Americans are willing suckers in 'Merchants of Doubt' doc

Merchants of Doubt / B+

"Doubt is our product." —corporate memo seen in Merchants of Doubt

With the rise of corporate ownership and consolidation of the so-called mainstream media, it has become clear that American journalism has mostly abandoned serious long-form reporting, the kind of muckraking that confronts, informs, and challenges those in power. Faux arguments for "balance" and "both sides of the story" have replaced meaningful investigation, while opinion and "analysis" have displaced evidence-based journalism. Cable news is filled with PR flacks disguised as unbiased “experts,” ideologically driven scientists (often from disciplines that have nothing to do with the subject at hand), Koch Industries-sponsored think tank scholars, and Red baiting editorialists. Their goal is to spread misinformation, seed skepticism, and vilify anyone who dares to challenges the profit-making practices of moneyed interests.

Today, the public's best bet for a factual and comprehensive look at issues of ecological, economic, and social injustice — especially those endangered by corporate interests and public officials — is in the work of documentary filmmakers.

If only the public gave enough of a shit.

The willful ignorance and gullibility of American citizens is a frightening thing to behold, particularly for anyone who is versed in scientific methodology and research. Before becoming a writer, critic, and journalist, I spent more than 10 years working as a molecular biologist, running small research labs and otherwise putting my degree in microbiology to good use.

Witnessing the near-daily stream of misinformation and ignorance that passes for news and knowledge on television, radio, and the Internet is beyond frustrating. The public's embrace of anti-intellectualism, its reluctance to understand context or nuance, and its desire for easy answers and identifiable villains has made it far too easy for corporate interests to manipulate policy and circumvent the meaningful discussion of scientific fact and findings. Viewing Fox News or CNN is akin to watching your parents being willingly swindled by a con-man.

In fact, it is inevitable that this very review will be regarded by some as yet another liberal, socialist, America-hating screed against the God-given virtues of capitalism. So be it. I still encourage those who take issue with my review to watch Robert Kenner's Merchants of Doubt, if only to construct an informed (rather than a reactionary) rebuttal.

While it will win no awards for cinematic artistry or subtlety — Kenner's doc is the definition of advocacy filmmaking — Merchants of Doubt carefully and convincingly charts how the same tactics (and even players) the tobacco industry used to con the public about cancer risks and nicotine addiction have been enthusiastically employed by pharmaceutical companies, the flame-retardant industry, and — most especially — the fossil-fuel industry, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to discredit climate change research. And why not? Another year's delay in public policy can mean billions in corporate profits.

As science historian Naomi Oreskes (whose eponymous 2010 book written with Erik M. Conway inspired this film) points out, the tobacco industry waylaid regulation for nearly five decades. Unfortunately, with ever-increasing changes to global temperatures, climate scientists claim we need action now. Fifty years may be too late.

But scientific consensus and wonky explanations are no match for Koch Industries-backed PR machines and fiery free-market zealots who use well-financed campaigns and an easily duped (if not wholly cooperative) media to distract, dissuade, and deceive. Gleeful public relations sociopath Marc Morano cackles with delight as he brags of defaming and undermining nerdy, well-meaning scientists who aren't savvy with a sound bite. When proven lies and suborned perjury aren't enough to convince news outlets that the debate is far from balanced, what hope is there for the average viewer?

Take for instance, former six-term South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, a die-hard conservative with unimpeachable right wing and Christian credentials. After serving on the Congressional Science committee, traveling twice to Antarctica to examine ice-core samples, and seriously studying the research, he changed his mind about global warming and spoke openly about the need to address the issue. What was the result? You noticed the use of the word "former," did you not? Watching this sincere man shouted down by raging constituents is one of the more disheartening moments in the film. It's a scene echoed at a libertarian convention when Skeptic magazine's publisher, Michael Shermer (a card-carrying libertarian), argues the same point with the same result.

Kenner begins his film with Jamy Ian Swiss, a magician at the famed Magic Castle in Hollywood. Through tricks and explanations, Swiss lays out the psychology behind sleight-of-hand, how easily an audience can be misdirected from seeing the truth. It’s a topic Kenner keeps returning to. Merchants of Doubt's message here is abundantly clear: Corporate America is involved in an elaborate and extravagantly funded game of three-card monty, playing the public for the suckers they are all-too willing to be.

Merchants of Doubt is rated PG and has a run time of 96 minutes.

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