We can’t afford to be blase about the new film Merchants of Doubt: “Oh, sure [stifling a yawn], everybody knows the climate change deniers are the same people who spent the 20th century saying smoking isn’t harmful to your health.” Ultra-sarcasm will get us exactly nowhere. Plenty of people have little clue about, or feel quite comfortable not examining, the chasm between the science of climate change and the way it has been presented by American doctors of spin.
Rather than diss fellow humans for their lack of awareness or strongly held preconceptions, I suggest buying them a ticket to this absorbing, dramatic docudrama. They’ll hear a successful propagandist proclaim onscreen, “If you can ‘do tobacco,’ you can do just about anything.” The filmmakers show that doesn’t take much to take down a huge majority of world scientists with decades and stacks of verifiable research.
Merchants of Doubt comes from Sony Pictures Classics, not exactly a bit player from Hollywood. Robert Kenner, the Emmy Award-winner responsible for 2008’s documentary Food, Inc. (which almost too graphically exposed the shortfalls of American agribusiness), made the film. The producer, Participant Media, is also the same. Drawing on the critically acclaimed book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway — which Grist called “[a] darkly fascinating history” — Kenner takes viewers into “the shadowy world of professional skeptics, whose services are bought and paid for by corporations, think tanks and other special interests to cast doubt and delay public and governmental action on climate change.”
Kenner’s new and archival footage pictures both the real climate scientists — often made up as seemingly hapless ivory-tower geeks — and the attractive snowball-toting political and quasi-religious interests who don’t have to produce proof, only “reasonable doubt.” They do this with the aid of much less credentialed science hacks, guys like Willie Soon, unmasked a couple of weeks ago as a nonexpert $1.2 million shill for the oil and gas industry.
All the doubt-sowers have to say to stall time-sensitive, critically important climate progress is “It’s complicated.” This film shows exactly how propagandists repeatedly succeed with this line, not only with tobacco and climate change, but also with DDT and a constellation of other dubious products. The Heartland Institute is now trying to package Soon as an innocent victim of “warmist” leftie conspirators. In her comments in Friday’s Salon, Lindsay Abrams describes one of the slickest doubt peddlers:
“The documentary’s most engaging character, after all, is self-described creator of chaos Marc Morano, who runs the climate denial site ClimateDepot and who frequently appears as an “expert” on network news. (“I am not a scientist, although I do play one on TV,” he explains.) Kenner gets Morano to sit for an extended interview, in which he boasts of his ability to turn climate scientists into targets, taking particular pleasure in his habit of releasing their personal email addresses.”
The merchants work the fears of the already entitled, who do not want to lose what they already have. Scott Mandia had an interesting article in February on realsceptic.com that explains the phenomenon without heaping blame on true conservative believers:
“Climate change… is perceived as a threat to some because they fear the solutions might result in loss of individual rights or hurt the economy. It is because of these perceived threats that they subconsciously resist the settled science…. Public confusion is being driven by merchants of doubt who have very deep pockets and strong political connections. Status quo has proven to be quite lucrative to the fossil fuel industry.”
Mandia also points fingers at numerous conservative “think tanks” that quote the same putative experts, at the pervasive, overcompliant notion of journalistic “fair balance,” and at prevalent but simplistic free-market fundamentalism. He asserts that no amount of education can change a mindset that resists the facts in favor of deeply ingrained, closely held, and politico-religiously manipulated values.
The people who need to understand what’s behind Merchants of Doubt are the same good folks who for decades believed a clutch of suited top tobacco company execs lying to Congress about the health effects of smoking. They’re the ones who gain reassurance from the petroleum industry lady strolling proudly among idealized white “neighborhood” backdrops during the evening news, hijacking science and cooing that the United States is the number-one energy nation because of our “clean” fracked natural gas.
From Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:
“As the science of global warming has grown more certain over the last two decades, the attack on that science has grown more shrill; this [story] helps explain that paradox, and not only for climate change. A fascinating account of a very thorny problem.”
Like Toto, the scruffy crusaders of Merchants of Doubt manage to draw back the curtain on the manipulative American Wizards of Oz. But don’t look for the climate charlatans to exclaim, “Poor little kid. I hope she gets home all right.” They’re already riding the balloon with their eyes out for the next potential Emerald City.
The Motion Picture Association of America rates Merchants of Doubt PG-13, for “brief strong language” — amid a slew of pernicious lies. It opened Friday in New York and L.A. Merchants is currently a limited release, but it’s easy to find out where and when it’s showing near you. For showtimes, just link here and enter your zip code. A couple of places you can explore for more about the film and the overall topic:
- Brief radio interview with director Robert Kenner on NPR.
- Hour-long YouTube video of book author Naomi Oreskes discussing key concepts, and
- A solid batch of verified online sources about disinformation peddlers.
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