Alibi V.24 No.16 • April 16-22, 2015 

Film Review

Merchants of Doubt

If facts have a liberal bias, then emotions love conservatives

Merchants of Doubt

Directed by Robert Kenner

“Gravity? What has it ever done for you?”
“Gravity? What has it ever done for you?”

Filmmaker Robert Kenner (The Lost Fleet of Guadalcanal; Russia’s Last Tsar; Food, Inc.) starts out his whip-smart new documentary, Merchants of Doubt, by explicitly comparing lobbyists who work for major multinational corporations to magicians. Do they not employ the same slight of hand, the same misdirection, the same smooth ability to lie to someone’s face? At first this would seem to be an exaggeration, a too-easy metaphor for a far more complex situation. But as the evidence mounts, it’s clear the subjects of Kenner’s film have taken more than a few hints from professional prestidigitators.

Merchants of Doubt attempts to strip away all the professional stagecraft that these lobbyists employ in their day-to-day work. It’s obvious Kenner—inspired by the book of the same name by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway—has done his homework. The film starts out looking at the way in which the tobacco industry responded to the knowledge that its product was addictive and caused cancer. The industry didn’t just deny it; it hired lobbyists (and PR firms and think tanks) to fight the very idea tooth and nail. Sketchy “doctors” and fly-by-night “scientists” were trotted out on news shows and in front of Congress to obfuscate the issue. Politicians were bought and paid for with campaign contributions. Advertisements loudly told Americans their freedoms were being taken away by a too-big government. Based on long-suppressed tobacco industry documents, R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and the rest knew for decades their product was deadly. But the goal was simple: Keep the business alive for one more day. Do it by any means necessary, and keep riding that train until the wheels fall off. It took 50 years before tobacco companies were forced to answer for their sins.

No, they didn’t learn that deceiving the public and killing clients would eventually lead to repercussions. What they learned was how to control the flow of information.

The rest of corporate America obviously sat up and took notice of tobacco’s fall from grace. No, they didn’t learn that deceiving the public and killing clients would eventually lead to repercussions. What they learned was how to control the flow of information. In the years since tobacco crumbled, the architects behind tobacco’s massive lobbying and public relations efforts have been regularly employed in the service of chemical companies, car companies, oil companies and more. And as they’ve either died off or become repentant over their countless lies, these expert business flacks have been replaced by new generations of increasingly savvy illusionists.

Today’s biggest battlefield revolves around the oil industry and the issue of global climate change. Merchants of Doubt traces the clear evolution of manipulative lobbying practices from 1950s tobacco companies to today’s massive oil conglomerates. The goal used to be to convince people that a clearly harmful product was nothing of the sort. The techniques used seem almost laughable today. A Philip Morris executive grilled on television during the ’80s concedes that his product contains “harmful” ingredients. But, he counters, “applesauce is harmful if you eat too much.” Another cranky apologist, forced to admit his employer flat-out lied, says it was all the “consumer’s fault” for actually believing it.

In the years since tobacco crumbled, the architects behind tobacco’s massive lobbying and public relations efforts have been regularly employed in the service of chemical companies, car companies, oil companies and more.

Today, the trick is even harder: These pundits-for-hire have to convince the public that science isn’t real and that climate change isn’t happening. Failing that, they need to convince us it’s not the fault of humans. Or that it’s not fixable. Or that it’s actually a desirable outcome. (Who doesn’t like warmer weather? parrots Bill O’Reilly.) The bottom line is they’ll do anything and everything to live up to that old tobacco industry battle cry of “One more day’s worth of profit!”

Merchants of Doubt is a slickly produced, highly polished piece of filmmaking. It’s got all its ducks in a row, and it wastes little time getting to the juicy stuff. It’s not some Debbie Downer of a documentary either. It’s a maddening, exhilarating call to arms. This isn’t the first documentary to point out corrupt business practices. Not by a long shot. But it may be the first to state unequivocally that the primary product of corporate America—despite what it may say on the sign or the package or the company masthead—is lies.

While Merchants of Doubt would seem like one giant attack on the oil industry, it’s not. It’s about the parasitic enterprise that feeds off of it in the form of lobbying, PR and punditry.

We get eye-opening testimony from Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer, a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian and former climate change doubter who actually did his due diligence and investigated the numbers. Now he lectures on climate change—futilely it would seem—to auditoriums full of blisteringly angry conservatives. There’s the sad tale of Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, who changed his tune on climate change after actually going to Antarctica and looking at the science behind it all. Since then, he’s been roundly punished by his constituents and his party. On the other side of the coin, we get professional anti-climate change guru (and Rush Limbaugh disciple) Marc Morano. The undeniably charismatic Morano gleefully trots out his lack of scientific credentials and his delight in spearheading mass email attacks on the experts who would dare contradict him. His logic on the subject is as frightening as it is undeniable: Science is boring. Americans hate science. Use science to win a fight (about science, it should be noted), and you’re going to lose in the court of public opinion.

While Merchants of Doubt would seem like one giant attack on the oil industry, it’s not. It’s about the parasitic enterprise that feeds off of it in the form of lobbying, PR and punditry. Yesterday these snake oil salesmen worked for the tobacco industry. When that went down in flames, they jumped ship to the oil industry. Tomorrow they’ll abandon ExxonMobil and the rest for some other major international polluter with deep pockets.

Kenner’s documentary brilliantly dissects not just the “how” but the “why.” Why has climate change become such a hot-button political issue these days? Because it works. What the climate change deniers have done so brilliantly is reframe this issue as a political argument, one based entirely on partisanship. By tying a rejection of climate change into the belief system of conservatives, Big Oil has turned believing in global warming into a wholesale rejection of freedom, capitalism and American values.

It’s not about learning the facts anymore; it’s about confirming your own biases—which may be part of the problem with Merchants of Doubt. Its logic is airtight. Its evidence is unimpeachable. Its enthusiasm is infectious. But it proves, almost beyond a shadow of a doubt, the game is already lost. If your premise is that people won’t listen to logic, science and facts anymore, what’s the point of using logic, science and facts to prove it?