In one scene in the new documentary Merchants of Doubt, Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, explains what he thinks is the underlying factor behind climate change skepticism.
“It isn’t about the science,” Shermer, a libertarian and former skeptic who came around on the issue in 2006, tells director Robert Kenner.
“It’s about me being a consistent team member; showing the members of my tribe that you can count on me.”
Tribalism is an important part of the equation. But Kenner, whose previous film was the well-regarded Food, Inc., believes corporate spin is just as much to blame.
Merchants of Doubt aims to show viewers how the same PR tactics that kept the tobacco industry thriving for decades are now being used to encourage climate change skepticism and denial. While the film does important work in helping audiences understand how paid representatives spread misinformation, it doesn’t do enough to address the tribalism that may keep the film’s most necessary audiences from seeing it.
READ Sojourners' interview with Merchants of Doubt Director Robert Kenner here.
To his credit, Kenner does an excellent job at making the subject matter appealing. He uses the framework of close-up magic as a metaphor for the way PR representatives work to cover up industry-damaging facts, first for tobacco, and then for coal, oil, and other clients. He interviews journalists, scientists, and lobbyists whose stories are at once fascinating and infuriating. There are even some sources, like conservative former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, who manage to help the film build bridges with audiences whose tribal identity might require them to skew towards climate skepticism.
But it still doesn’t quite feel like enough. The film’s ultimate point is that facts will eventually beat propaganda — a sentiment echoed by Kenner’s example of the tobacco industry, whose media manipulation initially brought it massive success, but whose power is now considerably diminished.
But the problem of climate change is one that has to be addressed on several fronts, and Merchants of Doubt misses some valuable opportunities to transcend other affiliations of the kind that may keep away the very people who most need to see the film. The evangelical angle, for example, is hardly brought up at all. Katharine Hayhoe, an important figure in connecting the scientific and evangelical communities, appears for less than a minute, and doesn’t get to talk about anything within her area of expertise. The term “creation care” is brought up only once, by Inglis, with no context given to it whatsoever.
Ultimately, the goal of Merchants of Doubt is to explore the business of spin more than the topic of climate change. And yes, the revelation that a group of highly-paid professionals have been spreading lies to the American public through willing media channels is an important one, one that’s angering even to the point of taking action.
But successfully solving the urgent problem of climate change requires sensitive, thoughtful discussion on both sides of the aisle. If Merchants of Doubt were as interested in bridging that gap as in examining why it exists, the film might be a more useful tool in that ongoing conversation.
WATCH the trailer for Merchants of Doubt here.
Abby Olcese is the Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.