How can we create a polemical film that viscerally convinces people to Believe Experts?

Wednesday, January 5th, 2022

I haven’t watched Don’t Look Up, but Scott Alexander gives a quick summary of the plot before noting that it can’t stop contradicting itself:

It depicts a monstrous world where the establishment is conspiring to keep the truth from you in every possible way. But it reserves its harshest barbs for anti-establishment wackos, who are constantly played for laughs.


Take this seriously, and the obvious moral of the story is: all conspiracy theories are true. If some rando bagging groceries at the supermarket tells you that every scientist in the world is lying, you should trust her 1000 percent.

But for some reason, everyone else thinks the moral of this story is Believe Experts. Worse, I think the scriptwriter and director and people like that also thought the moral of this story was Believe Experts. I think they asked themselves “How can we create a polemical film that viscerally convinces people to Believe Experts”, and they somehow came up with this movie, where the experts are bad and wrong and destroy humanity.


Progressivism, like conservatism and every other political philosophy, is big and complicated and self-contradictory. It tells a lot of stories to define and justify itself. Here are two of them:

First, a story of scruffy hippies and activists protesting the Man, that embodiment of capitalism and conformism and respectability. Think Stonewall, where gay people on the margins of society spat in the face of their supposed betters and demanded their rights. Even academics are part of this tradition: Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent accuses the mainstream media of being the Man. It’s jingoist and obsessed with justifying America’s foreign adventures; we need brave truth-tellers to point out where it goes wrong. Environmentalism shares some of this same ethos. In Erin Brockovich, a giant corporation is poisoning people, lying about it, and has bribed or corrupted everyone else into taking their side. Only one brave activist is able to put the pieces together and stand up for ordinary people.

Second, a story that comes out of the Creationism Wars of the early 00s. We are the “reality-based community”, the sane people, the normal people, the people with college degrees and non-spittle-covered keyboards. They are unwashed uneducated lunatics who think that evolution is a lie and Obama was born in Kenya and vaccines cause autism and COVID isn’t real. Maybe they should have been clued in by the fact that 100% of smart people and institutions are on our side, and they are just a couple of weirdos who don’t even agree with each other consistently. If this narrative has a movie, it must be Idiocracy — though a runner up might be Behind the Curve, the documentary about flat-earthers.

The first narrative says “there’s a consensus reality constructed by respectable people, and a few wild-eyed weirdos saying they’ve seen through the veil and it’s all lies…and you should trust the weirdos!” The second starts the same way, but ends “…and you should trust consensus reality!” They’re not actually contradictory — you could be talking about different questions! You are talking about different questions! But they’re contradictory at the mythic narrative level where they’re trying to operate. On that level, there should always be a good guy and a bad guy, and you should be able to tell who’s who by their facial hair or at least the color of their clothing. You shouldn’t have to learn a bunch of facts about the biochemistry of hexavalent chromium (or whatever it was Erin Brockovich was investigating) to resolve the object-level issue; nobody has time for that!


Partisan hacks — which includes all of us these days — have become masters of accepting contradictory narratives. One day your side controls the government, and you’re pro-unity and anti-obstructionism. The next day, the other guys control the government, and suddenly obstructionism is a necessary part of a vibrant democratic process. One day your side controls the Supreme Court, and it’s a vital check and balance against majoritarian assaults on human rights. The next day the other guys control the Supreme Court, and it’s an anti-democratic gerontocracy that tries to rule in place of the elected government. One day someone is mean to you on Twitter, and it’s cyberbullying and abuse and infliction of mental trauma. The next day you’re mean to someone else on Twitter, and did you know that tone policing via weaponized demands for civility entrenches the power of the already-privileged?

Each of these positions accretes its own narrative — a stock collection of examples, stereotypes, and associated emotions that tells you whether it’s good or bad. When your side is against Twitter harassment, you hear lots of stories of sympathetic people being harassed by evil people and driven to suicide. You see interviews with their crying loved ones. Maybe someone even makes a movie about cyberbullying that viscerally drives in just how hurtful it can be. But when your side is doing the harassing, you hear historical examples of how tone policing and weaponized civility demands produced chilling effects on noble people who wanted to make positive changes. Now the movies include ugly obese Boomers who say sneeringly “hey, watch your tone” when anyone calls them out on their misdeeds, then smirkingly go on to misdeed again, protected from all criticism. You end up with one moral narrative around how Twitter harassment is extraordinarily, villainously bad, and another narrative around how it’s wonderfully, heroically good.


Many years ago, I wrote a post called The Cowpox Of Doubt. I complained about how people loved talking about flat-earthism or Holocaust denialism or whatever. The more you think about those kinds of questions, the more you absorb lessons like: everything has an obvious right answer, anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot, anyone trying to introduce subtlety is a concern troll, the proper length of time to debate something before dismissing it as obvious and your opponents as acting in bad faith is zero seconds. I argued you should basically never think about flat-earthism. Instead, think about when AGI will happen, or whether inflation will stabilize, or any of a thousand other questions where there are smart people on both sides of the issue. That way, you learn the right skills for solving hard questions, which are the only type you ever have any trouble solving in the first place.


  1. Faze says:

    Watch it. Scott A. gets it mostly right, and his commenters add a rich layer of insights. But there are keen observations in this film that have nothing to do with politics or the plot. Just watching it won’t give anyone leftist cooties.

  2. Contaminated NEET says:

    I saw it. I was not impressed. What are the keen observations you had in mind?

  3. Faze says:

    Contaminated NEET, the peripheral stuff: the waiting room outside the Oval Office; the general who sells the snacks; the interactions in the green room before the morning talk show; the families;etc.

  4. Covfefe Anon says:

    Typical bullshit misdirection from Scott — “here’s something that we all do,” when he’s describing something that his side does over and over, where he can provide zero examples of the other side doing it.

    “Oh, but this weird quirk of human nature is so mysterious!”

  5. VXXC says:

    Don’t look Up is The Death of Stalin for our times.

    There is no Zhukov, because we don’t do manhood anymore, but it is very incisive. It will not give you leftist cooties, it will give you some laughs and one of many money lines “they’re too stupid to be as evil as you credit them” about the elites.

    You won’t get cooties, and it’s harshest barbs are not at all for the working class but for the political slime who exploit them and the oligarchs.

    The actual part of not looking up is a few minutes at most of the movie.

  6. VXXC says:

    “They’re too stupid to be as evil as you credit them” sums our elites.

  7. Contaminated NEET says:

    Faze, the general selling the snacks was the cleverest, funniest, and most memorable part of the movie, but was it really so keenly observed? I’m a loser, so I’ve never hung around with the great and the good, but it strikes me as implausible that someone so highly placed would be so immediately, pointlessly, and transparently petty and dishonest. I have no doubt our leaders are scum, but they’ve climbed to the top of a very slippery pole, out-competing hundreds or thousands of rivals to seize their place. I would bet that they come off as extremely charming, sharp, and disarming in person. The problem is, portraying a character as personally charming, sharp, and disarming is likely to leave the audience sympathizing with him, no matter how destructive and stupid his behavior is supposed to be, so instead we get a silly caricature.

  8. The Cominator says:

    ” I would bet that they come off as extremely charming, sharp, and disarming in person.”

    Joe Biden and the ghosts of McCain and Ted Kennedy have entered the chat.

  9. Sam J. says:

    Appears to me the whole thing is based on government paid myth makers who spout nonsense and tell everyone that most people do the same when…they don’t.

    They have been doing this a long time now to confuse any and all issues and discombobulate the minds of the public.

  10. Pete says:

    “They’re too stupid to be as evil as you credit them.”

    Every time our elites do something you don’t understand, and you think they’ve made a mistake, it turns out that they ended up gathering more money and power for themselves. Oopsie.

    This wouldn’t be the case if they were just stupid.

  11. Jim says:

    Pete: “Every time our elites do something you don’t understand, and you think they’ve made a mistake, it turns out that they ended up gathering more money and power for themselves. Oopsie.”

    Just like when your bank makes accounting errors, strangely the mistakes are always in the bank’s favor.

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