Review of Merchants of Doubt (2014)

Moving picture, 96 minutes

Seen in 2020.

Campaigns to influence policy and public opinion on climate change, repeating corporate strategies on tobacco.

In form, it’s nothing special. Like a Michael Moore film it’s spiced up with music (“watermelons...”), incidental humour and a little stagecraft, bolting PR strategy to an extended metaphor of misdirection in stage magic. The archival work is nice and the B-roll looks slick in a boringly professional way. The content is more interesting, focusing on the work of Naomi Oreskes—this adapts her book—as opposed to the substance of climate science. While this is a good choice, it does rhyme with the way that obstructionist interview subjects like Marc Morano themselves focus on subjects that have little to do with climate science: Economic scaremongering, “values”, grand conspiracy theories etc.

I don’t believe in evil. Morano is not literally an evil man, but given the way he’s edited, he comes across as the closest thing you can find in real life, outside state and private tyrannies. He doesn’t personally hurt anybody but he is willing and able to ignore and hide relevant facts for his “team”. In so doing, he is actively contributing to the degradation of nature and to suffering on a grand scale, beyond what a child molester or even a warmonger could accomplish.

It is particularly irksome to me that Morano regards science as an ineffective rhetorical stance and nothing more. From his trench, right and wrong seem disconnected from objectivity. He operates in a society where careful and critical thinking is, as he says here, “boring”. This is where he sees room for his own propaganda, and his strategy works. The film shows him boasting of how he does it, and that is important for the world to know, even if the details and the science are omitted from the film.

Oreskes is the star here, transcending the partisan struggle. Michael Shermer’s appearance positions him as Morano’s nemesis in the trenches of rhetoric. Raised as a fundamentalist Christian and once a denier of anthropogenic climate change himself—like Perry DeAngelis and a lot of other literal skeptics were at first—Shermer is seen dealing with the bullshit of deniers and their paid indoctrinators at a conference, for the sake of scientific skepticism. Doubt saved Shermer and made him a hero. Too bad it takes more than one sound and impartial thinker like him to counter one bullshit artist.

The film came out shortly before 2015 provided highly visible empirical evidence against the myth of a hiatus since 1998. Since then, Morano’s “team” has been losing ground elsewhere, but the US Republican return to denial and obstructionism, mentioned here, remained pretty consistent over the next five years.

In a 2020-03 Atlantic article (“The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President”, a.k.a. “The 2020 Disinformation War”), McKay Poppins characterized the result of doubt, not just on climate change but on all politically relevant knowledge.

Tony Willnow, a 34-year-old maintenance worker who had an American flag wrapped around his head, observed that Trump had won because he said things no other politician would say. When I asked him if it mattered whether those things were true, he thought for a moment before answering. “He tells you what you want to hear,” Willnow said. “And I don’t know if it’s true or not—but it sounds good, so fuck it.”

The political theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote that the most successful totalitarian leaders of the 20th century instilled in their followers “a mixture of gullibility and cynicism.” When they were lied to, they chose to believe it. When a lie was debunked, they claimed they’d known all along—and would then “admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” Over time, Arendt wrote, the onslaught of propaganda conditioned people to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”

Morano’s product is Arendt’s gullibility and cynicism. Indeed, as one Reddit user (schml) put it on 2019-10-03, on the Ukraine extortion attempt that got Donald Trump impeached:

I think what most liberals are missing is that this isn’t about right and wrong, it’s about winning and losing. I’ve attached my entire worldview to this man and I am going down with the ship. Not one of you is going to convince me otherwise.

That commitment, not doubt, is Morano’s philosophy and the ultimate effect of selling doubt. Doubt without Shermer’s interested skepticism is an unstable isotope; it decays to knee-jerk prejudice, cynicism and contempt. Unfortunately, the film does not go into this.

Since their heyday with the tobacco companies, the merchants of doubt have been partly replaced by partisans who just muddy the waters, including Vladislav Surkov’s authors of black and grey Russian propaganda on Trump and Brexit. They’re not evil, not always hateful or stupid, but spiteful, low on empathy and—in those few cases where they work in good faith—unable to recognize their ignorance. Like Morano, they work for the “team” (the in-group), not always for money alone.

Merchants of Doubt is an important and accessible document of how corporate feudalists worked and thought at the time. Much of it is specific to the contemporary US environment of legacy fossil-fuel giants, Citizens United’s dark money and the two-party system with its falsely dichotomous media landscape. Part of it’s universal and intrinsic to a complex society.

References here: “Smoke and Fumes: The Climate Change Cover-Up” (2017), “Undercover in the Alt-Right: My Year in Kekistan” (2018), “Kampen mot klotet” (2020).

moving picture non-fiction