Merchants of Doubt

My review of Merchants of Doubt

“Fake it, till you make it so,” might be one of the many truisms apropos for Merchants of Doubt, the new documentary by Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner, based on Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik M. Conway’s book of the same title. The film examines a group of spin doctors who make a living convincing the public to doubt science in favor of corporate-backed fiction. These silver-tongued faux-pundits introduce (unreasonable) doubt on topics as diverse as acid rain, cigarettes, toxic chemicals, the ozone layer, and climate change, obfuscating the real issues and influencing public opinion. Their modus operandi: “Discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, promote doubt.”

Your first question might be, “So? Industries hire PR people to promulgate their point of view. That’s how PR works.” Yes, well, Merchants of Doubt shines a light on much murkier and shadier territory you might not have considered before—this is an incestuous cadre of “experts” who are bedfellows with just about every industry in need of white-washing of nefarious activities. In addition, plainly put, these spin doctors are NOT doctors: none of them have Ph.D.s or any sort of scientific qualifications making them worthy of opining on the topics. As Marc Morano, one of the most ubiquitous of the lot, states, “I am not a scientist, but I play one on TV.” Funny, if it were not hair-raisingly scary.

Merchants of Doubt begins by examining the tobacco industry. Knowing all along about the dangers of their product, the industry at first focused on convincing the public that cigarettes are perfectly safe and non-addictive. Once that jig was up, they framed the issue as “don’t take away our freedom.” As tobacco’s lead spin doctor Peter Sparber (who posed as a fire marshal, no less, while on big tobacco’s payroll) put it “If you can sell tobacco, you can sell anything.” And indeed, he did, moving on to other industries in need of his special brand of hucksterism. Big tobacco was also responsible for the decades-long egregious use of flame-retardants on furniture: this furniture sprayed with a toxic chemical that imperiled thousands of firefighters, because making a self-extinguishing cigarette would be “much more difficult.”

Turning its lens on climate change next, the film demonstrates the deleterious effect that presenting the issue as a scientific debate had both on public opinion and political outcomes. In the book, science historian Naomi Oreskes conducted an analysis of all the scientific papers published between 1992 and 2002 on global warming and found zero papers disagreeing with the fact that global warming is anthropogenic and due to increased greenhouse gases. In other words, there was a resounding and prevailing scientific consensus. Yet, scientists like Fred Seitz and Fred Singer founded front organizations and think tanks like Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), with nebulous enough names to grant an air of legitimacy, to further global warming skepticism and a conservative viewpoint.

Merchants of Doubt asks the very germane question of what these doubt-peddlers gain from their activities. Sure, the remuneration is nice. But Seitz and Singer were scientists during the Cold War – the film suggests there is an ideological component, too – and they frame these debates being about government interference, an attack on a way of life. This could also explain why libertarians, as a group, are such intense climate change deniers, or so Merchants of Doubt posits.

But back to the faux “I play a scientist on TV,” pundits. The film seems to exonerate the media from blame in this whole quagmire, but aren’t 24-hour news channels, reliant on “debates” for 90% of their programming front and center in this mix? Why are scientists pitted against people like Morano in a “debate?” What kind of a debate could possibly take place between a scientist and a talking head?  Merchants of Doubt points to the increased personalization of something that should really stay in the professional: for example, Morano routinely releases the email addresses of climate scientists so they may receive death threats and ad hominem attacks totally unrelated to their actual work. The Cato Institute publishes climate change-denying reports that are literally identical copies, stylistically, of the report released by NOAA. All of the above point to the kind of desperate and base tactics that far eclipse mere PR.

Merchants of Doubt certainly offers a probing look into something that isn’t “business as usual,” or at least shouldn’t be. The cadre of fake scientists/spin doctors, thanks to 24 hour conservative channels like Fox News, has been frighteningly successful in steering public sentiment toward a corporate-backed political outcome. The implications of this are much further reaching than just exposing the public to biased-by-their-very-nature public relations yarns. While the film could have used a much tighter editing hand to keep it on track (not to mention that the gimmick of having a magician explain how magic works to draw an analogy is heavy-handed, at best), it does expose something we might not have thought much about, which is why is it that climate change deniers continue to have a political floor for their opinions to be listened to at all.