Merchants Of Doubt


Issue documentaries, like Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, have been at the vanguard of the documentary film revival of the twenty first century. Merchants of Doubt is a kind of a meta-issue documentary. It’s not so much about the issue of global climate change as it is about the tactics used in the political war to preserve the status quo whose interests are threatened by the fight against climate change.

NASA climate scientist James Hansen in Merchants Of Doubt.
  • NASA climate scientist James Hansen in Merchants Of Doubt.

The two most effective weapons in director Robert Kenner’s arsenal are magician Jamy Ian Swiss and former NASA climate scientist James Hansen. Swiss lays bare the psychological tricks the public relations firms hired by fossil fuel companies such as Exxon Mobile use to induce political gridlock. His example of the planted shills who pretend to win games of three card monte against street hustlers leads directly into a discussion of the way extragovernmental think tanks pretend to be impartial while pushing their funders’ agenda.

Hansen was a NASA scientist whose study of Venus’s 600 degree surface temperature led to a 1988 Congressional testimony where he first delivered the news about the threat of global warming to the American people. This bona fide American hero delivers the most poignant line in the movie: “We just assumed people would do what it took to avoid such adverse results.”

His phrasing—scientific, precise, and bloodless—perfectly illustrates Merchants Of Doubt’s central thesis. As science historian Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the book the film is based on, says, “If this is not a scientific debate, what kind of debate is it?” The answer, of course, is a political debate. And political debates are won by rhetoric and tribalism. The most illuminating passages in Merchants Of Doubt are those which illuminate the role of tribal identity in not only the global warming debate but also the rise of the Tea Party. As Skeptic magazine editor and lifelong libertarian Michael Shermer discovered when, after long doubting that global warming was real, his opinion was changed by a close examination of the overwhelming scientific evidence. When documentarians follow him to a libertarian convention where he debates a climate change skeptic, audience members attack him as with phrases like “That’s what YOUR TEAM wants us to think!”

Merchants Of Doubt’s production design is one of the best I’ve seen in a documentary in recent memory. The writing and research are meticulous, and director Kenner is not afraid to interview the people he’s calling liars and shills. Most memorable is Climate Depot editor Marc Morono, who actually says, with the same perfect conviction he brings to everything, that death threats are no big deal, and he loves to get them.

The problem with this kind of issue documentary is that it seems like preaching to the choir. No one who views their identity as a conservative in good standing is going to voluntarily watch this film, and if they’re exposed to it, they’ll just call it more lies. Indeed, the documentarians’ methodology of following the money and questioning the neutrality of so-called impartial observers naturally leads to the question, “Who’s paying for this?” Just because I agree with it—and I do, wholeheartedly—doesn’t mean I shouldn’t ask hard questions of it. Merchants Of Doubt’s thesis is that slick communicators willing to use any tactics available, regardless of morality, are the ones who can win political debates. The slickness and clarity of the production means the filmmakers have taken that lesson to heart.

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