When Jesus encounters Pilate, John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus declares he came into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate replies, “What is truth?”
Merchants of Doubt poses this question to us.
On the surface it may look like this documentary is about the dangers of smoking or the problems created by the use of flame retardants or even whether or not there is climate change. But this movie focuses on the “hired guns” that present themselves as scientific experts. These experts go on the 24-hour news networks to present the “other side.”
News organizations explore topics such as climate change. When they do, they need someone to represent the deniers of climate change. There are many who will take the side opposite of those who declare that climate change is real. These people are the merchants of doubt that the movie title refers to.
These pundits attack, not the facts, but the messenger in such a way as to discredit the message. It is an ad hominem argument which distorts the truth of what is being said.
A good example of this is the work of Marc Morano, a climate change denier who makes the rounds of the news networks. His greatest work against climate change is that he routinely posts the email addresses of the scientists who present works and research that the climate is changing and it is manmade. This fills the inboxes of scientists with nasty, vile, hate-filled emails threatening physical harm to the scientist and/or to his/her family.
Merchants of Doubt is based on the work of Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, who wrote a book by the same name. Oreskes, who is featured in the movie, works in the area of the history of science. Recounting how she went through all the journal articles and research work done about global climate change, she made an interesting discovery: none of the work done on the subject denies climate change. All the research showed that climate change was real.
One of the key elements of the movie is the use of magician Jaimy Ian Swiss. Swiss uses his magic to make the point that much of what is declared to be truth by those who are the hired pundits for special interests are really nothing more than tactics used by magicians. He says that he lies to people for a living and that the people he lies to know they are being lied to — and they’re OK with that because it is entertainment.
By contrast, the movie asserts that these pundits lie, not because it is entertainment, but because it is in the interest of the groups which hire them.
Which brings us back to the issue of truth. Sam Keen writes in his book Hymns to an Unknown God that all of us need to have what he called a male bovine feces detector. (His language was earthier that mine.) Keen says we need “a tool kit for assessing the reasonableness of belief-systems.” He calls this detector is “a series of caution signs to help guard against overbelief, irrational and destructive worldviews.”
Merchants of Doubt calls on the viewer to create a male bovine feces detector for those issues we see debated on the news. The movie asks the viewer to look deeper than the arguments given and look to the logic presented. The movie asks us to look at these people who are arguing on television and ask, what is the point of view the debater? If the person doing the debating is not debating the issue but debating against the person, then we need to look deeper.
The use of character assassination is the weakest argument one can make. If you have no point to make against the argument, arguing against the person is a cheap way of making points.
The movie also asks us to consider, when someone cries that our freedom is being taken away, asking the question, “How?” Just because someone presents an idea that may require action by the government does not mean that person has a hidden nefarious motive.
Merchants of Doubt presents a clear message that we need to look behind the curtain and see who is pulling the levers. It calls for us to decide what is truth and what is true?
Merchants of Doubt
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
Directed by Robert Kenner
Written by Robert Kenner and Kim Roberts, based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway