The documentary Merchants of Doubt unveils those paid to sow uncertainty about near-unanimous scientific consensus
The truth might set us free, but the lie is already costing us big. While many climate scientists debate just how bleak Earth’s future will look in the face of irreversible climate change and oceanfront property seems like an increasingly poor investment, an astounding number of people are still choosing to live in the ever-popular gray area—debating whether climate change exists at all.
According to a report released by the Pew Research Center last year, about 35 percent of Americans (and more than 70 percent who identified as either “business conservatives” or “steadfast conservatives”) were seeking refuge from Earth’s rising temperatures in the gray area’s shade, saying that global warming is either “just not happening” or we “don’t know enough yet” to say for certain. Conversely, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change definitely does exist. This isn’t a new consensus, either. An article published in the December 2004 issue of Science examined more than 900 climate change papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 and determined that none of them expressed disagreement with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s position that “observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations,” caused by “human error.”
The article’s author, Naomi Oreskes, became fascinated with the disparity between the near-unanimous consensus expressed not only by the IPCC but “all major scientific bodies in the United States whose members’ expertise bears directly on the matter” and the politicians and “experts” opining on, and confusing, the issue, and started researching the opposition. The result was 2010’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, a book Oreskes co-authored with Erik Conway, and the jumping-off point for the latest documentary from director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.). For the film Merchants of Doubt, Kenner drops the subtitle, which turns out to be not only wordy but, in the case of the “experts” debating against the realities of global warming, overly generous.
Among the contrarian talking heads Merchants interviews is physicist Fred Singer, who has a Ph.D. from Princeton (albeit, as the film points out, in a field unrelated to climate science) and specializes in pooh-poohing scientific research indicating both the dangers of secondhand smoke and global warming. (Big Oil’s recycling of Big Tobacco’s PR playbook and players is a disconcerting and recurring theme in the doc.) More typical of the merchants on display, however, is self-described “environmental journalist” Marc Morano, who laughingly admits “I’m not a scientist but I do play one on TV occasionally…hell, more than occasionally.”
The film pointedly compares the misinformation campaigns confusing the global warming issue to a magic trick, and Morano, who ascended from accosting celebrities outside the men’s room for Rush Limbaugh’s TV show in the mid-1990s to debating Bill Nye on global warming on CNN in 2012, seems to relish revealing the secrets to his greatest illusions. The most effective of these, and the one of which he seems most proud, is crafting personal attacks against the scientists leading the call for climate change awareness. Recalling working for U.S. senator and vocal climate change denier James Inhofe, Morano grins remembering the “fun” he had inventing ways to publicly “mock and ridicule” prominent climate scientists who he was attempting to discredit. His website is infamous for publishing the personal email addresses of such scientists, several of whom appear in Merchants reading the violent, threatening emails they’ve received as a result. Cut to Morano, laughing it off before crediting himself for bringing this innovation to the “debate.”
While 90-year-old physicist Singer (who threatened legal action in an attempt to prevent the film’s release) seems to be primarily opposed to the increased governmental oversight climate change reform and mitigation might lead to, Morano’s motives are harder to discern. He seems less a Singer or even a Limbaugh than a grinning-skull nihilist LulzSec member, hacking reality for the LOLs—a mirror-world Yes Man who has decided there’s more to be gained in being an actual yes man. One thing Morano does take very seriously, however, is Google’s recent announcement that it could begin ranking its search results on accuracy and “trustworthiness” rather than popularity. This is likely because the problem with gray areas is that they diminish markedly amongst too much black and white.