hence, the gross heat capacity of the oceans is 5.66 x 10**24 J/ºK.

    Now let’s consider the total power input of the sun: about 1000 W/m**2 at the surface, for a total of about 1.3 x 10**17 W. Divide that into the gross heat capacity of the oceans and you get about 4.5 x 10**7 seconds — a bit more than one year. In other words, if there were no feedback mechanisms and the sun simply blinked out, the initial cooling of the earth would be only about 1ºK per year. However, we’re not talking about anything as dramatic as that. A 1% change in total incoming radiation would take about 100 years to show a change of 1ºK. The primary forcing factors for AGW are CO2 and methane, which yield effects of only about 2 or 3 W/m**2. However, the feedback effects increase the overall forcing to perhaps 5 W/m**2, which should take about 200 years to show an increase in temperature of 1ºK. However, all this assumes rapid and complete mixing in the oceans, which is not likely. Indeed, the mixing of heat in the oceans is probably the main factor behind short-term variations in surface temperatures. It could well be that the pause we have seen in the last ten years is due to a change in ocean circulations that has dramatically increased mixing rates.

    As you can see, this quickly gets very complicated. However, the key point is simple: the oceans act as a gigantic heat reservoir, and so they act to slow down the earth’s response to temperature changes. For changes of the magnitude we’re looking at, we’re talking roughly centuries in order to get a significant change in temperature. You can push it down to maybe 30 years if you want to talk about the smallest changes that we could measure with some reliability. Below that 30 year mark, the fluctuations we see cannot reflect any real change in the earth’s overall temperature.

  23. Passerby

    Toasterhead, do you know what the error limits on these numbers are? I am just curious. Is 0.07 C within error?


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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