Don't Look Up

Don’t Look Up is a movie about the denial of science.

God help us.

Why critics have got it wrong about 

comet extinction movie Don’t Look Up



Many respected critics have been decidedly less enthusiastic about McKay’s Don’t Look Up, which has been Netflix’s top-ranked movie since opening on Christmas Eve. The satire from a director who has also made Vice, the Anchorman movies and Talladega Nights has Leonardo DiCaprio as an astronomy professor and Jennifer Lawrence as his PhD student who desperately try to warn the world about a comet that will wipe out humanity.


There was this slapdown from Time: “Instead of using the movie’s laborious more-than-two-hour runtime to allow his ideas to unfold, McKay hits you with most of them in the first half hour. Being clonked with a meteor would be more subtle.”


But I’m siding with the minority of critics who have stepped away from judging Don’t Look Up for falling short of being a cinematic masterpiece and loved the ambition, ideas and anarchic energy.


It deserves respect as a provocative movie about our inability to confront the threat of climate change.


“Speaking as a climate scientist doing everything I can to wake people up and avoid planetary destruction, it’s ... the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen,” wrote Peter Kalmus in The Guardian. ”The scientists [in the movie] are essentially alone with this knowledge, ignored and gaslighted by society. The panic and desperation they feel mirror the panic and desperation that many climate scientists feel.”


Myself, I see the movie not just as a wake-up call to the denial of Climate Change ... but as an allegory about the denial of science per se (CoViD anti-vaxxing for instance).

Don’t Look Up

Hollywood’s take on climate denial 

shows five myths that fuel rejection of science

The Conversation

The movie is an allegory for climate change, showing how those with the power to do something about global warming wilfully avoid taking action and how those with vested interests can mislead the public.


But it also reflects science denial more broadly, including what the world has been seeing with COVID-19.

The most important difference between the film’s premise and humanity’s actual looming crisis is that while individuals may be powerless against a comet, everyone can act decisively to stop fuelling climate change.

Knowing the myths that feed science denial can help.

Myth #1: We can’t act unless the science is 100 per cent certain

The first question President Orlean (Meryl Streep) asks the scientists after they explain that a comet is on a collision course with Earth is: “So how certain is this?”

Learning that the certitude is 99.78 per cent, the president’s chief of staff (Jonah Hill) responds with relief: “Oh great, so it’s not 100 per cent!” Government scientist Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) replies, “Scientists never like to say 100 per cent.”

Myth #2: Disturbing realities are too difficult for the public to accept

The title phrase, “Don’t Look Up,” portrays this psychological assumption and how some politicians conveniently use it as an excuse for inaction while promoting their own interests.

Anxiety is a growing and understandable psychological response to climate change.

Research shows there are strategies people can use to effectively cope with climate anxiety, such as becoming better informed and talking about the problem with others.

This gives individuals a way to manage anxiety while at the same time taking actions to lower the risks.

Myth #3: Technology will save us, so we don’t have to act

Often, individuals want to believe in an outcome they prefer, rather than confront reality known to be true, a response that psychologists call motivated reasoning.

For example, belief that a single technological solution, such as carbon capture, will fix the climate crisis without the need for change in policies, lifestyles and practices may be more grounded in hope than reality.

Myth #4: The economy is more important than anything, including impending crises predicted by science

Taking action to slow climate change will be expensive, but not acting has extraordinary costs – in lives lost as well as property. When people say we can’t take action because action is expensive, they are in denial of the cost of inaction.

Myth #5: Our actions should always align with our social identity group

In a politically polarised society, individuals may feel pressured to make decisions based on what their social group believes.

In the case of beliefs about science, this can have dire consequences – as the world has seen with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the US alone, more than 825,000 people with COVID-19 have died while powerful identity groups actively discourage people from getting vaccines or that could protect them.

Viruses are oblivious to political affiliation, and so is the changing climate.

How to combat science denial – and climate change

A comet headed for Earth might leave little for individuals to do, but this is not the case with climate change.

People can change their own practices to reduce carbon emissions and, importantly, pressure leaders in government, business and industry to take actions, such as reducing fossil fuel use, converting to cleaner energy and changing agricultural practices to reduce emissions.

For example:

              Individuals can check their motivations and beliefs about climate change and remain open minded to scientific evidence

              Educators can teach students how to source scientific information and evaluate it

              Science communicators can explain not just what scientists know but how they know it

              Policymakers can make decisions based on scientific evidence.

As scholars who work to help people make sound decisions about complex problems, we encourage people to consume news and science information from sources outside their own identity group.

Break out of your social bubble and listen to and talk with others. Look up.