Meet the scientific storytellers who can make the public afraid of anything—for a price
Merchants of Doubt is a new documentary that explores the dark heart of scientific spin doctors.
You’d think that the American public would not be so easily duped about the consequences of climate change. Or, for that matter, about the dangers of cigarettes, asbestos, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, or any number of a host of hazards to our species.
And yet as the new documentary Merchants of Doubt makes clear, distorting science to favor corporate interests is a simple matter of the media quoting the right – or wrong — industry-funded think tank spokesperson. The result? Scientific truth is twisted, and left twisting the wind.
Directed by Robert Kenner (who also made the Academy Award-nominated Food, Inc. and Two Days in October), Merchants of Doubt plots this journey into the dark heart of spin. The film, which has been rolling out this spring in selected theaters across the U.S., peeks behind the curtain of charismatic pundits who are hired by the very industries under fire for posing a hazard to the public—from dioxin to pesticides to flame retardants in furniture.
Sold to the media as “experts,” these authorities’ main purpose is to sow doubt in the public mind. The technique dates back to the 1950’s, when the tobacco industry realized the mounting, irrefutable evidence that smokes were carcinogenic would cut into profits. All their lawyers and PR wizards had to do was create doubt, to keep the debate about the safety of smoking alive.
As Merchants of Doubt makes scarily clear, that same tactic is used by energy companies today to raise questions about climate change.
“We thought this was a fight about a science,” John Passacantando, the former executive director of Greenpeace USA, says in the film. Clearly, it isn’t. The fight is rarely about the data. And because scientists are not nearly as skilled as highly-paid PR agencies at spinning the story in their direction, they are easy target. Doubt-sowers go after the scientists, not the science.
The list of supposedly impartial think tanks and which industry backs them reads like doublespeak excerpts from Orwell’s 1984. The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition was created by Philip Morris in response to a 1992 EPA report that nailed secondhand smoke as a smoking gun. Citizens for Fire Safety claimed to be citizen-based, but was actually created by the three flame retardant chemical manufactures. Save Our Species Alliance, financed by a forestry trade group called the American Forest Resource Council, actually opposes the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Consumer Freedom is run mostly by fast food companies.
You get the picture. So when so-called experts from these organizations speak on CNN or Fox, beware of what they say. That’s the thrust of Robert Kenner’s film Merchants of Doubt.
I had a chance to chat with Kenner, as well as Dr. Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science and earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. Kenner based his documentary on Oreskes’s 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming (co-authored with Erik M. Conway). Oreskes also appears in the film. Through the magic of the word processing and the Internet, my conversations with both Kenner and Oreskes have been combined and edited below.
Ethan Gilsdorf: I was fascinated to learn that these tactics of industry creating doubt in scientific research go back to the 1950s.
Robert Kenner: We knew cigarette companies knew tobacco caused cancer in the early ‘50s, and what became the basis of our film was, how could guys who represented tobacco keep doubt alive about a product for 50 years when it was known it caused cancer and it was known that it was addictive. Nicotine was addictive. They were really good at it! And they developed a playbook, and the playbook was to create doubt. Remember the applesauce line in the film? [One Philip Morris executive, when asked if cigarettes are harmful, says, “Anything can be considered harmful. Applesauce is harmful if you get too much of it.”]
Gilsdorf: Yes. Horrifying.
Kenner: Now in climate [change], it’s really, again, like the tobacco playbook. Create doubt and delay. Another tactic is to attack the messengers. To attack the scientists, and then to attack Naomi, and now to attack me.
Gilsdorf: Naomi, as a result of your book, did you find people going after you? Was there any character assassination or efforts to discredit you?
Naomi Oreskes: Oh, of course. That’s their whole modus operandi. The point of the book is to explain that. We’re being attacked again now in predictable ways. They try to create controversy by attacking you, making all kinds of allegations. They drum up alleged controversy and then try to discredit you by saying your work is controversial. Well, my work is not controversial among historians. It’s only controversial among the people I expose who obviously have a vested interest in discrediting me.
Gilsdorf: What I found interesting was that the “creating of doubt” strategy has changed over time. Especially in climate change. Initially, doubters said, “climate change doesn’t exist.” Now they might say, “Oh, it exists but it’s not being caused by humans,” or “It’s being caused by humans but, A, there’s nothing we can do about it or, B, it’s not worth the cost to fix it so we might as well just do nothing.”
Kenner: It shape shifts. So, in other words, the whole goal is just to create inaction. That’s the goal. It doesn’t matter what the argument is. You keep moving the target, but the point of whatever the argument is, is that we shouldn’t do anything. And they’re really good at it. They’re very clever. Everything is really designed to stop regulation. But what I’ve found is, stop regulation, until you can find regulation that can help you.
Gilsdorf: Like with the successful effort to distract people from the issue of cigarettes causing house fires, to the false idea that instead, we need flame retardants in our couch cushions. When house fires are never started that way.
Kenner: “Let’s put chemicals in couches.” How brilliant is that? Peter Sparber said, “It’s not cigarettes that cause house fires, it’s couches, and we need to put chemicals in them.” [The tobacco industry planted Sparber, a veteran tobacco lobbyist, into the National Association of State Fire Marshals to shift attention away from the countless fires started by smoldering cigarettes.] And it turns out those chemicals don’t stop fires, but they cause cancer.
Gilsdorf: When it comes to regulations, it seems like it simply depends how you look at them. That “big government” versus “small government” debate feels moot, since the issue comes down to what kind of big government you like. If “big government” means regulating in a way that requires your company’s product to be used in something like flame retardant cushions, then of course you’re in favor of big government in that case.
Kenner: [Those who oppose regulation] have the ideological backing of being libertarians and fighting regulation. But secretly they’ll be fighting for their own regulation that benefits them. Recently, there’s a new bill to stop sales of solar panels. In Georgia, one of the original Tea Party members formed the Green Tea Party, because she found that home owners could not put solar panels on their property and sell excess energy, because the Koch Brothers and Southern Company were fighting it.
I think she helped turn it around. Now the Kochs and people are putting up what they call the Electric Freedom Act to prevent you the right of doing this. What inspired me for this film as much as anything was, when I was doing Food Inc., going to a hearing whether to label cloned meat and a representative from the meat industry said, it would just be a burden for the consumer to have that kind of information. And I though, who says such a thing? And you look and find groups funded by fast food industries are creating front groups called Center for Consumer Freedom to stop you from knowing what’s in your food. Center for Consumer Freedom. It’s just this Orwellian world, with Electric Freedom Act, and these groups. They always have “freedom” and “center” in them.
Gilsdorf: Those words appeal to a certain person.
Kenner: Like with Citizens for Fire Safety. It was three chemical companies. It wasn’t citizens. They could have called it “Three Largest Chemical Corporations Trying to Defend their Product” but that wouldn’t be as effective.
Gilsdorf: Naomi, it seems to me that part of the problem is that newspaper reporters, editors and TV producers aren’t doing their due diligence to check these people out, whether they are tobacco cancer deniers or climate change deniers. Has that gotten any better?
Oreskes: For so long, journalists were presenting this as a debate -- a “he said” “she said” problem. They would juxtapose a climate scientist with someone from the Cato Institute and put that on television, put that in the paper. Some journalists are still doing that, but by and large, I think the journalistic community has begun to get it and say, “This is not a scientific debate, so please don’t present it as one.”
And B, that it’s a false equivalent to put a climate scientist against some guy from the Cato Institute. But it’s amazing how long it’s taken. It’s taken a long time for the journalistic community to get there. I think now, because of our work, and some other people who have written about this, I think the journalistic community has kind of woken up and realized they have to be a little more sophisticated about how they think about balancing objectivity in their own reporting.
Gilsdorf: As a journalist, or TV producers, even if your goal is always to provide two sides to every issue, it would seem to be pretty simple to see who is backing these so-called experts.
Oreskes: Right. You would think so. But if you have a 5 o’clock deadline, and you haven’t been covering climate science, and you certainly didn’t cover the ozone hole back in the 1990s or acid rain back in the ‘80s, you don’t realize that these are the same people over and over again. So, we thought that was a really crucial part of the book saying, “Hey, look at this, this is a pattern. These same people are showing up over and over again. That’s telling you something important.”
Gilsdorf: Has the situation of scientists not being as savvy about presenting the facts, the data, begun to change at all?
Oreskes: Scientists used to think this was a problem of public understanding of science, and if they only just explained the science more clearly, or had clearer graphs, or clearer charts, or less complicated charts, or less complicated slides, that this could all get cleared up. Now, the scientific community understands that while public understanding of science is extremely important, and certainly it’s very, very important to the scientific community to do whatever it can to explain the science clearly, that that’s not what’s driving climate change denial.
And so that’s makes it a much more challenging problem, because scientists have to find other ways to communicate.
And I think one of the things is to make alliances with people like Bob Inglis [a former Republican Congressman from South Carolina's 4th District who changed his mind about climate change] or Katharine Hayhoe [a Christian geoscience professor at Texas Tech University], who have the credibility with conservative communities. Because so much of this is political and ideological and cultural. It’s not enough just for scientists to explain the science.
Gilsdorf: Robert, now that you have a couple of these types of films under your belt, what for you is the biggest peril as a director when you are trying to put together an argument or a movie that is muckraking in its purpose? What are the things that you need to worry about or the things that you have to keep in mind as you start to tell your story? What can go wrong?
Kenner: Good question. First of all, you’d better be factually correct. You’d better be able to defend every word in your film. Because people are going to come after you. But I think one of the problems is, don’t make medicine. At the same time, I want to make it an entertaining movie. Which is strange. I just didn’t want to make it just chock full of information, because people don’t remember facts. Facts disappear. Characters and emotions, humor, is remembered.
Gilsdorf: Was it hard to get some of these climate change critics sit down with you and talk, whether for the book or movie? I’m thinking Fred Singer [a physicist and director of the Science and Environmental Policy Project who argues that carbon dioxide increases do not increase temperatures] or Marc Morano [who runs ClimateDepot.com, a leading site for climate change skeptics]. They would have suspected what your motives would be — to try to discredit them.
Oreskes: In general, my experience with these guys is that they’re always very anxious and eager to get their message out. And because they’re very good at what they do, they are usually pretty confident they can get their message out. So in general, my experience is these people do agree to talk.
Gilsdorf: Do you think these guys — I’m thinking particularly a guy like Marc Morano or James Taylor [senior fellow at the Heartland Institute and managing editor of the free-market environmentalism journal Environment & Climate News] — do these guys actually believe what they’re selling? Do they enjoy the spotlight or the ride? Or maybe they’re just getting paid absurd amounts of money to say what they say.
Kenner: I appreciated Marc. Because he was very honest. A guy like Steve Milloy [who runs the climate change-denying site JunkScience.com] pretends to be one thing when he’s really the other. Steve Molloy’s the guy that went on Glenn Beck. And Glenn Beck said, “Are you in bed with Big Oil? And if so, how good in bed are they?” He said, “I’m just trying to do the right thing.”
Well, that’s not true. He’s being paid a lot of money. He lives in a freaking mansion. And he’s being paid big bucks to fool people.
He’s just out there to work for his client. He doesn’t have any regard for the truth. He’s just looking to defend a product. He’ll talk about asbestos. He’ll talk about tobacco. He represents numbers of products that killed thousands of people, if not more. But the one thing I’ve learned. I asked Stan Glantz [who researches the health effects of secondhand smoke], “Did those tobacco executives, when they stood up and said that nicotine is not addictive in front of Congress, were they lying?”
And Stan said the one thing he’s learned from his lawyer is to not to say what people are thinking. When Singer wrote me a friendly letter saying he’s thinking of suing me, he said, “If you called me a liar for hire” — which I did not call him — “the word ‘liar’ implies that I know something and I’m saying otherwise.” And he said, “How are you going to prove that?”
Gilsdorf: We were talking earlier about characters and stories and feelings. I thought that the interview with Bob Inglis was the most moving. I don’t know if I would agree with most of his politics or particular issues, but stuck his neck out, changed his mind about climate change, and got screwed for speaking his mind about the issue and lost reelection. It’s sad story.
Kenner: Well, it’s sad, but at the same time, it’s a very heroic story. For me as a filmmaker, my greatest thrill is coming across Bob Inglis, to come across people where we don’t have the same opinion but we have total respect for them. And to sit and talk with Bob, I think it’s a great treat to disagree and try to understand his perspective. Bob is a very conservative man, and we probably do see the world differently. It’s a treat to meet people who have different ideas.
Gilsdorf: In watching your movie, I was reminded that there are these other hot-button issues that seem to have disappeared. Growing up in the ‘80s, everyone was talking about acid rain. In the ‘90s it was all this talk about the ozone layer. You never hear people talk about that stuff any more. What happened?
Kenner: First of all, it was Richard Nixon who created the EPA and the Clean Water Act and fifty other environmental issues, it was Ronald Reagan and George Shultz [U.S. Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration] who solved and created international treaties based on ozone, and it was George H. W. Bush who solved the acid rain problem.
So ironically, the Republicans have a great history of creating regulations and treaties around these issues and have led on environment. As George Shultz and Bob Inglis say, it’s conservative to conserve. And they’ve taken the lead and are certainly capable of taking the lead again. And that’s where hopefully we see it going. It’s another Nixon goes to China moment.
Gilsdorf: Does it make you a little despondent or a little disheartened to learn that Americans are so easily duped by all these fake experts and industry-funded tactics?
Kenner: This is where a new part comes into the story. It takes the media to help dupe Americans. And they’re not easily duped. These guys, they’ve got a lot of money. They’ve been able to fool the media a lot of times, and I think we need a media that can work harder and not present Steve Milloy as an independent agent, or James Taylor, who’s taken a few science classes, as an independent agent. And I’m not only talking Fox news. Many forms of media have been presenting as if there’s two sides of an argument – the earth is round, the earth is flat. I applaud the media for showing two sides, but you can’t show it when there aren’t two sides. It’s not a debate, it’s not a fight.
The debate could be, “What do we do about it?” Do we want business to take the lead, like Inglis or Shultz would say, or do you want government to take the lead? That’s a real, honest debate. The science is not a debate. And, first of all, science shouldn’t be a debate for the public anyway. Almost every scientist in the world, every climate scientist, says [climate change] is true, 98 percent or something. Of the 2 percent, they’re getting paid by fossil fuel companies. And yet, our Senate, and our Congress, more than half of them believe it’s not true. First of all, I don’t think they believe it’s not true. As Bob Inglis says, a lot of the Republicans think it’s true, they just don’t want to be voted out of office like Bob was.
Gilsdorf: Ultimately, Americans don’t want to be asked to make sacrifices or change their consumption habits.
Kenner: Bob Inglis’s talk at the end saying, “We don’t want it to be true.”
It’s a very moving talk and it crosses ideological lines. We all like the life we have and we don’t want to change. Change isn’t easy and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. A doctor from Oregon, a cancer doctor, heard that on the radio and wrote me a piece saying, “You know, it’s so true. People don’t want things that are bad for them to be true.” And he sees it because he sees smokers who get cancer who still smoke because they just don’t want it to be true.
And it’s just human nature. But we need to help in turning that around and recognize that we can save this planet. It’s a really moral question that we need to take some action. I’m thrilled to see the Pope changing Catholic doctrine.
It used to be “Dominion over the earth,” now it’s, “You have to preserve that earth.” I see change coming and people are capable of changing. Look at gay rights. In ’08, not only were Republicans against [same sex marriage], Democrats were. It’s now the law of the land. So things can happen quickly. I hope they happen quickly on a number of issues, including climate. So I think of this film being more about the playbook than any one issue, and climate happens just to be the big payday at the end.
Gilsdorf: Naomi, are you hopeful?
Oreskes: Well, I think the situation is very mixed. In a way, I’m a little depressed. We started working on the book in 2005. I started working on climate change as a historical question in the early 2000s. So I’ve been working on this for about 15 years now. Fifteen years ago, [we thought] with enough work and enough effort to communicate, people would get it and would start taking steps to address this problem.
When you understand the history and you understand how long scientists have understood this, it’s a little shocking how successful the merchants of doubt have been. It’s hard to look that in the face and not be demoralized. I would be lying if I said, “Oh yeah, this is all great, I’m not worried, I think this film will change the world and we’ll fix this problem.” On the other hand, if I didn’t think there was hope, I wouldn’t be doing the work I do, I’d just go back to writing, I don’t know, maybe poetry or something. Or retire and take care of your dog.
Obviously, you don’t write a book, you don’t make a film, unless you are fundamentally optimistic, and you fundamentally believe the action of writing a book or making a film has the capacity to change people’s minds and therefore to change what they do. It’s this weird balance between, on the one hand, being ambitious and on the other hand, not becoming narcissistic. But I don’t compare myself to Rachel Carson, obviously.
But, the fact is, Silent Spring changed the world. The book changed the world we live in. It made an enormous difference. So it tells us that it’s possible for books and films and people to make a difference.
“Can we get ‘Gone with the Wind’ back, please?” — Donald Trump, 2/20/2020, Colorado
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