Posted by Curt on 6 March, 2015 at 6:07 pm. 1 comment.


Rachelle Peterson:

Why don’t more Americans favor environmental regulations? Why don’t more politicians take action to stop global warming? Merchants of Doubt, a new documentary based on the 2010 book by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, posits an answer: A clique of mercenary scientists have published deliberately misleading studies meant to raise doubts about dangerous man-made global warming. They sow confusion on behalf of their nefarious masters in the fossil-fuel industry.

Merchants of Doubt is conspiracy theory on the order of The Matrix or The X-Files, except that it is presented as non-fiction. Far-right extremists once evoked a Communist conspiracy to put fluoride in the water supply; now we have the progressive Left evoking a capitalist conspiracy to put dangerous doubts in the idea supply.

Consider Merchants of Doubt the Bulveristic sequel to An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore’s 2007 “documentary” wasn’t altogether evenhanded, but at least it paid homage to the ideal of presenting “scientific data” about climate change. It aimed to convince the public on rational grounds. Sony Pictures Classics’ Merchants of Doubt (which opens today in American theaters, following its December 2014 launch in the U.K.) retires this apparently quaint concern and moves directly to the task of demonizing the remaining skeptics. Who needs to debate the scientific merits of the case for global warming when “consensus” has been achieved? Instead, the film concentrates on maligning the motives of skeptics of anthropogenic global warming.

Professional magician Jamy Ian Swiss, backstage at his Los Angeles Magic Castle show, opens the film with a digression on the ethics of deception. Magicians are “honest liars,” he says, who have a “moral contract” with their audience, who know they’re being fooled. Climate-change “deniers,” on the other hand, are closer to the category of “con men” — rent-a-scientists who perpetuate the mirage of debate and enable politicians to delay what director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) deems urgent climate regulations. As Swiss flips a deck of cards, the cards swirl in midair and revolve to show the faces of some of these scientific hirelings.

The film is well-shot and amusing to watch, with Swiss and his cards serving as a kind of narrator throughout. But Merchants itself engages in deception. At the same time that it accuses the public of falling for pseudo-scientific showmanship and believing the safe, soothing messages they want to hear, the film presents a caricature of climate science — one that comforts the choir of climate-change alarmists and ignores serious scientific concerns. The product that Merchants hawks is smear.

Merchants implies that the scientists in Swiss’s deck have sold out to Big Oil. But most of the film’s 96 minutes actually focus on the mid-century battle over the health risks of smoking. Kenner, following Oreskes and Conway’s lead, traces the stories of tobacco CEOs who knowingly lied on talk shows and radio programs about the carcinogenic, addictive nature of cigarettes. A New York PR firm, Hill and Knowlton, advised Big Tobacco that to deny outright a growing scientific consensus on the harms of smoking would blow the industry’s credibility, and instead they ought to create space for public uncertainty. RG Mills and other tobacco groups hired scientists to write papers that were inconclusive or promoted unrealistic standards of evidence. So long as smoking was actively debated within the scientific and political communities, legislators would refrain from heavy regulation, and customers would continue to purchase Mills’s products.

The link from yesteryear’s merchants of smoking doubt to today’s climate-change doubters is tenuous and depends almost entirely on an argument from analogy. Analogies, of course, can create powerful impressions: Think of Arthur Miller’s success in picturing the Salem witch trials as the template for Congress’s efforts during the Cold War to uncover Communist subversion. The propagandist is not concerned with whether the analogy is fair, but only with its capacity to mold public perception.

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