Merchants of Doubt – Film Review

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Based on a well-received and, by all accounts, a thoroughly researched, non-fiction book of the same name, Merchants of Doubt from director Robert Kenner is a truly fascinating documentary told with just a sly touch of humor that works in the film’s favor, especially when the message it’s illustrating is so incredibly sad and, to be honest, downright frustrating.

It’s all about those intentionally persuasive, smooth-talking devils who have taken on the role of presenting themselves as scientific authorities hired by corporations to go on TV and spread seeds of doubt.  It worked for years with the tobacco industry, why not for other industries?  A 1963 internal tobacco industry memo clearly states, “We are in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug,” yet in 1994 that same industry continued to publicly testify that nicotine was not addictive.  Of course, their world finally came crashing down with whistle-blowers and overwhelming scientific proof showing that tobacco is, indeed, a cancer causing agent that kills while possessing an addictive drug that keeps smokers wanting and buying more, but it took a heck of a long time to get there

Framed by the work of illusionist Jamy Ian Swiss, a performer whose knowledge of deceiving the eye with some amazing slight-of-hand card tricks is quite remarkable, the film explores the art and expertise of deception; how the focus of attention on practically anything can be manipulated to the point where you’re not quite sure what you saw or perhaps heard.  The stylish, opening credits display well-shot card tricks, culminating with a house of cards that, with one slight tug, easily comes crashing down.

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The center of the film’s focus is on climate change.  Once the greenhouse effect of global warming was measured to be a very real threat to the planet – CO2 spewed into the air is like putting a blanket around the planet, and it will stay there for a millennium – scientists assumed that people would put sensible measures into place.  But that didn’t happen.  Those in the fossil fuel industry whose profits would be most affected by any enforced changes realized it had a problem on its hands.  Science in its telling is complicated so it was easy for the industry to put doubt into people’s minds, even to the point where some slight-of-hand manipulation in the media created the notion that CO2 was actually good for us, the same way that for years the tobacco industry convinced many that a pack of Luckies was also good for us.

Throughout the documentary we see clips of opposing scientists on TV news continually disagreeing with any new research discovered supporting the realities of climate change, but a closer look at who these people are and why they’re doing what they’re doing makes the whole thing more insidious than you might have thought.   The film explains how certain experts we see in the documentary were always aggressively anti-communist.  They saw any moves towards regulation from the government as a clear step towards socialism, which they in turn truly believe will ultimately lead to communism.  By making themselves available for hire and getting considerably handsome sums of money from corporations within the fuel-fossil industry, they became television’s merchants of doubt; essentially paid lobbyists for the anti-global warming movement but presented as being fair and balanced.

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It’s interesting that practically all the media clips shown of various ‘experts’ explaining why we should basically ignore what the overwhelming majority of scientists say get their forum of intentional misinformation are from Fox.  When it’s a CNN clip it’s back in the day when Glenn Beck had a show on Headline News or Rush Limbaugh when he had a late-night syndicated show.  The humor of the TV segments is complimented with brief moments from The Twilight Zone where characters talk of people living in some parallel world.

What makes all of this worse is the knowledge that most of these people are intelligent – they know only too well what they’re doing and saying – and that makes their actions and the way they intentionally sway public opinion to doubt anything heard from real experts all the more insidious.  It’s actually insulting how they feed abstract issues and create the illusion that scientists – those interested in neither politics nor profit, simply science – are somehow the liars and that in reality, everything is okay.

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When we see a misinformed but angry member of the public – one who has bought the whole idea that global warming is some kind of left-wing hoax – point fingers at a politician supporting the issue of climate change and declaring repeatedly, “You lie! You lie!” the CEO’s of the fuel-fossil industry must be having a ball.  You can just see them, sitting back, smiling, amused at how their sizeable investment in these dishonest but smooth talking spokesmen hustling the public is paying off.   Those declaring “You lie,” are being used.  They’re doing all the work for free.

It took almost fifty years to expose the lies spread to the public by the tobacco industry.  With climate change, the film tells us, we don’t have fifty years.  The truly sad reality is that those who should see a documentary like Merchants of Doubt are the very ones who will stay away and continue to believe what they’ve chosen to believe.  Perhaps the most telling moment comes when one of those merchants of doubt with impeccable credentials states on TV that over thirteen thousand fellow scientists have signed a certain paper declaring climate change a hoax.  On close examination of some of those signatures, the names on the document include people like a certain Dr. Michael J. Fox or a Dr. Gerri Halliwell.   Evidently overnight, The Spice Girls became expert scientists on global warming.

 MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length:  96 Minutes    Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

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