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Film review: Merchants of Doubt throws back the curtain on big industry



Merchants of Doubt is a powerhouse documentary that examines how big industry skews science in its attempts to stall inevitable regulations and obfuscate the truth.

All too often, the sleight of hand works, and it is deadly.

Director Robert Kenner examines case studies that intertwine, including climate change, big tobacco, flame retardants and asbestos makers. Often, the same “debunkers” are handsomely paid by these industries to contradict established scientific findings across all industries.

All that’s needed is a fraction of doubt, and corporations can easily broaden their profit margins for weeks, months or years. Just find one scientist who might disagree and everyone from Congress to the general public, in hearings and on news networks, is told “there is no scientific consensus.” Perhaps most relevant to local viewers is Kenner’s examination of environmental-journalist-turned-industry-shill Marc Morano. The former door-to-door-salesman-turned-paparazzi eventually settled with Sen. James Inhofe as his communications director. The method Morano uses to discredit climate science is attacking the personal lives of scientists as a way to weaken the integrity of their discoveries.

As narrator and magician Jamy Ian Swiss explains, this method of misdirection works because people become engaged in something off-topic. It diverts focus from facts to abstracts like “American freedom.” Scientific evidence is then minimalized as the discussion is redirected to fallacious, slippery slope arguments.


The documentary shows how Morano launches massive attacks that induce gridlock in the legislation process and nonscientific assertions that cause distraction and confusion in everyone from the casual viewer to top news outlets and legislative branches. Apparently, nothing is off-bounds. Morano no longer works for Inhofe, but his methods informed a generation of fact-spinners.

Similarly, Doubt examines how members of the Republican party have baldly reversed their own platforms regarding climate change. Big industry, including ExxonMobil and Koch, seemingly employs armies of groups to fight solely for “American prosperity,” all the while disregarding proof of damage, threat, injury or accountability. For example, when Rep. Bob Ingles broke rank after investigating climate change on his own, he did so at his own peril and roundly lost his next election.


The scientific method means continually examining new and updated scientific studies. The development of think tanks to find solutions to hypothetical issues often become skewed to partisan preconceptions in the process — especially the George C. Marshall Institute think tank, largely funded by ExxonMobil.

Climate scientists Ben Santer, Michael Mann and Katharine Hayhoe all show evidence of their own lives being threatened and harassed as retaliation for simply doing their jobs.

The difference between magicians and criminals is a magician is honest about his lies, Swiss explains. These industries are deceptive — sometimes dangerously so.

Print headline: No Doubt, A documentary throws back the curtain on how big industry dodges accountability by employing junk science and deception.

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