HHMI Tangled Bank Studios’ Sean Carroll talks new vaccine doc, taking on denialism

As another edition of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers is underway — held virtually this year due to the novel coronavirus and not in picturesque Strasbourg, France, ...
December 10, 2020

As another edition of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers is underway — held virtually this year due to the novel coronavirus and not in picturesque Strasbourg, France, as originally planned — producers of non-fiction content from around the globe are convening to reflect on a year unlike any other in recent memory. In addition to a global pandemic that has essentially stopped the world in its tracks, several powerful nations around the globe have also become mired in a fractious sociopolitical climate that is giving rise to another scourge: denialism.

It has been a year in which trust in major media organizations has eroded to dangerously low levels, propelled in part by prominent political factions labeling most of them as “fake news.” Bias and partisanship have cemented an “us versus them” narrative on both sides of the political spectrum, and relatively unregulated global social media platforms are being used as misinformation superhighways, sowing even more distrust in the “MSM.”

In the midst of all of this, producers of factual content — and in particular, producers of science content — are covering some of the most important stories of modern times, ranging from climate change to the race to create an effective vaccine for COVID-19 (more on that later). But what concerns some of them, including Sean Carroll, head of the studio department for HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, is that for a sizeable portion of the populace, some of these stories may as well be works of fiction.

“There are financial incentives to pander to or promote these viewpoints,” Carroll tells Realscreen. “That’s really different from four or five decades ago, when the news media’s responsibility was for the public good. This is ripe material for people to investigate; why has the landscape changed — how did we find ourselves in so many bubbles — and psychologically, why does this work?”

Carroll does not come at science documentary strictly as a producer. In addition to his studio role at the nonprofit filmmaking arm of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), he also serves as vice president for science education for the organization, and is a renowned evolutionary biologist and author of several books, the most recent being A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You. But since establishing Tangled Bank Studios in 2012, and executive producing such acclaimed films as the Emmy winning The Serengeti Rules and Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, he has made a point of tackling the big subjects such as climate change, vaccines and mass extinction with an aim to inspire and educate rather than elicit fear and hopelessness.

Still, the recent rise of denialism is of great concern to him — so much so that he recently penned an Op-Ed, “The Denialist Playbook”, for Scientific American, outlining “six principal plays” trotted out by denialist factions, ranging from “Doubt the science” to “Questions scientists’ motives and integrity” and “Appeal to personal freedom.” If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s playing out practically daily on cable news networks and social media platforms, in vitriolic debates about masks, vaccines and anything else concerning the handling of the pandemic.

“In my background, in evolutionary biology, it’s somewhat understandable that people may not be comfortable with that [concept],” he continues. “If that’s what people want to think, what harm can it do? If you don’t believe the fossil record, are you killing anybody? Probably not. But this is a life and death situation on a massive scale. These are the consequences of denialism playing out in the starkest terms.”

Media organizations aren’t unique in being adrift in confusion in these troubling times. As science itself is the constant pursuit of truth through discovery, scientists themselves are taking part in increasingly public rows about the best way to contend with COVID-19 — see the John Snow Memorandum for one viewpoint, and the Great Barrington Declaration for another. It’s in this environment that the general population, overwhelmed with choice in media but perhaps underserved when it comes to objective media, is left to formulate opinion on what is, in fact, fact.

“Yes, to have some degree of sympathy for people trying to navigate all this is important,” says Carroll. “You have a small number of strategic communicators who are using the tools to spread misinformation and you have people being deluged with very confusing information.

“Several years ago we were part of a film about vaccination [Vaccines: Calling the Shots, produced with Australian filmmaker Sonya Pemberton] and the drumbeat that was building in that film was that if we didn’t smarten up we’d see things coming back that were essentially vanquished start to get a toehold again. But those were spot fires. When you’re dealing with a global pandemic with vast numbers of lives at risk, vaccine denialism can be fatal for many, many people.”

To that end, in an effort to help people “penetrate all the noise and find the signal of truth,” the latest project from Tangled Bank Studios, coproduced with Wingspan Productions and the Global Health Reporting Centre, follows those on the hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine — a story that is in line with the studio’s mandate to, in Carroll’s words, “pick those stories that carry a very powerful message of positive action.” The project, a joint commission from CNN in the U.S. and the BBC in the UK and named Race for The Vaccine in North America and Vaccine: The Inside Story for BBC2, will focus on vaccine developers and testers, with teams embedded in the U.S., the UK and Australia among other regions.

“We want to tell the inside story of the people you haven’t heard of, the people who have dropped everything to try to get us out of this mess,” says Carroll, “which is also a long story when it comes to how you shoot all of that, with all of the COVID restrictions going on.”

The filmmakers were able to gain access to researchers and developers behind what became some of the leading candidates for a vaccine, including the Pfizer/BioNTech team and scientists working with the Moderna and AstraZeneca teams.

The film will be produced and directed by award-winning British filmmaker and former virologist Catherine Gale (The Joy of Winning), and co-directed by award-winning American medical journalist and indie filmmaker Caleb Hellerman. Executive producers are Janet Tobias (Unseen Enemy) and Rogger Lopez (Memory Games) of Global Health Reporting Center (GHRC); Archie Baron (Motherland – A Genetic Journey) of Wingspan Productions; Amy Entelis, Katie Hinman, and Courtney Sexton of CNN Films; Tom Coveney of BBC; and Carroll and Jared Lipworth for HHMI Tangled Bank Studios. The film has also been supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. CNN retains linear TV rights for the U.S. and Canada, as well as U.S. territories.

In the UK, the film will broadcast as a ‘Horizon’ special on BBC2. HHMI Tangled Bank Studios holds the educational rights, while GHRC and Wingspan Productions retain rights outside of the UK and North America.

Carroll says the new project, set for spring of 2021, is well in line with Tangled Bank Studios’ aim to produce and promote content that “focuses on the path forward.” It’s achieving that mission through its films, through educational content, and through philanthropic work. But the challenges that exist within the current, ideologically charged environment make that mission all the more important, he says.

“People need inspiration that is grounded in real things that are happening,” he sums up. “The constant drumbeat of denialism can just lead to despair. But that’s not necessarily our future. Our future is still in our hands.”

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