‘Merchants of Doubt’: Excellent doc exposes phony experts

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For Digital First Media

The documentary, “Merchants of Doubt” focuses on those mercenary souls, who are hired by corporations, to obfuscate the scientific evidence that actually exists.

Once upon a time, the tobacco industry recruited athletes to endorse cigarettes and claim that smoking enhanced their in-field performance. One of them was the immortal New York Yankees outfielder, Mickey Mantle. During his career, at various times, he alternately endorsed Camel and Viceroy brands. Somehow, I suspect that Mantle could have won the 1956 Triple Crown and made it into Baseball’s Hall of Fame without the benefit of inhaling cigarette smoke.

The tobacco cartel augmented celebrity endorsements by hiring doctors and scientists to publically proclaim something that they knew to be untrue. According to them, smoking cigarettes was not deleterious to your health.

However, as early as the ‘50s, Big Tobacco was well aware that smoking cigarettes had been conclusively linked to lung cancer, heart disease, and various other maladies. “Merchants of Doubt” displays a letter from the advertising firm, Hill & Knowlton. It advised its tobacco company clients that, “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.” Heeding this advice, the firms continued to conceal the truth from the public.

You might think that such overtly duplicitous practices are a thing of the past. Don’t be so sure.

Unfortunately, as “Merchants of Doubt” demonstrates, the venal tactics once employed by the tobacco industry are still widely practiced by other members of the corporate oligarchy.

“Merchants of Doubt” enlivens an erudite book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes, and Erik M. Conway. Oreskes is a Professor of History and Science Studies at Harvard University. Conway serves as the resident historian at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe, reporters from the “Chicago Tribune,” describe their investigation into legislation that require toxic, cancer-causing chemicals be infused into furniture as a fire retardant. They uncovered the fact that the chemical manufacturers had created fake grass-roots organizations with innocuous sounding names like Citizens for Fire Safety. On behalf of the industry, these groups clamored for the legislation. The cover group hired David Heimbach, M.D., to provide testimony to the California legislature. The retired surgeon described babies, who had supposedly died as a result of the burns that they had sustained. He attributed these apocryphal fatalities to the absence of fire retardant. If only the legislature would pass a law to require fires retardants, the needless deaths would be avoided. His expert testimony had enormous impact. It resulted in the passage of laws favored by the chemical companies. Callahan and Roe researched the matter and discovered that Heimbach had confabulated the accounts of baby deaths. Confronted with evidence of his lies, Heimbach rationalized that his testimony was, “an anecdotal story, rather than anything which I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn’t under oath.”

Much of the film is devoted to efforts of the petrochemical industry to generate doubt about global warming. Non–scientists and scientists from unrelated disciplines are hired as shills. Two examples of the latter category are Fred Singer and Fred Seitz. The film characterizes them as unreconstructed cold warriors with a penchant for castigating environmentalist activists as crypto-Communists. Singer and Seitz make public pronouncements, which dispute the overwhelming evidence of global warming. This creates the illusion that there is not near universal consensus in the scientific community.

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Merchants of Doubt" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8ii9zGFDtc

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Merchants of Doubt” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8ii9zGFDtc

However, the most powerful indictment of these techniques is provided by one of its practitioners. Marc Morano is seen cynically bragging about his skill at deceiving the public. Morano poses as a journalist, but is actually a spin doctor for special interests. He previously worked for Rush Limbaugh as a contributor. When John Kerry ran for President, Morano was the first to publish attacks on his military record. According to him, decades after the Vietnam War, Swift Boat veterans had spontaneously emerged with accounts that Kerry had exaggerated his acts of heroism.  Later, as a spokesman for the Family Research Council, Morano concocted an unsubstantiated claim that drug use and public acts of fellatio had taken place at an AIDS fundraising dance party. In 2007, Morano produced a report that was titled, “Over 400 Prominent Scientists Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims.” The list of his putative supporters delineated some bogus names. This included Charles Darwin, who had died back in 1882. Whoops! In discussing his machinations, Morano gleefully chuckles.

This film is written and directed by Robert Kenner, who previously helmed another piece of advocacy journalism, “Food Inc.” Kenner’s personal sentiments may be obvious. However, his film avoids becoming unduly polemical.

“Merchants of Doubt” is a film that will likely fill you with anger and disgust. Don’t let that deter you from seeing this excellent documentary.

***1/2 PG-13 (for for brief strong language) 96 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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