The New York Film Festival, now in its fifty-second year, is unusual in that it combines big-money extravaganzas like Gone Girl and Birdman with small, worthy films whose publicity budgets would barely cover the cost of Ben Affleck’s body waxings. Given the presence of so much of the film world in one place, the festival allows these latter movies to vastly increase their ability to secure media attention without the tens of millions of dollars that the studios devote to their superheroes.
A new documentary shown twice at the festival, and scheduled to be released in March, got my attention. Merchants of Doubt is directed by Robert Kenner and based on the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, two esteemed historians of science. The film, simultaneously entertaining, instructive and extremely important, traces the techniques through which profit-seeking corporations seek to undermine honest science in the public mind so that they might continue to make money poisoning our bodies and destroying our planet.
The argument can be condensed to one simple idea: the tactics perfected by the tobacco industry, which were designed to obfuscate the cancer-causing nature of its products back in the 1950s and ’60s, are now widespread throughout corporate America. When an internal Brown & Williamson memo declared decades ago, “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,” it created the template for countless oil, coal, chemical, agricultural, tobacco and manufacturing companies, as well as the front groups they fund and, more than occasionally, invent. By paying off members of Congress and exploiting the structural vulnerabilities of “objective” journalism, these companies have been able to fool the public and enrich themselves through a kind of slow-motion “murder for hire” operation.
I am ashamed to admit that I received the Oreskes/Conway book when it first came out, but despite its impressive research and evidence, I let it slide. I am sent too many books to do justice to even a tiny fraction of them, and it’s a cruel Catch-22 of American public intellectual life that unless a book is already getting some attention elsewhere in the media, it becomes much more difficult to try to elevate it on one’s own.
Kenner says that he decided to make the film after finishing up his previous effort, Food, Inc., because he “kept bumping into groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom that were doing everything in their power to keep us from knowing what’s in our food—it was Orwellian.” Though it claims to represent consumers, the center is financed by fast-food companies. Kenner found himself wondering just how many of these groups there are and how deep their influence runs. That’s when he discovered Merchants of Doubt.
The book is a first-rate piece of journalistic investigation and scientific inquiry. But we live in a culture in which the influence of books pales in comparison with that of cinema (to say nothing of television or even video games). Naomi Oreskes, who appears extensively in the film, told me that, yes, “the technical content is greatly simplified…. In the book, we had extensive but (hopefully) clear explanations of the science, including how and when scientists had come to understand the threats represented by acid rain, ozone depletion, climate change, etc. The film, however, has greater emotional impact. It’s less intellectual, but more visceral.”
The pioneers in the field are not only the liars for hire employed by the tobacco industry for so many decades, but also Cold War scientists like Robert Jastrow, Fred Seitz and William Nierenberg, who initially founded the George C. Marshall Institute to promote Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars boondoggle and then switched gears to lie about climate change—a task in which they’ve been joined by scientist/snake-oil salesman Fred Singer, who also cares more about opposing all forms of corporate regulation than he does about truth. But the star of this show is the astonishingly charming rogue Marc Morano, a frequent cable-television guest who admits, “I’m not a scientist, but I do play one on TV.” Morano, the founder of ClimateDepot.com, not only spouts his nefarious nonsense about science everywhere he goes but is also in the business of ensuring the mau-mauing of genuine scientific researchers who have felt a responsibility to go public with the dangers we face. “We went after James Hansen and Michael Oppenheimer and had a lot of fun with it…we mocked and ridiculed,” Morano brags. He has also published their private e-mails, both as a means of harassment and as a warning to other scientists who might be considering doing the same thing.
The experience of former South Carolina Republican Congressman Bob Inglis also serves as a powerful cautionary tale. Inglis is an extreme right-winger, but he is also an honest man. After traveling to Antarctica to witness firsthand the damage being done to the polar ice cap by global warming, he became a convert to the fight against climate change. As a result, he was trounced by a Tea Party challenger in his next primary; he now drives around the West, where, as we see in the film, he is insulted by idiotic right-wing talk-radio hosts who don’t know anything except how to shut people up who are smarter than they are.
Where are the media in all of this? As Oreskes explains, “It was an explicit part of the strategy of merchandising doubt to use the media to create the impression of controversy. If the media are not pulled in, the strategy fails. So a large part of the story is industry courting and, where necessary, pressuring the media to give ‘equal time’ to its views. Interestingly, what we found was that overt pressure was fairly rare. The media didn’t need to be pressured.”
They just needed to be lied to.