Merchants of Doubt

Posted on March 5, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Discussion of tobacco
Violence/ Scariness: References to injury and environmental degredation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2015
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics

Do you remember the tobacco executives standing up before a Congressional Committee, their right hands raised, each of them swearing that they did not believe that tobacco caused cancer?  That was in 1994, three decades after the US Surgeon General’s report showing the adverse health effects of cigarettes.  Any other consumer product with that much proof of its destructive impact would have been restricted or banned long ago.  But the tobacco industry was able to delay or prevent meaningful government action through a series of  public relations maneuvers and strategic lobbying and campaign contributions.  Ultimately, tobacco consumption was reduced in the United States.  Television ads were banned.  Warning labels were required.  Very big fines were assessed following lawsuits that revealed a history of intentional deception as toxic as cigarettes themselves.

But the legacy of using corporate money to undermine science and thus to undermine public policy as well may be the most devastating effect of all.  As documented in “Merchants of Doubt,” based on Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, corporations have used distraction, delay, and downright deceit to create pretend opposition to scientific findings. Their tactics have included those as sophisticated and complex as the creation of fake “public interest groups” with secret funding by corporations and their trade associations, to those as simple and old-fashioned as releasing the private contact information of the scientists and encouraging a barrage of bullying threats and personal attacks.

One of the film’s most devastating segments deals with a two-year, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by two Chicago Tribune reporters about how the tobacco companies thwarted potential regulation by fraudulently shifting the blame for home fires from cigarettes to the failure of furniture to be coated with toxic flame retardant chemicals. Fake experts and fake studies work because no one, neither the journalists who are hard-wired to present “both sides” nor the law-makers and regulators who are often looking for a way to justify the decisions their corporate funders are supporting, ever make an effort to find out the experience, expertise, reputation, or conflicts of interests of these industry-supported “experts.”

The focus now is climate change, with more than 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists agreed that it is a severe, even critical problem and millions of dollars spent by the fossil fuel industries to distort, delay, and deceive. In the film, former Congressman Robert Inglis, who identified himself as having been elected from “the reddest county in the reddest state in the country” (South Carolina), and who considers himself a hard-core conservative, lost his bid for reelection because, after a visit to Antarctica where he witnessed the evidence of climate change, he was considered a traitor, perhaps less by his constituents than by the industry funding anyone who would oppose government action on climate change.

No matter what you think about tobacco, climate change, or fire retardants, this is an essential film because it addresses the key issue of trust. Whatever policies you support, everyone should agree that they must be grounded in the clearest and best-documented facts. Who can we believe? What questions should we ask? As Senator Whitehouse said last week, “You can believe every single major American scientific society, or you can believe the Senator with the snowball.”

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