I do try to keep things professional in my reviews. I don’t do this to start flame wars or advance any kind of sociopolitical agenda, I do this because I love movies. And I presume that you read my reviews for similar reasons. However, another reason why I keep this blog is because I want to put in some kind of effort at helping to promote good movies that have the gumption to present challenging material. This naturally means that I’ll occasionally have to cover movies with politically charged messages, since those are some of the toughest statements to make.
With all of that said, let’s talk about Merchants of Doubt. It’s a documentary about the various tricks and tactics used by special interest groups to fight science-related issues that are against corporate interests. So in many ways, it’s like the non-fiction version of Thank You for Smoking.
The film starts with the 1950s backlash against cigarettes, when multiple studies began showing that tobacco was both addictive and fatal. The tobacco companies responded by collaborating with a PR firm to develop a sort of playbook, detailing ways to maintain the status quo by encouraging legislative gridlock and manipulating public opinion. These methods proved to be so successful that corporations have subsequently used them to fight any possible kind of reform.
This film spends a bit of time to show how the playbook is applied to the issue of flame retardants in furniture, and at least half the film is devoted to how corporations use these techniques to cast doubt on global warming. But if you look hard enough, you can see these same methods in every possible issue, from pesticide use to gun control, from vaccinations to the obesity epidemic, from evolution to GMOs.
What’s really interesting about all of these issues is that if you take a close look at the “experts” who represent the corporate-friendly side of these issues — writing op-eds, appearing on news broadcasts, replying in message boards, etc. — you start to see the same names reappear quite frequently. That’s not necessarily a red flag in itself — God knows how many times Bill Nye has been on TV to talk about evolution and climate change. Except that the “expert” opposite Nye is usually some kind of “science executive” from a think tank.
Look closely and you may notice that the think tank is most likely the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Marshall Institute, or the Heartland Institute. All of these organizations are known to take money from corporations for the express purpose of acting as a “neutral party.” It’s a facade that only lasts as long as no one thinks to follow the money. Seriously, there’s one point when William O’Keefe, CEO of the Marshall Institute, is asked what his organization would do about climate change if his services were hired by an environmentalist group. In response, he just laughed and said “They couldn’t afford us.”
The film presents another great example from a few years ago, when California lawmakers were considering a ban on harmful fire retardant chemicals used in furniture. The motion was defeated following testimony from a trio of burn doctors, paid for their time by “Citizens for Fire Safety.” A couple of reporters for the Chicago Tribune did some digging and found that the “Citizens for Fire Safety” group was actually a front for the three largest manufacturers of flame retardant materials in the country. The group folded, the law was passed following some revisions, and the Tribune reporters won a Pulitzer.
We also see how these same burn doctors made multiple appearances in different flame retardant debates all throughout the country, and they always told the same story (with some minor variations) about an infant who died in a fire. Closer inspection showed that precisely none of these stories were true. Yet the doctor got away with it because he was telling an anecdote for the purpose of making a greater point, and anyway, he wasn’t sworn in.
Additionally, the film highlights the oft-referenced statistic of 31,000 scientific experts who disagree that climate change is man-made or even that it’s happening at all. This stems from the so-called “Oregon Petition,” and yes, I am ashamed to say that it did originate from the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine in my home state. Anyway, the relevant point is that the veracity of that figure is very much in question, given that the Spice Girls, Charles Darwin, and various science fiction characters are all listed among those who signed the petition. Yet that figure of 31,000 is still quoted and held as a club by climate change deniers, like that takes away from the umpteen millions of credible scientific experts and studies that say climate change is a real man-made thing.
But again, it’s not like anyone was forbidden by law to lie about it. What about the experts who face perjury charges for giving false testimony under oath? Well, then you have the infamous 1994 congressional hearing in which 7 tobacco executives gave sworn testimony that nicotine was neither addictive nor harmful. And you’d damn well better believe this movie brings up that little incident. The message is clear: Any “expert” brought in to cast doubt on hard science will have no problem lying about it. Ever.
Look even closer, and you’d notice that the “science experts” in question have virtually no scientific qualifications, aside from maybe a couple of college classes. In fact, there are multiple times in this movie when such notable “scientific experts,” as Marc Morano and William O’Keefe flat-out tell us that they are not even remotely interested in the scientific facts at play. The film argues that this is because if the debate really was about science, there would be no possibility that these guys could win. The science is too clear and the consensus among scientists is overwhelming. So the debate is instead framed as a political and/or economic issue, where the corporate-hired lobbyists have an advantage and most scientists would be out of their comfort zones.
There are two notable exceptions, however. The film introduces us to Fred Singer and Frederick Seitz, both of whom are actual physicists who have earned tremendous recognition in their field. Yet they were both heavily involved in the efforts to publicly deny the health effects of smoking, and Singer remains one of the world’s most vocal climate change skeptics (Seitz also denied the reality of global warming until his death in 2008). What could possibly have driven such highly respected scientists to be such outspoken critics of science outside their field? Money was probably a factor, but calling that the sole factor seems too easy. And it doesn’t explain the thousands of everyday people who violently disagree with the reality of climate change without getting paid a cent.
No, the film posits that Singer and Seitz joined this game for political reasons. You see, they were both nuclear physicists just as the Cold War was starting up, so they were of course extremely wary about the USSR. The logic goes that perhaps these scientists equated government regulations (say, on tobacco or greenhouse gasses) with larger government and a slippery slope towards communism.
Corporations and think tanks were naturally very quick to adopt this line of thinking, eager to portray scientists in a villainous light as sinister forces eager to take away our freedoms by way of regulation. The film even gives us a whole montage of ads claiming that the government will take away our freedom of speech and dictate our every action if we let them take our cigarettes away. We even see one expert testimony claim that if anyone dies of tobacco use, it’s the fault of the user and not the company. Which, it seems to me, translates roughly into “Anyone who buys our product and believes a word we say would have to be a fucking idiot.”
Also… Folks, I’m sorry. I’m getting way off track with something the film never bothers to bring up, but I just have to say this: I am so sick and goddamn tired of corporations and their mouthpieces talking about protecting our freedom. It’s a load of bullshit. All of it. They manufacture products that are addictive, specifically so that we will feel compelled to buy and consume their product all day every day. Corporations merge with each other into these massive conglomerates while either shutting down or outright buying new businesses that come along, taking up such a huge part of the market share that eventually they won’t have any competition and we won’t have any choice. And we’re supposed to believe that they care about our freedom? Fuck you!
Speaking of which, the film also neglects to talk about why the news media persists in treating issues like global warming as hotly controversial topics, even though the science on the topic is beyond question. That’s a pretty glaring blind spot, though I guess the issue of playing up controversy to get better ratings would be just a little bit beyond the scope of this documentary. Yet the film never thinks to mention whether the news media is on the take, which would definitely have been a relevant point.
However, the film does make note of those times when climate change is not merely a partisan issue. We’re treated to clips of Mitt Romney, John Boehner, Newt Gingrich, and other prominent Republicans joining their colleagues across the aisle in stating that global warming is a very real problem that demands immediate bipartisan effort. Cut to after the election, when they’re all back to stating that the science just isn’t there, they have no idea what’s going on, etc.
So is there any upshot in all of this? Well, the good news — according to the film — is that all these massive corporations know they can’t win. They can only slow things down and buy more time to make all the money they can. It’s a losing battle, since someone will eventually do the research and everyone will start wising up to their bullshit.
The problem, of course, is that doing the necessary research takes time, and some crucial vote or meeting could already be over by the time the lie has been exposed. Bullshit travels faster than truth, but the disparity between the two of them is getting narrower in the Internet Age. When tobacco executives first said that nicotine was completely harmless, it took fifty years of lawsuits to prove that they knew otherwise at the time and lied about it anyway. When “Climategate” happened in November of 2009, it took reporters less than a month to figure out that leaked e-mails were quoted out of context to make climate scientists look bad. We’re slowly starting to wise up to all the bullshit and “anti-Communist” paranoia that’s been shilled to us over the years. The only question is whether we’ll be in time to do anything about it.
It shouldn’t exactly be news that corporations hire lobbyists and so-called “experts” to manipulate public opinion and lie about scientifically proven facts. Still, Merchants of Doubt should absolutely be seen by anyone with a vested interest in learning just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Throw in some very stylish CGI graphics and neat sleight-of-hand metaphors to help explain the concepts at play, and you’ve got a documentary that demands to be seen.