Film Review – Merchants of Doubt
Merchants of Doubt
There are at least two sides to every issue, right? We often assume a good news report should be balanced and present alternative viewpoints to give the viewer as much data as possible. When dealing with issues of opinion or ideas, presenting the other side can let the viewer know there is more than one possible way to look at things. When it comes to facts however, presenting the “alternate” viewpoint can be misleading. There is science and then there is what someone wants to be true, and presenting both with equal weight serves no one very well. Robert Kenner’s new film Merchants of Doubt looks at the current climate change debate through this lens and finds the discussion wanting. This is not an objective documentary, but rather a film with a mission – to let viewers in on the tactics of climate change deniers, to speculate on their motivations, and to encourage everyone to take their obfuscation seriously. (Just to state my own views: I believe in climate change and that it is caused by human behavior. I am progressive in my political views but neither a Democrat nor a Republican.)
Merchants of Doubt begins by showing similar cases involving cigarettes and flame-retardants in furniture where – for various reasons – scientific facts were kept under wraps until investigative reporting uncovered that companies were skewing information for their own gain. By comparing tactics (and tacticians) Kenner shows how the same machinations are used to further the agenda of climate change deniers. If climate change is an incontrovertible fact, why would so many people work so hard to disprove it? The film posits four main reasons, the first of which is money. There are a lot of companies making tons of cash from fossil fuels and manufacturing. If humans are responsible for climate change, then we are going to have to make a lot of adjustment to how we do business if we want to improve the situation, and that’s going to involve some cost to everyone. Secondly, there are many people in powerful positions who believe in a smaller government. Controlling greenhouse gases will require regulation, and there are those who do not believe that government intervention in business and American values go together. It is also hard for some Republicans to accept an idea that originates on the left. If it is a Democratic idea, it must be crap. Being in a political party is being part of a tribe, and every tribe has a core set of values that make up how it defines itself. No one wants to identify with the enemy. And finally, to accept the need for change is to acknowledge that we have made mistakes in the past. Who we are as a country and how we do things will have to change, and many people resist this idea. Our national identity is tied to constant economic growth with little attention paid to the consequences, and there are those who are going to have a hard time letting that go.
Is this a good film? Yeah. Is it going to change the minds of those who fervently believe climate change is a hoax? I don’t know. It’s so obviously a message movie I am afraid it is going to turn off the very people who most need to understand what it has to say. It does a very good job of presenting different types of people on the side of climate change – from Republicans and Libertarians to Greenpeace liberals and scientists who are just chasing the facts. I found former Republican U.S. Representative Bob Inglis, to be the most interesting environmental spokesperson. He saw the facts, accepted their validity, and now works to find solutions that adhere to his conservative values. But the film also does a really good job of making most of the climate-deniers seem like venal money-grabbers, which may be true of many in the trenches, but I’m not sure the average climate change questioner opposed to more government regulations is a bad person. It makes the issue much easier to dismiss when someone feels they are being unfairly maligned.
The film uses interviews and clips of close-up magician Jamy Ian Swiss as a framing device, and I think it is effective. He discusses how he uses magic honestly to harmlessly amuse, while others use similar tactics to dangerously deceive. Occasionally, the style is a little too cutesy for me, but I tend to like my documentaries without any frills, so that’s mostly a taste issue. It’s a well-done film that unfortunately has a whiff of “preaching to the choir” about it. Because it’s goal is to get people involved, it might have been more effective to target those who need the most persuading.