By Robert A. Vella

I love expertly produced documentaries especially when they include timely, high quality investigative journalism;  and, few films match the level of perfection attained in both respects as last year’s Merchants of Doubt.  That’s why we are rating it as must see.

This is much more than a run-of-the-mill exposé on the underhanded shenanigans of climate change deniers for it poignantly reveals a coordinated and sophisticated political campaign to undermine governmental action on critical societal issues over the last half century.  From Wikipedia:

Merchants of Doubt is a 2010 non-fiction book by American historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. It identifies parallels between the global warming controversy and earlier controversies over tobacco smoking, acid rain, DDT, and the hole in the ozone layer. Oreskes and Conway write that in each case “keeping the controversy alive” by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached, was the basic strategy of those opposing action.[1] In particular, they say that Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, and a few other contrarian scientists joined forces with conservative think tanks and private corporations to challenge the scientific consensus on many contemporary issues.[2]

The George C. Marshall Institute and Fred Singer, two of the subjects, have been critical of the book, but most reviewers received it favorably. One reviewer said that Merchants of Doubt is exhaustively researched and documented, and may be one of the most important books of 2010. Another reviewer saw the book as his choice for best science book of the year.[3] It was made into a film, Merchants of Doubt, directed by Robert Kenner, released in 2014.[4]

From the Los Angeles TimesReview ‘Merchants of Doubt’ shows how public opinion is manipulated:

Don’t underestimate Robert Kenner’s “Merchants of Doubt.” It may sound like a standard-issue advocacy documentary concerned, as so many are, with the perils of global warming, but it’s a lot more than that.

It’s not just that “Merchants of Doubt” is loaded with jazzy visuals and even starts with a performance by close-up magician Jamy Ian Swiss filmed at the Magic Castle.

This enthralling film, based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, is as fascinating as it is horrifying. It gives a peek behind the curtain of how public opinion is formed in this country, how spin doctors and media manipulators — often the same folks working across a whole range of issues — get people to ignore science at their own peril.

“Merchants” posits that it all goes back to the tobacco industry and the battle over the hazards of cigarettes to health. As described by anti-tobacco scientist Stanton Glantz, the turning point came when a leak of internal tobacco-industry documents revealed that the cigarette companies knew their product caused cancer as early as the 1950s.

But, acting on the advice of advertising firm Hill & Knowlton, the tobacco firms realized that, to quote one of their own documents, “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.” As the film notes, every day that action is delayed on one of these issues is another day when money can be made.

From Salon“Merchants of Doubt”: Meet the sleazy spin doctors who will stop at nothing to obscure the truth:

Kenner, best known for his film adaptation of “Food, Inc.,” is out with a new documentary, “Merchants of Doubt,” in which he introduces us to a “professional class of deceivers”: P.R. whizzes who learned their very particular set of skills defending Big Tobacco. The connection, once illuminated, makes perfect sense. As tobacco exec-turned-lobbyist Peter Sparber puts it, “If you can sell tobacco, you can sell anything.”

And boy, do they: junk food, flame retardants in furniture, pharmaceuticals, carbon pollution. The film expands on the book by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway to show how these shady few, motivated by a combination of politics and big payouts, work tirelessly to convince the American public to act against their own self-interest.

It’s hard not to be impressed by them, Kenner admitted, and by their unquestionable talent for their “strange, perverse craft.” The documentary’s most engaging character, after all, is self-described creator of chaos Marc Morano, who runs the climate denial site ClimateDepot and who frequently appears as an “expert” on network news. (“I am not a scientist, although I do play one on TV,” he explains.) Kenner gets Morano to sit for an extended interview, in which he boasts of his ability to turn climate scientists into targets, taking particular pleasure in his habit of releasing their personal email addresses.

Shots of prominent scientists like Ben Santer, Michael Mann and Katharine Hayhoe reading their death threat-laden hate mail aloud evoke that popular Jimmy Kimmel segment in which celebrities recite hateful tweets directed at them. But when the stakes are this high, and the victims are “famous” only for pursuing scientific truth, it doesn’t come off as funny.

From The GuardianMerchants of Doubt film exposes slick US industry behind climate denial:

Who remembers that climate change was a top priority early in George W Bush’s first term as US president? Merchants of Doubt, a new documentary film released in US cinemas this week, reminds us that in June 2001 Bush and the Republican party were 100% committed to curbing carbon emissions causing global warming.

Six months later everything changed. The film shows Republican party leader John Boehner calling the idea of global warming “laughable”, said Merchants of Doubt director Robert Kenner.

With the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center occupying attention, Americans For Prosperity, a powerful, fossil-fuel lobby group founded by the billionaire Koch Brothers, launched a decade-long, multi-pronged campaign to sow doubt about the reality of climate change.

By equating the findings of climate scientists as an attack on personal freedoms, they cleverly shifted the focus away from science to political opinion.

From The New York TimesReview: ‘Merchants of Doubt,’ Separating Science From Spin:

The pro-tobacco strategy also called for smearing critics and invoking noble ideals like personal freedom against inconvenient facts like nicotine addiction. Thanks to thousands of pages of documents leaked to Stanton A. Glantz, a doctor and anti-tobacco crusader, the scale and the details of the deception are well known. The image of tobacco company executives taking an oath at a congressional hearing and proceeding to lie about what they knew is part of the collective memory. It also opened the door to lawsuits that led, in 1998, to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.

“Merchants of Doubt” links cigarettes and climate — with a fascinating and troubling detour into an investigation by The Chicago Tribune of the flame-retardant industry — by noting that both the playbook and many of the players are the same. “I’m not a scientist,” a recently adopted catchphrase among Republican politicians, echoes earlier evocations of complication and confusion. In both cases the science could hardly be clearer, but pseudo-experts can be brought before the cameras to peddle the idea that no real consensus exists. False information need not be coherent to be effective, and the specters of vanished liberty and tyrannical government regulation are easy enough to conjure.

And science can be tricky to explain and to defend, especially in the shouting-heads cable news format. The scientists Mr. Kenner interviews — notably James E. Hansen, formerly of NASA, who was among the first to establish a link between carbon emissions and climate change — tend to be earnest and serious. The scientific method is also predicated on intellectual humility, on falsifiable hypotheses and endless revisions in the face of new data. Public relations, in contrast, is built on slickness, grandiosity and charm.

As noted, it’s not just the propaganda tactics which are the same between issues like defending tobacco use and climate change denial.  In many cases, it’s the very same people who are perpetrating it.  When a small cabal of wealthy industrialists and free-market ideologues can wield so much political power and influence over society, the very course of human civilization becomes jeopardized.  For example, a month before the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, these morally-bereft “capitalists” instigated the now infamous and fake Climategate scandal which effectively ruined any chance for that body to reach a substantive agreement to mitigate the impacts from global warming.

We can justifiably rail against the ignorance, the apathy, and the gullibility of the American public for not demanding government action on grave issues such as climate change.  However, we must not ignore the 500 pound gorilla in the room.  Like the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain does have the power to determine our reality… and our collective fate.

In other environmental news:

California school textbooks seen as spineless on climate change

Over half of the world’s primates are on the verge of extinction, say experts