Interview: Robert Kenner of “Merchants of Doubt”

Posted on March 22, 2015 at 7:03 am

Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics

Robert Kenner’s Merchants of Doubt is a deeply unsettling documentary about the way corporations divert money they should be spending on making better products more effectively to spend it instead on undermining science and scientists. By creating fake “public interest” groups with generic names to argue that scientific findings are not sufficient to take action they use the tactics perfected by the tobacco companies to delay government action for decades while people suffer the consequences. These days, that primarily means “selling” the idea that there is not a scientific consensus on the reality and the causes of climate change, but it applies to many other scientific findings as well.  The scientific method is rigorous, checked and counter-checked, and ruthlessly truthful, with no other agenda but the facts.  This is the method that produces all advances in technology and medicine.  These efforts to devalue and undermine science by selling doubt the way corporations sell products obstruct efforts at the most fundamental level to establish policies based on the latest and most documented understandings of how the world works.

Writer/director Robert Kenner (“Food, Inc.”) said that while much of the film focuses on the fossil fuel companies’ efforts to discredit the science of climate change, “It is not about any specific industry. It’s about a group of very talented individuals who honed their craft in tobacco and were able to take the most difficult subject, a product that they knew was cancer causing, and for 50 years maintain doubt about it. They couldn’t say it doesn’t cause cancer because it’s a lie.  They could say,  ‘We don’t have enough science.  We need to do more study.’ It’s the ‘doubt and delay’ tactic.  So, they would switch the subject and say, “You’re taking our freedom away.  We should be allowed to smoke on airplanes.”  We had people picketing at Washington’s National Airport saying, ‘We demand the right to smoke on airplanes. You’re taking our freedom.’ So what’s interesting is on one hand we think of tobacco slightly as an old hat subject but what’s interesting is that playbook that was created lives on exactly the same way today.  What’s so interesting is not only is it a lot of the same people but it’s the same very specific tactics.” He says it is a kind of “anti-Enlightenment.”

The industry-sponsored consultants who fabricate “interest groups” with uncredentialed “experts” are the primary culprits in the film, but one of its most significant and disturbing revelations is the complicit nature of the media, whose reflexive commitment to “showing all sides” means that they will bring on any contrarian without checking the legitimacy of the source, training, expertise, or conflicts of interest. “The real battle here is I don’t think newspapers should be putting people who play scientists on television, quoting them as equals. I think the media is playing a role in encouraging false debate. There’s always going to be one guy out there arguing that the earth is flat but that does not mean the question is not settled.”

So it is especially gratifying to see an exception in the film’s portrayal of two Chicago Tribune investigative reporters who spent two years on a brilliant expose of fraud, misrepresentation, and fake science funded by the tobacco and chemical industries that led to fire retardant regulations that (1) didn’t work and (2) exposed infants to toxic chemicals.

But Kenner points out that there are “fewer and fewer and fewer” news organizations able to devote those kinds of resources to exposing these corporate scams. “There are now 4.5 PR representatives for every journalist. When I started out there were far more journalists than PR Reps. So as people get fired from their newspapers they get hired by the very companies that they might have investigated.”

This should not be a political issue, he says. “I talked to George Schultz and he said the greatest thing he and Ronald Reagan did was the international ozone treaty. He said, ‘We didn’t know 100% but we were in the high 90’s and it was the right thing to do. We had to take action. It was a great insurance policy.’ And Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and George Bush with acid rain — so there is a tradition of conservative environmental protection. We might all hate the EPA for being such nags, but the air and water are cleaner and so we are lucky they are there.”

He also insists that it is not an anti-corporate film. “It’s really important to say that corporations are in the best position to be the solution.”

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Directors Interview

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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Documentary Movies -- format Politics

Opening this Month: March 2015

Posted on March 1, 2015 at 3:35 pm

Happy March! Looking forward to warmer days and better movies. Some of what we’re looking forward to this month:

March 6

“Chappie,” from “District 9’s” Neill Blomkamp, is the story of a robot whose artificial intelligence may just rise to the level of a personality, even a soul, with Hugh Jackman (an experienced robot movie actor following “Real Steel”), Sigourney Weaver, and Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”).

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a sequel to the popular original. The returning cast includes Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, and (again) Dev Patel,” with newcomers Richard Gere and “Episodes'” Tamsin Greig.

March 13

Cinderella” is Disney’s live action version of the fairy tale, with Cate Blanchett as the evil stepmother and Helena Bonham-Carter as the fairy godmother.

“Merchants of Doubt” This documentary is a disturbing look into the subversion of scientific findings by corporate-sponsored “experts” acting on behalf of thinly disguised phony non-profits whose commitment is not to the integrity of the scientific method but to delay, distraction, harassment, and doubt.

March 20

“Insurgent” The second in the “Divergent” series has Jeanine (Kate Winslet) going after Tris (Shailene Woodley) and her friends.

“Seymour: An Introduction” Ethan Hawke directed this documentary about music teacher Seymour Bernstein.

Copyright 2015 Dreamworks
Copyright 2015 Dreamworks
March 27

“Home” Steve Martin, Jim Parsons, and Rihanna provide the voices in this animated comedy about an alien invasion.

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Opening This Month
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