A new documentary, Merchants of Doubt, shows how you’re being lied to.
Wei-Hock Soon doesn’t appear in the new documentary Merchants of Doubt, but he might as well be its poster child. That’s because director Robert Kenner’s film, which opens in select cities on March 6, is about how the tobacco, fossil-fuel and other industries hire so-called “scientific experts” to refute charges that their products are dangerous. Soon, a scientist who claims that variations in the sun’s energy, not greenhouse gases, can explain climate change, was recently discovered to have received over $1.2 million from fossil-fuel companies to fund his research. He has reportedly failed to disclose this conflict of interest to the journals that published his papers—and seems to be the latest in a long line of scientists and spokespersons paid to cast doubt on independent scientific research.
Some of these doubters are “ideologically committed, some are just in it for the money, some in it for the attention,” says Naomi Oreskes, co-author (with Erik M. Conway) of the book on which the film is based.
Merchants of Doubt shows how the tobacco industry realized smoking caused cancer as early as the 1950s, but stonewalled the issue for decades by hiring PR firms to refute legitimate scientific research. “This whole strategy was created and raised to a fine art by the tobacco industry,” says Oreskes. “And once they developed this tool kit, they spread it. They tried to develop allies in other industries who also felt threats from inconvenient science. That you couldn’t trust science, and what was needed was ‘sound science.’”
This strategy, which Kenner’s film traces through the tobacco, dioxin, asbestos and fossil fuel industries, involves several key elements:
Paying scientists to do research that will support the industry’s claims.
Setting up organizations with names like Citizens for Fire Safety and Americans for Free Enterprise, which purport to be legitimate advocacy groups, but are really just shills for corporate interests.
Creating a class of media savvy “experts,” who may or may not be scientists, but whose basic function is to debate, and cast doubt on, the work of legitimate scientific researchers.
Making these experts available to journalists, to provide “balance” in the reporting of these issues, even when there is no real scientific debate about the subject.
These last two elements are key to the merchants-of-doubt approach, and make use of journalistic ethics about providing “equal time” to opposing viewpoints. They also play into the scientific community’s basic inability to explain difficult concepts. “Scientists are trained to do science, and it’s hard enough to do the science,” says Oreskes. “And now you’re saying you have to be an effective communicator as well? It’s not their job.”