Film Review: “Merchant of Doubt”

An intriguing look at corporate propaganda, this documentary will make climate change deniers think and will make the rest of us angry.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Directed by Robert Kenner

Rated PG-13

Release Date: Dec. 12, 2014

Most of us have been in the position of having to argue something so obvious with someone, but the other person just can’t seem to accept the truth. This is the situation that interest groups and corporations have put climate scientists in. While widespread debate about a contentious issue is natural, it is the ability to make an issue contentious that allows large companies to continue to lie and undoubtedly cause damage. Directed by Robert Kenner, the filmmaker behind “Food, Inc.,” “Merchants of Doubt” is a documentary that sheds light on the strategies used by the tobacco, chemical and oil industries to create debate among the public as to whether or not their product is harmful to peoples’ health or the environment. The documentary is not meant to be a recruitment video for Greenpeace but, rather, a critique of pseudo-scientists and think tanks that helped large businesses to profit off peoples’ ignorance and steal the future sustainability of the environment.

An unfortunate aspect of a capitalistic society is that companies will generally seek to maximize their profit without regard for human health or safety. This is especially damaging when people don’t know or understand the danger, as was the case with cigarettes. Tobacco companies knew the danger, yet they hired scientists to convince the American public that there was no proof that cigarettes were harmful. They just needed to plant the seed of doubt. The film makes it clear that skeptics are easy to believe, especially when they present themselves as scientists and defend the status quo. The same tactic is now being used by companies to fuel the climate change debate, and, not coincidentally, some of the same scientists who denied that cigarettes cause cancer are now denying climate change. There should no longer be a climate change debate in this country, but “Merchants of Doubt” paints an excellent picture of why there is one.

Where “Merchants of Doubt” starts to suffer is in its lack of focus. The film goes into detail about how corporate propaganda works, but it is also full of unnecessary padding. For example, the documentary spends a great deal of time looking at how conservatives and libertarians do not accept climate change because they fear government regulation of the environment. The idea that people shape their scientific beliefs to fit their policy preference is an interesting one, but it can be the subject of a different film. “Merchants of Doubt” could have been stronger if it expanded its scope — by examining other industries that use propaganda to influence public policy — or going more in depth on the issues of oil industry propaganda.

“Merchants of Doubt” is not a very cinematic film, even for a documentary. It uses some of the same silly graphics of a folder coming out of a box over and over, and none of the imagery inspires action. But the film almost makes up for it with its vitality. It points to the fact that the climate change debate is not a debate but, rather, the illusion of one, fueled by so-called scientists and think tanks representing corporate interests. Although the film is imperfect, “Merchants of Doubt” is an intelligent and infuriating film that reveals just how corporations get away with deceiving the public.

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