Whenever there’s a controversial subject, each side of the debate has its experts that provide scientific and credible evidence of their argument’s superiority to the opposition. The practice of spin doctoring has been around for decades without a whole lot of change. But who are these “experts,” and what makes them so knowledgeable? That’s the question at the heart of Merchants of Doubt.
Merchants of Doubt examines the credibility of the professionals that are paraded in front of the public, spouting their rhetoric and convincing their audience to believe them. The film uses a handful of case studies – cigarette smoking, fire retardant furniture, and climate change – to illustrate how deceitful and cunning these so-called experts can be.
Inspired by the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt was directed by documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner (Food, Inc., When Strangers Click). At first glance, it seems like a satirical look at American media and how the public is expected to believe everything that is told to them as long as it comes from a well-groomed, immaculately dressed talking head with a bunch of intelligent sounding initials after his or her name. And it is funny…for a bit. After a while, however, the humor gives way to horror, because the fact is that some people do blindly believe these showmen, even when they are so obviously wrong in what they are selling.
The examples that Kenner uses are older ones, and that works to the film’s advantage; if he were to make a film that tries to prove that, say, the anti-vaccination movement uses bad science, it would be controversial. But by using, for example, cigarette smoking – which everyone can pretty much agree is addictive and bad for one’s health – as his first case study, Kenner illustrates how the tobacco industry knowingly knew that they were selling a harmful product, yet went on record as saying that they “didn’t believe nicotine was addictive.” By delving into history, Kenner sets up the thesis of his film within a context that anyone can understand.
Even though the subject matter in Merchants of Doubt is dead serious, the film takes a lighthearted approach by basically giving the charismatic pundits just enough rope with which to hang themselves. The film doesn’t have to make fun of these guys; they make themselves look pretty foolish on their own. The point of Merchants of Doubt is to educate the public into being more media-savvy, and not buying into a theory or statistic just because someone with a PhD is reading it. And, in doing so, Merchants of Doubt winds up being pretty damn entertaining.
Every so often, Kenner will call upon magician Jamy Ian Swiss to provide a little insight into the tactics that the entities will use in an effort to strengthen their argument. He talks about misdirection and focus shifting and other basic techniques of magic and how they apply to politics, explaining that the phony experts are an insult to professional illusionists, like him, who “fool people for a living.” Through Swiss’ explanations, it becomes clear how much the political talking heads have in common with the average street magician.
Merchants of Doubt is itself guilty of a bit of what it preaches, as the film is full of slick animations and slow-motion shots of card tricks and other neat stuff that liven up the presentation. But the knowledge that is imparted by the film will go a long way. By the end of the film, the viewer knows what to look for and how they are being fooled, and, as Jamy Ian Swiss says: “once revealed, never concealed.”