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Liar, Liar, Planet on Fire

Merchants of Doubt masterfully exposes masters of manipulation


Global warming. There. I said it. Now, let the nutjobbing commence.

Next to vaccinations (and don't get me started on that one), Boise Weekly's reporting on climate change has incited some of our most colorful reader pushback.

"Another piece of propaganda," wrote reader Peter Guerva in January 2014. "Clownish," commented the often right-leaning blogger 5foldflats in November 2011. This March, a reader who identified him/herself as Skippy wrote to tell us, "Climate alarmism is nothing more than a fundamentalist religion with a political agenda." Boy, do I have a movie for you, Skippy. Merchants of Doubt, a highly-entertaining expose of spinmasters, opens with professional magician Jamy Ian Swiss dazzling with sleight-of-hand misdirection and deceit, explaining how the line between "honest lies" and bold-faced lies is readily compromised.

Masters of deception understand best that history's most successful distractions often include performances stretched out over large periods of time. Think back for a moment to the iconic image of top executives from the seven largest American tobacco companies—under oath before Congress in April 1994—swearing nicotine was not addictive. We know now that dating back to the 1950s, the tobacco industry's own research confirmed their products were hazardous. Big tobacco's tactic was never to win the larger debate of addiction but to prolong our skepticism, delaying an inevitable settlement that was forged on the corpses of millions of cancer victims. Merchants of Doubt reveals several chilling documents, including advice to tobacco companies from the advertising firm Hill & Knowlton, declaring "doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the mind of the general public."

That same tactic underlies the modern-day playbook of big tobacco's brothers-in-arms: climate science deniers. Politicians and pundits usually like to start their anti-global warming spin with phrases such as: "I'm not a scientist, but..." or "The science is complicated, but..." in order to come across as more "folksy." The pundits are media savvy and even charming, fitting neatly into tightly-produced segments on Fox News—and heaven help the scientists who allow facts to get in the way.

Merchants of Doubt includes clips of NASA scientist James Hansen, among the first to link climate change to carbon emissions, fruitlessly debating the ever-folksy Marc Morano, founder of Climate Depot and dubbed the "climate change misinformer of the year" by Media Matters. Morano is a Zen master of juicy sound bites and he's at his worst in those cable news shouting matches on Fox News and MSNBC. After one debate, in which he verbally eviscerated Hansen, Morano chillingly admitted he delights in his lack of scientific credentials and loves to flood email inboxes with attacks on those who contradict him. In a heartbreaking post-mortem of his debate with Morano, the clearly outmatched Hansen said he wrongfully "assumed that humanity will take some sensible action."

Merchants of Doubt, by filmmaker Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.), reminds us repeatedly that these "merchants" only want the debate to be never-ending and one of their most effective delaying tactics is to manufacture a different fear—something big tobacco did masterfully when it pointed to the flame-retardant industry, not cigarettes, as the blame for fires caused by people whose cigarettes had indeed sparked the blaze. It took a team of Chicago Tribune investigative reporters to reveal that an "expert" witness had fabricated stories about the fires.

If you accept the science of climate change, Merchants of Doubt will no doubt confirm your suspicions about these skilled salespeople. If you still believe that global warming is phony science, then Merchants of Doubt will probably only get you hot under the collar. And we wouldn't want that, would we?

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Merchants of Doubt

Director: Robert Kenner

Producer: Robert Kenner, Melissa Robledo, Jeff Skoll, Pierre Omidyar and Diane Weyermann