[This is a re-post of my Merchants of Doubt review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is now playing in limited release.]
There is no debate over whether climate change is real. That’s the thing about science: the facts speak for themselves. So why do we constantly hear politicians and pundits arguing over the merits of climate change, whether it’s really happening, whether it’s man-made, or whether this is all a big conspiracy set up by the government and/or “watermelons” (aka communists disguising themselves as environmentalists)? Perception is everything, and when you can create the perception of a debate regardless of facts, then you can cast doubt and thus manufacture a conversation with “two sides” that shouldn’t actually exist.
In his new documentary Merchants of Doubt, director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) shines a light on the very people that are hired to sway public perception of major issues (like climate change) for a hefty price. While the film itself is engaging, infuriating, and oftentimes very funny, it’s ultimately a case of preaching to the choir. It’s nice to think that those unaware of how rigged the game is will be swayed by the film, but as we see in the context of the movie itself, people choose what they want to believe, and there are plenty of outlets that will tell them what they want to hear no matter the validity.
The opening and closing moments of Merchants of Doubt revolve around a magician explaining the art of deception. This is fitting, since the bulk of the movie is focused on revealing some of the larger mass deceptions of the past half-century. It begins with Big Tobacco, showing how the tobacco companies knew in the 1950s that their cigarettes were harmful, but began implementing tactics that would change the conversation. Namely, they couldn’t legally say cigarettes weren’t harmful, but they could certainly cast doubt on the matter. Indeed, one official memo that was circulated through one of the companies boasted, “doubt is our product.”
The bulk of the film, though, is focused on the perception of a debate over climate change. This connects to the Big Tobacco section because many of the same “experts” and operators that worked to change public perception about cigarettes are now employed by oil companies to work the anti-climate change angle. Kenner uses interviews with climate change experts like James Hansen and pundits-for-hire like Marc Morano, showing how easy it is for media personalities to shut down scientific facts through simple communication tactics.
There’s a strong sense of dark humor throughout the film, as you see just how ridiculous some of these so-called experts are and how well their tactics work. For his part, Morano is candid and upfront about his strategies, feeling quite proud of himself for posting personal email information of climate change scientists on his website, which in turn lead to nasty death threats from those “in opposition” to climate change. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and that makes the tactics all the more despicable.
What’s sad is that the debate over climate change isn’t really about climate change at all, it’s about picking sides. When South Carolina Republican congressman Bob Inglis dared to speak out and say that immediate action was needed to combat climate change, he was overwhelmingly voted out of his district and branded a black sheep. As a former climate change denier the irony is not lost on him, and he eloquently sums up how we’ve come to this stalemate on the issue: “If it was coming from the other side, it’s gotta be wrong.” Big Oil and investors like the Koch Brothers have turned the climate change issue into a battle between Democrats and Republicans. If you “believe” in climate change, then you’re simply not a real Republican. It’s quite brilliant actually, as it divides people based on party lines (look at cable news networks to see how much we crave “teams” and tearing down the other side) instead of debating the facts and science.
And this is why, despite being entertaining, informative, and maddening, Merchants of Doubt feels almost like a lost cause. The film itself conveys that the issue of climate change has been politicized to the point that Republicans speaking out in favor of action are attacked by both the right wing media and their own party. Either climate change deniers will refuse to see Merchants of Doubt altogether, or a heavy and effective counter-campaign will be launched to refute the facts brought up in the film. People believe what they want to believe, and more often than not, they will listen to the “experts” that share their views while ignoring everything else as [insert political party here] hogwash.
I’d love to be more optimistic and think that a film like this could change the conversation about climate change, but I’m doubtful. Merchants of Doubt unmasks the vast and formidable network of puppet masters that are working tirelessly to sway things in their direction, but the film also makes the argument that people now have the option of seeking out information from a friendly political party source, and as such, will almost always be fed what they want to hear. Though this fact adds a note of depression to the entire proceedings once the film has ended, it doesn’t mean that Kenner hasn’t put together a convincing and engaging argument. It’s just that there’s no shortage of pundits-for-hire ready and waiting to tear it apart.