Review: Merchants of Doubt

Robert Kenner’s doc delivers the implicit message that we’re all capable of figuring out what’s in our species’ and our planet’s best interests.

Merchants of Doubt
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

An issues documentary that scores its points through a seductive combination of clearly stated arguments and pithy humor, Merchants of Doubt diagrams the methods corporations use to stop or stall political action on things that would be good for public health, but bad for their bottom lines. Most of the film’s running time is devoted to the decades-long campaign, funded by big oil companies, to stall political action on climate change by casting doubt on the scientific consensus that it’s a serious problem caused mainly by human actions. But some of its most fascinating detective work is devoted to piecing together the playbook used by climate-change denialists and other disinformation campaigns, and how it was developed by big tobacco companies to bury or discredit scientific evidence that smoking is unhealthy.

Director Robert Kenner interviews an interesting array of experts, including two people who started out as climate-change doubters, were converted by the data, and now give talks to people like themselves. As one of them puts it, not believing in climate change is rarely about studying and then rejecting the science behind it. It’s generally about rejecting the science out of hand in the interest of being a good “team member—showing the members of my tribe that you can count on me.” Meanwhile, many of the scientists in the film have had to adjust their assumptions, giving up their initial naïve faith that public demand would motivate politicians to do the right thing as soon as people had the facts about climate change. Instead, some have had to become experts not just in their field, but in how to effectively debunk the debunkers, using telegenic techniques like tossing one thick report after another at a denier who rhetorically asks to be shown the proof behind the theory.

A well-curated collection of clips of corporate leaders lying and Fox News hosts lobbing softball questions at fake experts is mixed in with footage of heated exchanges at conferences and hearings, occasional Monty Python-style imagery, archival news footage, and other graphics, keeping the static talking heads to a minimum. In a metaphor that stretches the entire length of the film, magician Jamy Ian Swiss serves as a guide to the flimflam, explaining the sleight of hand and misdirection behind card tricks as a metaphor for how corporations and PR firms intentionally mislead the public about public health issues.

As the film makes clear, the tobacco industry’s playbook has been infuriatingly effective at delaying needed change in several industries for decades, but Kenner maintains a tone of optimism. Like most documentaries of this kind, Merchants of Doubt ends in a call to action, giving the last word to former Congressman Bob Inglis, who was unseated by the Tea Party for having changed his mind on climate change. Inglis travels around the conservative talk-show circuit, trying to tell people who don’t want to hear his message about the dangers of climate change. It’s a hard slog, but Inglis, who we see patiently and politely engaging a talk-radio host who keeps shouting in response, says he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t try. That same can-do spirit is seen in scientists like Naomi Oreskes, the co-author of the book that inspired the film. Oreskes responded to the death threats and other hate mail she received after debunking the myth that there’s no scientific consensus on global warming by researching her attackers, then publicizing some very interesting facts about the group that organized and funded them. Their unflappable refusal to be intimidated by those who want to silence them is downright inspirational.

 Cast: Patricia Callahan, Matthew Crawford, Stanton A. Glantz, James Hansen  Director: Robert Kenner  Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics  Running Time: 96 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2014  Buy: Video

Elise Nakhnikian

Elise Nakhnikian has written for Brooklyn Magazine and runs the blog Girls Can Play. She resides in Manhattan with her husband.

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