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The Merchants of Doubt

Truth doesn’t matter if you yell loud enough

Who do you trust? When experts debate on television an issue like climate change, do you believe that both are qualified?
    Most often, the debaters are experts in speaking, not science.
    It turns out that the news is just another TV show. Lively debate, doubt and fear-mongering make for great ratings. There is little incentive to seek out facts when bread and circuses bring in money and viewers.
    In 2004, science historian Naomi Oreskes became interested in a phrase common in the Global Warming debate: “No consensus has been reached among scientists on the matter of climate change.” Oreskes read through every scientific paper on climate change published in journals from 1993 to 2003. Out of 928 articles, she found none that refuted climate change.
    If there was no disagreement in the scientific community, where did this dissent come from?
    Hint: It’s not science.
    Pundits are hired by think tanks and corporations to argue their case, not sift through the facts or do independent research. To that end, they manipulate data, suggest that scientists have a hidden agenda and lie. These experts also become the faces for volunteer groups backed by major corporations that depend on the status quo for their profits.
    Based on a book by Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt is a documentary that takes a troubling look at how easy it is to lead people away from the facts. Using the tobacco industry and the climate-change debate as his two main topics, director Robert Kenner (Food Inc.) examines how corporations manipulate citizens, government and the law to further their interests.
    Kenner interviews scientists who have been battered by the press and professional spin-doctors. Ill prepared by a life of research to deal with slick PR men, many of these researchers look befuddled when confronted by misinformation. James Hansen, one of the fathers of the climate change movement, admits that he wasn’t prepared to become the face of global warming. Nor was he prepared for the backlash. Death threats, smear campaigns and aggressive politicking.
    Those on the other side seem to enjoy being contrarians. All pundits readily admit to Kenner that they don’t conduct research; they merely interpret. Marc Morano, founder of Climate Depot, seems to revel in the fight if not the facts. He enjoys going after scientists who question his view that global warming is a liberal hoax, often publishing their personal email addresses and encouraging his followers to send hate mail.
    Kenner’s only misstep is his over-reliance on metaphor. To liken pundits to magicians performing card tricks, he uses a repeating motif of shuffling decks and sleight of hand. The framing device seems silly compared to the seriousness of the issues.
    Like most documentaries that take a bold stand, Merchants of Doubt will likely make you angry. Whether you’re furious at the pundits or Kenner’s take on climate change largely depends on what side of the debate you fall.

Good Documentary • PG-13 • 96 mins.