Movie Review: Doc Merchants of Doubt Will Infuriate You

Merchants of Doubt. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

As a kid, I had a friend who grew up and became a lawyer for Big Tobacco. He had a lot of success fending off lawsuits against his employers for conspiring to suppress evidence of cigarettes’ health risks, but I heard that after reviewing internal tobacco documents, he went home and ordered his wife to stop smoking. I guess after his many courtroom wins he could afford to buy a mirror that would soften what he really was. But I still wonder how someone with even half a soul can make a career of advocating for people who spew lethal misinformation. I guess that’s capitalism, comrade.

It’s also the question raised by Robert Kenner’s lucid documentary Merchants of Doubt, which focuses primarily on corporate-funded climate-change denialism, but also charts the maneuvers and counter-maneuvers of the tobacco industry. Is Kenner’s bias anti-corporate? The film — which is based on a 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway — suggests that there’s no way to look at the evidence and not be, whatever one’s politics. But not even well-funded “think tanks” and their spokesmen can keep up a pretense in the face of a ton of hard data. It’s rare these days for someone like the ubiquitous corporate spokesman Steve Molloy to say, as he once did, “There’s no evidence pesticides are harming us,” or Walker Merryman to insist that “there isn’t a scientific consensus” on the harmfulness of tobacco. Which is where, says Kenner, the concept of “merchanting doubt” comes in. It’s better to say, “the jury is out” or “we need more study.” That way, you can stall government action for years while senators like James Inhofe proclaim, “There’s no consensus!”

Kenner builds Merchants of Doubt — a little broadly, I think — around the figure of Jamey Ian Swiss, a card magician given to brilliant pronouncements on the subject of deception. But I suppose he felt he needed to step back and lighten the mood now and then — 93 minutes is a long time to be infuriated. To keep from spending the money to make cigarettes extinguish themselves more quickly, tobacco companies call for spectacularly ineffective fire retardants in furniture, prompting men like Dr. David Heimbach of “Citizens for Fire Safety” — which turns out to be funded by the three largest flame retardant makers — to lie to Congress. (He was speaking “anecdotally,” he later admits, and wasn’t under oath.)

Here are men like Bill O’Keefe, who serves as president of the George C. Marshall Institute, a noted think tank, while quietly operating as a high-paid lobbyist for Exxon Mobil. (Some of these guys can’t suppress their arrogance. Asked by Kenner if he’d think it was appropriate to hold his job while working for, say, Greenpeace, O’Keefe says, “They couldn’t afford me.”) Here is James M. Taylor of the Heartland Institute, an expert featured on CNN, Fox, etc. with only a few college science courses under his belt but reams of industry talking points. We also meet Mark Morano, whose specialty — the thing he admits to Kenner that he enjoys most, grinning broadly — is going after the scientists on a personal level, inspiring obscenities and death threats against them from readers of his website. (Does he pen any of the more abusive missives himself? Unclear.)

The “merchants” like to present themselves to TV journalists as taking a brave stand on behalf of fossil fuel companies against the greedy 97 percent of the world’s scientists. And not all of them, Kenner shows, are in it just for money. There are scientists like Fred Singer and Fred Seitz who came of age during the Cold War and dispute findings on the dangers of acid rain, asbestos, tobacco, and climate change because they’re convinced that government regulation will put the U.S. on the slippery slope to socialism. But there are some on that side of the political spectrum who refuse to let their ideology trump science. Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer, an avowed libertarian, took a look at the evidence and went after deniers. In the film, he’s seen presenting his findings to an increasingly enraged convention of his former allies. 

Not so long ago, even Republicans like Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and Mitt Romney proclaimed manmade climate change a fact and promised action — before pivoting 180 degrees after pressure from contributors and the tea party. The movie’s cautionary tale is of Republican South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, who made common cause with environmentalists and lost re-nomination by a wide margin.

What Merchants of Doubt makes clearest is that these issues shouldn’t be political. The 97 percent of scientists who warn that manmade climate change is terrifyingly real are not flaming Commies who have it in for the capitalist system — any more than researchers who once concluded that tobacco caused lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, etc. wanted to devastate the American economy. Casting these fights as political is part of the big lie that companies pay the Merchants of Doubt to spread. The left and right can have honest disagreements about government’s responsibility to the poor, to public education, to health care. But environmental catastrophe? The movie makes you wonder if flimflam isn’t an ideology, too.