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Merchants of Doubt (2014) –Certainty Nonetheless

Merchants of Doubt movie

This film, is based on the 2010 non-fiction book by Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes and NASA historian Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt is magnificently directed by the Oscar nominated filmmaker, Robert Kenner (“Food, Inc.”).

This film is about the tactics used repeatedly by pseudo-experts to mislead the public about scientific findings critical to commercial products or practices. The tactics have not fundamentally changed in the more than fifty years since the cigarette industry began its suppression of the dangers of smoking tobacco. Kenner has brilliantly spliced together footage of several pseudo-experts, two of whom are well-known: the now deceased Fred Seitz and his colleague Fred Singer. Under the mantle of being “scientists”, Fred Seitz (a nuclear physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb) and Fred Singer (also a physicist with some environmental science experience in mining) have become the most prominent deniers of scientific research that corporate America considers a threat to their bottom line. They were repeatedly called upon as experts across industries to refute negative findings reported by qualified experts. These “merchants of doubt” — or pseudo-experts– hide their funding sources and conflicts of interest in order to maintain their credibility and legitimacy. They make their living by opposing scientific evidence counter to corporate gains.

Cigarette manufacturers testified before Congress that the science community was wrong, citing arguments from Singer and Seitz. It didn’t matter that neither were experts in the fields of environmental medicine and pathology.

Most notably, the cohort of “merchants of doubt” insist that science is neither certain nor is there consensus on matters considered settled by the scientific community. In some instances, scientists who opposed these “merchants of doubt” were threatened. Testimony is particularly compelling and persuasive from legitimate experts who discovered the deceptions from the bogus scientific evidence they once accepted.

Merchants of Doubt also focuses on climate-change deniers. The deniers don’t contest the data, which is indisputable. They instead attack the climatologists’ motives, who they believe are communists ( a bit odd in my humble opinion). Of course, these “experts” have no knowledge or training in meteorology or climatology. Singer and Seitz, the very same physicists formerly used by cigarette manufacturers to deny the hazards of smoking, hold themselves out as experts on climate change. Seitz is still active today denying human impact on the planet.

A small handful of other scientists and marketing gurus have made a living by representing conservative thinktanks such as the Heritage Foundation. The industries underwriting these foundations can create a patina of respectability and credibility by citing a “senior fellow at a prominent Washington thinktank”.

And most shattering, the Merchants Of Doubt implicates the media for not investigating climate change more thoroughly, and for giving equal voice to these political thinktanks, all in the name of appearing unbiased.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most chilling documentaries I have seen. Manipulation of public opinion is a controversial subject not limited to just political campaigns. Kenner delivers a powerful message about the tactics some industries will employ to make a buck at humanity’s expense. You owe it to yourself to see this one.


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