Merchants of Doubt
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