Merchants of Doubt is a new documentary describing the efforts of professional deniers who have defended the tobacco industry, attacked vaccinations and climate change, using a variety of mendacious methods to sow doubt. Andrew O'Hehir in Salon.com casts this battle, between the professional deniers paid by corporations, and scientists whose findings threaten the livelihood of these corporations.
“Merchants of Doubt” is primarily based on the influential 2010 book of the same name by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, which traces the strategy and tactics of climate denial back to the tobacco industry’s 50-year propaganda war against clear-cut medical evidence and increased government regulation. “Our product is doubt,” as one infamous internal memo, found amid the reams of tobacco-industry documents pried free from the corporate vaults, put it. Advised by consultants at the P.R. firm Hill & Knowlton never to directly deny the mounting evidence that cigarettes were addictive and deadly, tobacco execs and their hired scientific hands insisted for decades that they simply weren’t sure. Maybe and maybe not! We need more research and more evidence! We don’t personally believe these things are harmful just because smokers are many times more likely to die of lung cancer – but who really knows?
And now against climate science
Building on the work of numerous other scholars – notably the Australian economist and ethicist Clive Hamilton, whose book “Requiem for a Species” goes somewhat deeper into the same issues – Oreskes and Conway identify a tiny group of renegade right-wing scientists who have established themselves as professional contrarians and saboteurs, seeking to muddy the waters on a whole range of issues from tobacco to acid rain to pesticides and carbon emissions. This cabal has been led by the physicists Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz and Fred Singer, who were leading figures in Cold War weapons design but possess no academic expertise in any discipline relating to climate science. Their importance to the climate-denial movement lies in their possession of legitimate Ph.D.s, their ability to comb through scientific studies and cherry-pick confusing or contradictory data points, and – most of all – their eagerness to defend “free-market capitalism” against all efforts to restrain it or redirect it.
But why are these professional deniers so effective?
Clive Hamilton has written that the doubt-merchants find a ready audience because it’s “just too hard” for many people to face the truth about climate change: “When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them,” just as few of us confront our own mortality until we are close to death.
But O'Hehir has another explanation
It might be more productive to turn the question upside down, and to suggest that Americans “reframe or ignore” the bad news about global warming or guns or cigarettes or fast food not because they’re terrified to face death but because they embrace it, in the ecstatic and fatalistic spirit that Nietzsche identified with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and madness. We’ve all gotta go sometime, and if the planet is toast it strikes many people as more fun to face the end with a quart bottle of Jack, a bag of White Castle sliders and a jacked-up Silverado burning Exxon Premium, rather than nibbling edamame in a hemp-lined, plug-in hybrid on the streets of Berkeley.
And I'll admit that deep inside me, I understand the problem in talking about global warming,
Largely due to our own cultural blinders, leftists and environmentalists and intellectuals get easily suckered into the role of the uptight schoolmarm with stick firmly in butt, lecturing the townspeople about how they absolutely must turn off those crazy Christmas lights, stop mixing Doritos with shots of Jägermeister and go to bed at a reasonable hour. It might be good advice, but it only makes everybody feel bad and opens the door for the liars, hucksters and con men. Our fellow citizens aren’t as dumb as they may appear: They know our economy and society are in big trouble, they’re not sure there’s anything they can do about it, and at least the climate deniers and Cold War troglodytes and unctuous corporate pitchmen aren’t threatening to make them watch black-and-white TV in the dark, or replace their Coors Light with kombucha.
Ok, I'm the uptight schoolmarm, not a position I like being in, but it is not possible to avoid thinking about the terrible consequences confronting us if nothing is done. I have grandchildren. What is their future going to be? It's one thing for me to face the end with a quart bottle of Jack, a bag of White Castle sliders and a jacked-up Silverado burning Exxon Premium with equanimity and a softglow in my mind that blocks out the future. But I have grandchildren.