Although it’s hardly the first issue-driven documentary bent on exposing the corrupt practices and outright lies perpetuated by multinational businesses, “Merchants of Doubt” distinguishes itself in part by taking that brand of dishonesty as its very subject. An intelligent, solidly argued and almost too-polished takedown of America’s spin factory — that network of professional fabricators, obfuscators and pseudo-scientists who have lately attempted to muddle the scientific debate around global warming — this is a movie so intrigued by its designated villains that it almost conveys a perverse form of admiration, and the fascination proves contagious. A logical follow-up to his similarly blood-boiling 2009 muckraker “Food, Inc.,” Robert Kenner’s slickly assembled feature may not touch the zeitgeist to the same degree, but should enjoy healthy exposure through Sony Classics following a lively festival run.
Providing an accessible, somewhat facile framing device, professional magician Jamy Ian Swiss describes how all sleight-of-hand (including the card trick he performs and demystifies onscreen) is predicated on the audience’s willingness to be deceived. By contrast, he and Kenner argue, the misdirection practiced by tobacco lobbyists and climate-change deniers represents a fraud perpetrated on the American public — one that has dramatically slowed the cause of progress on important issues by sowing confusion, even when no confusion actually exists in the scientific community. As we are continually reminded, the goal is never to win the debate (impossible), but rather to create and sustain the very illusion of a debate, so as to frustrate and delay public action as long as possible.
In the case of Big Tobacco, that meant manufacturing doubt about the dangers of cigarettes well into the ’80s and ’90s, even though scientific studies as early as the ’50s had demonstrated conclusive links between smoking and lung cancer, heart disease and numerous other illnesses. The film has fun mocking some of the more ludicrous rhetorical strategies employed in that cause, whether it’s a Phillip Morris executive claiming that “applesauce can be harmful” if you consume too much of it, or the idea that limiting tobacco products would set a dangerous precedent in curbing American freedoms. And yet, these fallacious arguments have proved largely successful, insofar as they effectively held back regulation for half a century.
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As pointed out here by Kenner and interviewee Naomi Oreskes (who, along with Erik M. Conway, co-authored the 2010 book that inspired the film), one way to effectively remove public fear around a particular issue is to create fear elsewhere — something the tobacco industry managed by aligning itself with the flame-retardant industry, as if unprotected furniture, not cigarettes, were to blame for house fires. Chicago Tribune reporters Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe describe how they got surgeon David Heimbach to admit that his sob stories about treating burned babies had been fabricated.
Heimbach was speaking on behalf of a group that, under the name of Citizens for Fire Safety, is in fact a front for flame-retardant manufacturers, and Kenner is particularly fascinated by the phenomenon of self-described “grassroots” organizations that are actually shilling for specific corporate and political interests (the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, the Exxon Mobile-financed Heartland Institute, etc.). Aided and abetted by exposure from uncritical news media, these groups have played an especially strong role in the global-warming debate, which becomes the film’s primary focus as it points out largely conservative-backed attempts to suggest that “we don’t really know” if the proliferation of man-made greenhouse gases has contributed to climate change, when in fact scientists are in unanimous agreement that yes, actually, we really do.
One of the film’s key insights is that scientists, despite being authoritative experts in their fields of study, are not typically the most effective communicators of their research. That’s why they can often be blindsided in public debates by the more charismatic likes of professional climate-change misinformer Marc Morano — one of the film’s more candid subjects, happily chattering away about his lack of scientists credentials and his delight in spearheading mass email attacks on those experts who contradict him. By extreme contrast, the film finds a heroic and sympathetic figure in former Congressman Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican who changed his tune when he saw irrefutable evidence of climate change, drawing the ire of fellow conservatives and libertarians (and, the film suggests, losing his next election as a result).
Audiences already convinced of the dangers of cigarettes and climate change will likely find themselves nodding in exasperated agreement throughout much of Kenner’s film. Still, despite its preaching-to-the-choir tendencies, “Merchants of Doubt” presents itself as a highly entertaining, even satirical item, overflowing with eye-popping graphics and smart talking heads — all the better to appeal to those viewers unwilling to read scientific articles, keep up with the news or consider viewpoints that run counter to their beliefs. There’s perhaps a necessary element of hypocrisy in this approach, given the film’s point that too many Americans, by and large, prefer showmanship over science. Nevertheless, Kenner and his collaborators have made their case with both intelligence and irrefutable style.