Skip to main content

Science Is Culture at the Online CPH:CONFERENCE 2020

By Lauren Wissot

Science communicator/educator Emily Grossman (left) and moderator Jessica Harrop of Sandbox Films in conversation during the online version of CPH:CONFERENCE. Courtesy of CPH:CONFERENCE

The New Virtual Normal: Covering a Film Festival During COVID-19

Covering CPH:DOX—the first spring fest to respond to COVID-19 by moving entirely online rather than cancel or postpone--remotely from several time zones away proved a surprising respite from the global coronavirus chaos. Not only was I able to tune in to fascinating virtual talks (see Edward Snowden) at all hours of the day, and discover nonfiction gems (via the online CPH:MARKET, the most abundantly stocked market I'd seen in weeks), but I was able to do it all from the comfort of home in my pajamas (and sans jet lag).

Of course, there's the disappointment of not being able to binge on cinema in a vibrant international city in a country with an actual functioning government. But if there's one thing viewing so many foreign docs over the years has taught me, that’s a First World letdown. I'm not fearing the health crisis unfolding from inside a refugee camp in the Middle East, nor from behind the bars of a US prison. I'm in a place with abundant sunshine, early spring weather and—now shed of its street-clogging tourists—plenty of space to move about safely outside. 

Which isn't to say there aren’t steep downsides to covering a festival while social-distancing—most acutely laid bare by the emotional loss of offline, face-to-face connection. (That and the fact that I seem to get sucked into watching way too many films—evidenced by my recent awakening from a dream with the immediate thought, "That ending didn't work.") I've long been aware that the in-person fest is a viral transmission hotspot—I used to half-joke that skipping last November's IDFA also meant missing my annual IDFA cold—but it's also an idea transmission hotspot. Sure, some of that can be replicated online through digital conferences and debates (which CPH:DOX excelled at this year), but a lot occurs in spaces that require the human touch. Coffee with a colleague you haven't seen in a year, who just happens to mention a work-in-progress he's producing about a mind-blowing subject you weren't aware even existed. Meeting a director whose doc you most definitely weren't planning on checking out, but since she's so fascinating you do—and it turns out to be the hidden find of the fest. (And then there's the XR experience, which unfortunately cannot always be translated to a virtual fest.) In other words, I've also developed a newfound appreciation for the power of happy accidents. And for all the human desires no giant tech company will ever be able to fulfill.

CPH:CONFERENCE: Communicating Science

All that said, day one of this year's CPH:CONFERENCE began with the bang of "Breaking Through: The Science of Science Communication," a highly informative keynote from University of Wisconsin Professor Dietram Scheufele (who revealed he was being beamed in from Madison, prerecorded, in order to avoid the bandwidth issues the COVID-19 crisis was causing). Scheufele, an expert in the "science behind science communication," started by tackling three crucial topics in his PowerPoint presentation on "Avoidable #SCICOMM Gaps: An Argument Against Intuition"; "Our Temptation To Be Public Educators"; "What Happens When Values and Facts Collide"; and "What Science Tells Us about How To Better Communicate Science."  

That first topic was a misstep stemming from what Scheufele referred to as the "knowledge-deficit model"—the idea that if only people "feasted on facts," they would make well-informed decisions. (It's a black-hole trap that none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson has fallen into.) This assumption that good communication is always about getting information across, that "if people were only more informed, they would support the same conclusions as the scientific experts." In reality, however, "effective communication is about better public understanding." The irony being that "the knowledge-deficit model itself is at odds with the best available social science…In the worst-case scenario, more facts can backfire," Scheufele emphasized.  

As for the nuts and bolts of "what science tells us about how to better communicate science," Scheufele proposed that "the right messenger matters," then asked, “Is it all about finding a good storyteller?” The problem is, those messengers we intuit are the best might not always be. The professor cited the surprising example of Pope Francis and his encyclical on climate change—noting that greater awareness of the encyclical actually ended up widening partisan rifts. Rather than adjusting any position on climate change, folks simply changed how they felt about the pope.

Scheufele then stressed the importance of "connecting with the 'pictures in our heads.'" This is something journalist Walter Lippmann had originally emphasized in regards to why our mental categories matter: "We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions…govern deeply the whole process of perception." Scheufele urged "framing" science to fit those already ingrained images. 

And when it comes to "connecting science to what matters to all of us," studies show that words alone can and do make a difference. "Climate change" or "global warming"—these are partisan triggers for conservatives. Scheufele mentioned the political acumen of a guy like Senator Mitt Romney, specifically his use of the words "global competitiveness," and green energy as a profitable "market." ("Energy independence" also plays well with conservatives).

The professor then wound things down by bringing up “the power of entertainment.” He noted a study correlating television-watching to a viewer's belief in their chances of becoming victim to violent crime. It concluded that the more someone watched anything (not just news or true-crime TV), the more they believed they were at risk. Elements of violence simply permeated most programming. Which led Scheufele to propose that we "cultivate" our image of science. 

While nanotechnology and cloning are already in the public imagination, there are also unintended consequences because of this. It remains that the very image of scientists—as old white guys tinkering around in glasses and lab coats—persists. Scheufele stressed the need to change who gets the bylines and the screen time. And to that end, the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a partnership dedicated to doing so, is making great strides—most recently through its work with Kenneth Branagh on Thor. In the original comic book version, Natalie Portman’s character was a nurse. In the movie she’s a physicist. Changes like this reverberate powerfully through society at large.

Which led the professor to "an argument for new audiences and new types of #SCICOMM," one geared "toward a culture of civic science." He proposed engagement models—as we're at a point where science is challenging our very humanity—consisting of "Actors" (all public stakeholders, including the scientific community), "Process" (societal debates informed by science, and evidence-based decision and policy-making), and a "Primary Focus" (of value-based, fiscal, regulatory and political questions that might not have exclusively scientific answers).

As the keynote closed, it suddenly struck me that this social science expert from Wisconsin (by way of Germany) had laid out a guide that could be used far beyond the realm of science-centric filmmaking—straight to counteracting misinformation in all its forms, from politics to pandemics. An auspicious start to a CPH:CONFERENCE "day dedicated to preaching beyond the proverbial choir."

"New Approaches: Scientists Crossing Over" likewise featured a professional science communicator (which I can't say I knew was a job before tuning in to this CPH:CONFERENCE) with a message for the masses. Emily Grossman joined deft moderator Jessica Harrop, the supervising producer of Sandbox Films, live online from coronavirus lockdown in their respective apartments—Grossman in London, Harrop in Brooklyn—to discuss Grossman's specialty and so much more. Harrop actually began the chat by asking Grossman to fill us in on why she wouldn't have attended CPH:DOX in person anyhow, had been planning on Skyping even pre-pandemic. To which Grossman responded that she'd given up flying as part of her personal commitment to combat climate change.

Truth be told, this touched on something I'd been thinking about quite a bit —ever since CPH:DOX had announced its pivot to digital—that what's bad for humankind (a global pandemic) is a boon for the planet. As our species slows to a standstill, there’s less pollution in the environment, a precipitous drop in emissions. Could virtual film festivals save both filmmakers and the world?

The science communicator then urged us to break arguments down into three distinct parts: logos, ethos and pathos. Logic is important, but not enough. There also needs to be ethos—trustworthiness based on an expert, an authoritative source. Who are you and why should someone trust you? Pathos, the final piece of the persuasion puzzle, is an appeal to the emotions. For example, what’s going to happen if we don’t combat climate change? There will be food shortages, civil unrest, a variety of upheavals. (In other words, it will affect everyone— including you.) As for the current pandemic, do you know someone over 70? With asthma? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make science personal and emotional. One Greta Thunberg (who wields logos, ethos and pathos like a sword) is worth a thousand Neil deGrasse Tyson facts.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.