TIFF 2014: Merchants of Doubt Review

Documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner returns to the festival with his latest film Merchants of Doubt.  In what can be considered a highly relevant and provocative film, the illusion behind the morally questionable world of professional skeptics has been revealed.  The film examines the world of people hired by corporations to present themselves as scientific experts in order to cast doubt and influence public opinion on any number of topics, and in this particular case, Global Warming and Climate Change.

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Using illusionists and slight-of-hand magic as a metaphor for what he is investigating, Kenner traces back to the 1950’s to reveal the birth of the doubt industry.  It began with cigarette companies hiring men to publicly state in the media that cigarettes are not harmful, that they do not cause cancer, and that there is no evidence to support these claims.  Once these corporations saw the scientific evidence that cigarettes are indeed dangerous, they suddenly had a very big problem on their hands.  They hired a public relations firm to fix their image.  Other big corporations saw these tactics and began to employ them within their own industries.  Pharmaceutical, automotive, toxic chemical and energy companies all began to hire and pay these people to lay doubt about harmful things within the public eye in order to protect their profits.  Scientific data and mounds of evidence were hidden in an effort control their public image.  The energy companies now do this to sew the seeds of uncertainty and confusion by sending so-called scientific experts on TV and by paying politicians to delay any legislative action.

This isn’t a film about Global Warming or Climate Change; it is a film about deception.  The filmmaker hopes that, similar to when a magician reveals his tricks, in uncovering the inner workings of the trade, the illusion will be shattered and people will see and understand that they are being deceived.

The film could have been better balanced to fairly show both sides of the story but as usually the case with a documentary, it’s trying to get a specific point across, which is effectively achieved here.  Many interviews were conducted on both sides of the issue; however the film swiftly debunks any of the arguments presented by these professional skeptics.  Clear and concise evidence was presented to show what tactics they were using to stir up ambiguity around their argument.  Using 50-year-old examples from the tobacco industry, it’s clear that the truth eventually comes out and people’s minds begin to change.

After presenting the information about these types of operations, the film discusses the real psychological reasons behind Climate Change deniers.  While the most obvious and largest contributing factor is obviously money, profit, and greed, there are several other factors at play here.

Discussing the impact that Global Warming and Climate Change is having on the planet gets people thinking about their lives.  They begin to ask themselves if their entire way of life, their house, their car, their jobs, taking kids to soccer practice, is all fundamentally wrong.  Seeing how we would have to change everything we know and understand about our society is terrifying so they look for any reason not to believe the scientific evidence of what is happening and latch on to the denial for affirmation.  Instigating action against Global Warming through legislation and adapting our way of life is also seen as even more government regulating that people think will impact their personal freedoms, so again, they resist.  There is also a “tribe” mentality to groups of people who deny that anything is wrong.  They feel like they are part of a group or community, and don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that, which again, reaffirms their beliefs.

Some of the most powerful moments in the film come from the interviews with those that have changed their minds.  They include several politicians who, when faced with an understanding of the facts, changed their stance on the issue.  For some, publicly stating that meant sacrificing their careers.  The director hopes that in sharing these stories, it might make some people who deny Climate Change is a human-created problem or even exists feel more comfortable about changing their minds.

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The director remains hopeful that public perception about these problems will start to change.  With the advent of solar power that will soon be cheaper than coal, he sees a fundamental shift in how people think about energy and our planet, that the changing public opinion on other social issues such as same-sex marriage, smoking, and a wide-range of other topics will begin to percolate into attitudes towards Global Warming, Climate Change, and how we treat our planet.  There is a saying within the illusionist community, “Once revealed, never concealed.” This is what the director hopes to achieve here and this film has effectively started the conversation.

 

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