Mer­chants of Doubt

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Jonathan Richards

Mer­chants of Doubt , doc­u­men­tary, rated PG-13, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 4 chiles

“I make an hon­est living,” says ma­gi­cian Jamy Ian Swiss in the cap­ti­vat­ing open­ing cred­its of this ab­surdly en­ter­tain­ing and deeply trou­bling doc­u­men­tary. “And it of­fends me when peo­ple take the skills of my hon­est living and use them to twist and dis­tort and ma­nip­u­late peo­ple and their sense of re­al­ity and how the world works.”

What’s he talk­ing about? He’s talk­ing about the way in­dus­tries that pol­lute our bod­ies and our planet em­ploy ex­pen­sive, smooth-talk­ing shills to use mis­di­rec­tion, the clas­sic pres­tidig­i­ta­tor’s tool, to con the public into be­liev­ing that science is hokum, cli­mate change is an opin­ion, and up is down.

Swiss, with his daz­zling card tricks, pro­vides a metaphor that direc­tor Robert Ken­ner shuf­fles through the deck of this dev­as­tat­ing in­dict­ment of big-money cor­po­rate in­ter­ests mak­ing the cyn­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion that ev­ery day reg­u­la­tory leg­is­la­tion can be stalled is an­other day to fat­ten the bot­tom line.

Ini­tially, Ken­ner takes us back to the grand­daddy of cor­po­rate ob­fus­ca­tors, the tobacco in­dus­try. For decades, Big Tobacco in­sisted there was no con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence that nico­tine was ad­dic­tive, or that smok­ing caused can­cer. It was later re­vealed that the in­dus­try’s in­ter­nal stud­ies had proved just the op­po­site as far back as the 1950s. But again and again, tobacco ex­ec­u­tives trooped into hear­ings and lied through their teeth.

“Doubt is our prod­uct,” a se­cret memo from the tobacco in­dus­try stated, and this prod­uct was man­u­fac­tured by the con­stant re­peat­ing of the mantra that the science just wasn’t con­clu­sive. “Ex­perts” were trot­ted out, doc­tors were hired to en­dorse the prod­uct and swear to its health­ful­ness, and busi­ness boomed.

A whis­tle-blower leaked se­cret in­ter­nal files from the tobacco in­dus­try, and that house of cards came apart. But as this film notes, the strat­egy of cre­at­ing doubt around sci­en­tific facts had suc­ceeded for more than 30 years in de­lay­ing any re­stric­tive mea­sures against Big Tobacco, and other in­dus­tries took ap­pre­cia­tive note.

Nowhere has the tobacco play­book been taken more to heart than in the oil and gas in­dus­tries, whose flacks have worked tire­lessly to cre­ate a sym­phony of doubt in the minds of the cred­u­lous and the ve­nal as to the near-una­nim­ity of sci­en­tific find­ings on cli­mate change and its causes.

Ken­ner spends time with James Hansen, a sci­en­tist who was among the first to se­ri­ously study the cli­mate-change prob­lem. “Naively,” he ad­mits with some cha­grin, “we just as­sumed that hu­man­ity would take sen­si­ble ac­tions” once the enor­mity of the threat to the Earth was ex­posed. At first Hansen tried to shun the lime­light and keep to his lab­o­ra­tory. He has since be­come an ac­tivist, and has spent time be­hind bars for his pains.

Ken­ner’s film is based on the book of the same name by science his­to­ri­ans Erik M. Con­way and Naomi Oreskes, the lat­ter a cheer­ful pres­ence in the film, who re­sponded to the avalanche of vir­u­lent at­tacks and threats that greeted her pub­li­ca­tion by sci­en­tif­i­cally study­ing the sources of those at­tacks and show­ing that many of them orig­i­nated in the in­dus­try she was ex­pos­ing.

One of the su­per­stars of this world-of-cor­po­rate de­cep­tion is a jolly fel­low named Marc Mo­rano, an enor­mously well-paid op­er­a­tive who chuck­les as he tells us about some of the ways he goes about ob­scur­ing the is­sues and in­tim­i­dat­ing the truth-tell­ers. An­other mer­chant of doubt is a Dr. David He­im­bach, who makes a nice living tes­ti­fy­ing as an ex­pert at hear­ings on the safety of the toxic flame-re­tar­dant chem­i­cals with which fur­ni­ture and chil­dren’s cloth­ing are sat­u­rated. Chicago Tri­bune jour­nal­ists Pa­tri­cia Cal­la­han and Sam Roe ex­pose He­im­bach and the Cit­i­zens for Fire Safety (who hired him) as fronts for the chem­i­cal in­dus­try.

We also meet a cou­ple of de­fec­tors from the lists of doubt sow­ers. One is Michael Sher­mer, found­ing pub­lisher of Skep­tic mag­a­zine. He was first pushed into the de­nial camp by overblown dooms­day pre­dic­tions of some cli­mate alarmists — but af­ter look­ing into the science, he had to ad­mit it was sound, and scary. An­other is for­mer South Carolina con­gress­man Bob Inglis, a staunch con­ser­va­tive who found him­self con­verted by facts into an apos­tle of warn­ing on cli­mate change.

Mer­chants of Doubt is loaded with dev­as­tat­ing ma­te­rial, but it also man­ages to keep its style up­beat and its mood en­ter­tain­ing. It is beau­ti­fully pro­duced, and leav­ened with hu­mor, so that de­spite the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of ev­i­dence of the cyn­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion of public opin­ion by forces with a vested in­ter­est in cre­at­ing profit by cre­at­ing doubt, the ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing it is not an un­pleas­ant trip to the wood­shed, but a watch­able, even ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­po­sure of the prob­lem.

When Toto pulls back the cur­tain in Oz, the wiz­ard des­per­ately shouts, “Pay no at­ten­tion to that man be­hind the cur­tain!” But as the ma­gi­cian Swiss points out, af­ter show­ing us the de­cep­tion be­hind one of his sleights of hand, once the trick has been ex­posed, it can’t be un­ex­posed.

J’ac­cuse: Chicago Tri­bune ’s Sam Roe

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