The Day After Tomorrow: It's Just a Movie!

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Once again it seems Hollywood "scientists" and so-called environmentalists (tied closely to advocacy groups) are trying to sell a bill of goods to a gullible public, in the guise of science fiction. Hollywood, of course, uses fiction to get huge audiences and big-buck bottom lines. The motives of the activists are far more devious. We all enjoy science fiction movies (except, I suppose, for certain scaredy-cats like my wife who hide under their seats when monsters threaten). But when movies conflate scientific truth with propaganda and advocacy, to the detriment of the unsophisticated public (and the too-often gullible and fearful regulators), poetic license ought to be revoked.

Previous Films in This Series

Perhaps the most blatant such example is Erin Brockovich, wherein the protagonist single-handedly saved the desperately ill citizens of Hinckley, CA, from the evil-doers at Pacific Gas & Electric, who "poisoned" their water with chromium-6. Boy, what a stand-up-and-cheer moment, when she forced the evil power company to pay up and help cure those sickened by pollution! Of course, there wasn't a shred of medical truth to the tale, but that didn't stop the media from plugging in to the excitement, promoting the agenda of the plaintiff's attorney (and his faithful companion, Erin) and extorting a huge sum from PG&E. This is a favorite tactic of this type of litigation: allege a multitude of health effects from a minuscule concentration of some chemical, wield the threat of a large class-action suit, and hope the corporation settles for a windfall amount the lion's share of which is "absorbed" by the law firm, of course, while the allegedly sick plaintiffs often wind up with pennies apiece (not that their exaggerated and often imaginary ailments required any compensation in the first place).

Both that movie and an earlier one, A Civil Action, were at least based on factual litigation, and thus are not in the category of "science fiction" (just junk science -- for more on the problem, see ACSH's Cancer Clusters: Findings vs. Feelings). In A Civil Action, the plot involved illegal dumping of the "toxic" chemical solvent trichloroethylene in Woburn, MA during the 1970s and 80s. While the toxic effects of TCE have never been scientifically shown at the concentrations involved in the litigation, parading desperately ill children and surviving family members of deceased plaintiffs a tactic also used to great success in medical malpractice cases led to major damages against the dumpers.

Recently, the movie Super Size Me made a half-hearted attempt to indicate that toxic Big Macs and large-sized sodas were the main culprit behind the recently-discovered "epidemic" of obesity now attacking Americans like some infectious scourge. The only problem: this disease is self-inflicted, as proven by the movie's star and director, Morgan Spurlock, whose consumption of 5,000 calories daily and avoidance of exercise is merely a reductio ad absurdum (or is that enlargio?) of the behavior pattern of modern Americans. While he denies that his movie is an attack on McDonald's per se, it is hard to avoid that obvious conclusion, and lines in the movie ads strengthen that conclusion: "'Two thumbs down!' McDonald's; 'I'm lovin' it' Rolling Stone."

Doomsday, from the Makers of Godzilla and Independence Day

Now the movie The Day After Tomorrow has as its theme the specter of worldwide catastrophe brought on by global warming. In contrast to the preceding movies, this one is by almost anyone's definition a piece of science fiction. By scaring moviegoers with this doomsday scenario including global flooding and a new ice age (paradoxically), allowing computerized destruction of many major cities including New York the moviemakers apparently hope to get viewers to see the disaster as the necessary consequence of governmental negligence, ignorance, and greed. Rather than being the inexorable result of God's will or Mother Nature, the film's deadly storms are the fruit of conspiracy between large energy-producing corporations and the politicians receiving contributions from them. These high officials look the other way while the evidence of disaster piles up. Can it be averted? Too late now!

If it sells tickets, why should we care? Well, we here at ACSH care because fear of technology-caused disaster is exactly what drives the more strident of the environmental advocacy groups. Their stock in trade is the same as this movie's. But, you say, the movie is clearly fiction, meant as entertainment, not to be taken as the true state of affairs regarding climate change. Really?

So why are the enviro-types, including the same NRDC which brought us the infamous Alar scare in 1989, calling for the studio behind The Day After Tomorrow, Fox, to use the movie as a forum and fund-raiser for activist groups who are alarmed about global warming? In addition,, an ultra-liberal group devoted to regime change here in America, is loudly denouncing the studio for not getting on the activist bandwagon, comparing Fox's lack of interest in supporting anti-Bush propaganda (in the guise of global warming doomsaying) to the McCarthyite muzzling of free dissent. That, at least, is the accusation against Fox made by "environmental lawyer" Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Let me see if I've got this right: if a major movie studio (which happens to be owned by Bush supporter Rupert Murdoch) does not endorse environmentalists' veiled attacks on the current administration, it is akin to sending members of the Hollywood community to jail for not naming names of fellow travelers? And those speech-squelching fascists at Fox are only spending about $50 million to promote the film.

Celluloid and Science Don't Mix

But the real lesson to be learned here for the American consumer/moviegoer is simple: the term "movie science" is an oxymoron! Movies based on sound science would be deadly dull and do little business that's why movies have always depended on science fiction (another oxymoron, really). Dating back to War of the Worlds and Jules Verne titles, Hollywood has never found it necessary, or even desirable, to adhere to the truth about technology, science, or medicine. There have been a few exceptions, such as Apollo 13, but even these have strayed from the strict confines of veracity to enhance entertainment appeal. No one should quibble about this.

But one needn't delve deeply into the solidity of the scientific support for the presence, degree, or rate of progression of global warming to be concerned about The Day After Tomorrow. The mere fact that activist groups involved in the debate feel it is somehow incumbent upon a movie studio to cede them the studio's soapbox to promulgate an enviro agenda suggests that the world has been turned upside down not by climate-induced storm activity, but by activists insisting that they deserve to be in control of the discussion and that whoever disputes their point of view is guilty, automatically, of stomping on the First Amendment and condoning the destruction of the planet.

Fortunately, in this case at least, the studio has stood its ground and will let the movie speak for itself, as a work of fiction. I don't know about you, but after last winter, some of us in New York think a little global warming wouldn't be such a bad thing. Perhaps it would even help compensate for the recently-announced "global dimming" problem of slightly-diminshed sunlight. But hey, I wouldn't try selling tickets to that movie.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is Medical and Executive Director of the American Council on Science and Health. Unlike Al Gore, he does not urge you to see The Day After Tomorrow.