REVIEW: Merchants of Doubt

5 05 2015

Merchants of DoubtIf the primary purpose of a documentary is to inform the viewer, then Robert Kenner’s “Merchants of Doubt” passes with flying colors.  This blistering look at the semantic tactics used to stifle meaningful action on climate change and other matters of public health serves as a valuable toolkit to become a more critical consumer of the news.  Not content to merely expose hypocrisy, Kenner provides the skills necessary for audiences to go out and see it themselves.

“Merchants of Doubt” begins by answering the when question, starting with the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton used dubiously ethical techniques to convince the American people that tobacco was not harmful or cancerous in the 1950s.  This led to the creation of a “playbook” of sorts that was widely generalizable to other industries facing backlash towards their products from the scientific community.

Be it flame retardants or DDT, casting doubt on scientists – even amidst overwhelming consensus – has proven sadly effective for decades.  The new golden goose of the movement, of course, is climate change and man-made global warming.  Through the exploration of this specific cause célèbre, the why question gets addressed.  It all comes back to preventing government regulation of industry, much of which comes from Soviet-hating Cold Warriors.

“Merchants of Doubt” gets perhaps most infuriating when it explores the who behind the scenes, starkly juxtaposing the intelligent but poorly communicative scientists like James Hansen with the enticing spinsters like Marc Morano.  (The academic side clearly needs a lot more Bill Nye types!) Meanwhile, somewhere in between stands Naomi Oresekes, a historian of science who went through all the research on climate change and found zero dissenting opinions on the issue.  Consensus was not just overwhelming; it was unanimous.


Kenner bases his documentary on the book of the same name she wrote with Erik M. Conway, and together they dismantle the opposition.  They show how corporations and politicians misinform and then go one step further, replacing their propaganda with the proper academic research.  Kenner somewhat misinterprets his mandate with the film, pushing for aggressive action against climate change with in the conclusion.  That step is certainly necessary, to be clear, but it feels a little preachy for a film mostly focused on the means of presenting information rather than the data itself.

Still, even its denouement notwithstanding, “Merchants of Doubt” leaves you equal parts enraged and enlightened.  This film should be mandatory viewing for anyone considering a career in PR, advertising, or political strategy.  B+3stars



One response

3 06 2015

I haven’t seen this yet, but it might make a great double feature with An Honest Liar.

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