Merchants of Doubt (2014) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: James Hansen, Stanton Glantz, Bob Inglis, Frederick Singer, Jamy Ian Swiss, Naomi Oreskes, Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe, Marc Morano, Tim Phillips, Bill O'Keefe
Director: Robert Kenner
Screenplay: Robert Kenner, Kim Roberts (based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway)
Review published May 17, 2015
In the word "conscience", there is the word, "science", which stems from the Latin word, "Scientia", which mean to know. Those scientists are not necessarily motivated by matters of conscience, but they have a duty to test things and prove what they are saying is true with data to back it up, and those who do have a conscience use that information to let the public know that the thing they're doing or product they're purchasing is, in fact, quite bad for them. Ironically, 'conscience' also has the word, "con", within it, which, literally means to persuade someone to believe something, usually through deception. Those who practice these deeds aren't motivated by conscience so much as "con science", trying to persuade whomever will listen to distrust facts and the scientists that produce them, putting enough doubt in play to stall the debate long enough for the rich can reap rewards one more day.
Merchants of Doubt is a well-produced documentary covering the tactics employed, mostly by multinational corporations, to fund their own organizations, committees and pseudo-experts to counter the scientists on the other side who have shown evidence and published papers that the over-consumption or use of their product is detrimental to life, whether personal or environmental. These committees or individuals are there, not to counter the claims of these scientists with evidence of their own, but to cast doubt in the court of public opinion on those claims, causing either stagnation or downright hostility towards those who are coming forward with facts that are detrimental to the industries that are reaping great profits from keeping regulations against them at bay for as long as possible.
Robert Kenner's doc is slick and easily consumable, always interesting, and though emotionally impactful, still gets the message across very well. There are products that cause more harm than good, and the industries with deep pockets are willing to pay pennies on the dollar to obfuscate the issues to make it seem like the science community is either making claims that aren't conclusive, or are downright false. These organizational "think tanks" often have names that sound friendly to the consumers, such as the Citizens for Fire Safety (wholly funded by those who make the flame retardant material that have been deemed unhealthy), and they aren't above making up phony claims or names of experts on their side. They aren't out to win the argument -- they know they have no leg to stand on when it comes to debating cold, hard facts -- all they want to do is diffuse the other side just enough to make sure they don't land any blows. It's a rope-a-dope style that may ultimately not win the day, such as in the case of cigarettes, but while they delay the inevitable, they reap extra billions of dollars in earnings by slowing down legislation from passing.
Though the subjects cover such things as tobacco and toxic flame-retardant furnishings (which end up being linked), the real issue at the heart of the debate is the nay-sayers against global warming that have propagated to counter scientists on cable news outlets and at various conventions around the country. And what's worse, the scientists are neither skilled at being charismatic on television, nor are the very fact-and-figure heavy statements they make conducive to being readily understood or interesting to a viewing public looking for controversy, whereas the spokespeople on the side of casting doubt are specifically chosen for their ability to shift arguments away from facts and to play to the simple hopes and fears of the audience. Then, as in the case of a slimy-the-the-point-of-admirability anti-climate change mis-director Marc Morano, they publish the email addresses of said scientists so that they can receive insults and death threats from that ignorant public whose fires of rage have been stoked so well by the corporate shills that have been handsomely paid to do exactly that.
Smart, sassy, and well-developed, Merchants of Doubt is a successful documentary in that it lifts the curtain on the charlatans that have emerged to counter hard science, paid well by corporate interests to protect their industries, and fanning the flames of anger among the disenfranchised to blame the people who are trying to protect them through ignorance and fear tactics. It's an incendiary subject, but done with such a light touch by Kenner that it's unlikely to truly rile those who are adamant about keeping their heads in the oil-rich sand, but at the same time, they'll likely never watch anything that doesn't already conform to their singular world view anyway (staunch Conservative Bob Inglis was run out of office by the Tea Party in South Carolina because he could no longer argue against man-made climate change in good conscience). Where this is likely to gain traction is with those on the fence about the matters of how much they can trust what they see in the media, and how those so-called experts they see on television and online are really masters of illusion, out to play their own three-card monte on the most important issues of our generation.
It took a half century to finally convince the public that cigarette pose more harm than good. If the scientists who state that we are already beyond the tipping point for slowing down the harmful effects of global warming, fifty years is a luxury we can't afford. Though Kenner takes a light, funny, clever, and learned approach, that brick of sickness you feel when contemplating the ramifications of the success of keeping public ignorance on the matter in play will linger long in the memory beyond the end credit roll.
©2015 Vince Leo