“MERCHANTS OF DOUBT” — ★★½ — Robert Hansen, Frederick Singer, Naomi Oreskes, Jamy Ian Swiss, Bob Inglis, Marc Morano; PG-13 (brief strong language); Broadway
The core argument of the new documentary “Merchants of Doubt” is simple: the movement to debunk climate change is corporate-funded and lacks credibility. For this, the film makes a decent case.
By extension, the audience is supposed to determine that climate change is exactly what they are told it is. The opposition is dubious, therefore we are right. This case, however, is more shaky.
“Merchants of Doubt” will be much more effective at confirming viewpoints than changing them. Regardless of where you fall on the issue, director Robert Kenner’s effort will make you think long and hard about not just what you believe, but also why you believe it.
The film’s primary device is to create an equivalency between those who dispute climate change and the public relations pros who defended cigarette manufacturers when they came under fire back in the 1960s. Rather than directly refute the evidence, these “merchants” worked to cast doubt on scientific findings, to argue ambiguity and make it difficult for the anti-smoking lobby to gain traction. And when the cigarette company’s internal communication eventually came to light, the results were damning.
From there, “Merchants” transitions to the present day to show how similar tactics have undercut climate scientists like James Hansen, who began sounding the alarm back in the 1980s.
Think tanks, like the George C. Marshall Institute, are singled out as institutions more beholden to corporate funding than an honest pursuit of truth. Climate scientists share vulgar and harassing emails they receive from hostile fanatics. Marc Morano, a self-proclaimed “environmental journalist,” chuckles about his work as if the substance of the issue was immaterial next to his victory in the public sphere.
It’s very compelling material, but while “Merchants” goes to great lengths to discredit those who question climate change, it does very little in a scientific sense to support climate change itself. Essentially, you have a lot of scientists claiming that the science is right and little else.
This becomes problematic when Michael Shermer enters the picture. Shermer is the founder of Skeptic magazine and converted to the climate change camp after years of skepticism. But when he tells his story, he claims that the birth of his skepticism came after scientists in the 1970s proclaimed a number of doomsday predictions that failed to materialize. “Merchants” fails to explain to audiences why we shouldn’t expect the same outcome today.
In a way, “Merchants” is more effective as a commentary on how the political sphere clouds our judgment on particular issues. Here you could argue that Morano is onto something: The substance of the issue isn’t nearly as important as which political philosophy has laid claim to it. Climate change is seen as a left-wing cause, and thus triggers suspicions from anyone outside that ideology. The substance of climate change is of less interest than who is on board with it.
Historian Naomi Oreskes provides one of the film's most enlightening comments when she identifies the common thread between several of the issues in question. It is the fear of regulation, and by regulation socialism, she says, that recruits the merchants of doubt into each fight.
“Merchants” interviews figures on both sides of the climate change issue, and features an especially compelling segment on former South Carolina U.S. Representative Bob Inglis — a rare conservative supporter of climate change — who lost reelection by embracing the cause.
But accusations of corporate corruption and email harassment aren’t enough on their own to make a conclusive argument.
Kenner’s sympathies are clear — “Don’t let them stack the deck!” the film proclaims — and ultimately “Merchants of Doubt” does a much better job of making you think than convincing you of what to think.
“Merchants of Doubt” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language; running time: 96 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.