Meet the Merchants of Doubt: The PR Firms Giving You Cancer, Causing Acid Rain and Killing the Planet

A new documentary, Merchants of Doubt, shows how you’re being lied to.

Sony Pictures Classics

Wei-Hock Soon doesn’t appear in the new documentary Merchants of Doubt, but he might as well be its poster child. That’s because director Robert Kenner’s film, which opens in select cities on March 6, is about how the tobacco, fossil-fuel and other industries hire so-called “scientific experts” to refute charges that their products are dangerous. Soon, a scientist who claims that variations in the sun’s energy, not greenhouse gases, can explain climate change, was recently discovered to have received over $1.2 million from fossil-fuel companies to fund his research. He has reportedly failed to disclose this conflict of interest to the journals that published his papers—and seems to be the latest in a long line of scientists and spokespersons paid to cast doubt on independent scientific research.

Some of these doubters are “ideologically committed, some are just in it for the money, some in it for the attention,” says Naomi Oreskes, co-author (with Erik M. Conway) of the book on which the film is based.

Merchants of Doubt shows how the tobacco industry realized smoking caused cancer as early as the 1950s, but stonewalled the issue for decades by hiring PR firms to refute legitimate scientific research. “This whole strategy was created and raised to a fine art by the tobacco industry,” says Oreskes. “And once they developed this tool kit, they spread it. They tried to develop allies in other industries who also felt threats from inconvenient science. That you couldn’t trust science, and what was needed was ‘sound science.’”

This strategy, which Kenner’s film traces through the tobacco, dioxin, asbestos and fossil fuel industries, involves several key elements:

  • Paying scientists to do research that will support the industry’s claims.
  • Setting up organizations with names like Citizens for Fire Safety and Americans for Free Enterprise, which purport to be legitimate advocacy groups, but are really just shills for corporate interests.
  • Creating a class of media savvy “experts,” who may or may not be scientists, but whose basic function is to debate, and cast doubt on, the work of legitimate scientific researchers.
  • Making these experts available to journalists, to provide “balance” in the reporting of these issues, even when there is no real scientific debate about the subject.

These last two elements are key to the merchants-of-doubt approach, and make use of journalistic ethics about providing “equal time” to opposing viewpoints. They also play into the scientific community’s basic inability to explain difficult concepts. “Scientists are trained to do science, and it’s hard enough to do the science,” says Oreskes. “And now you’re saying you have to be an effective communicator as well? It’s not their job.”

The idea that something like climate science “was presented as a debate is the fault of the media,” says Kenner (who also directed the 2008 documentary Food, Inc.)

“And that’s not just the conservative media. Somehow we’ve made scientists suspect, as if they have an ideological agenda. So, some people are fooled into not believing inconvenient science.”

That cloud of doubt now hovers over climate-change science, and has as much to do with ideology as it does government gridlock and an unwillingness to deal with the changes that the elimination of fossil fuels could bring about.

“Many conservatives see action on climate change as an attack on a way of life,” says Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman and climate-change skeptic who has done a 180 and now runs the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which promotes conservative, market-based solutions to climate-change issues.

Adds Kenner: “This [fossil fuel] energy was a gift from the gods, this carbon has changed everything about how we live, and given us this lifestyle. And the thought of having to give up something is difficult. It’s not a conspiracy, but this combination of paid PR hacks with this ideological mixture has made it able to confuse people.”

That’s certainly the goal of Marc Morano, a glib climate denier who runs the anti-climate change website Morano is known for publishing the email addresses of climate scientists on his website and debating environmentalists on TV. He admits in the film that “Gridlock is the greatest friend a global warming skeptic has.”

“People like Morano have made a career out of being contrarians, and they are very good at it,” says Oreskes. “When a scientist comes up against a well-trained, savvy person, scientists will always lose in the debate.”

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But as Merchants of Doubt makes clear, the tide does change, if very slowly. The use of asbestos is now limited, or banned, in many countries, and after years of litigation, the nation’s tobacco companies have agreed to publish statements saying they lied about the effects of smoking.

“All of these different forms of denial have been on the table [for years],” says Oreskes. “But the reason why the original merchants of doubt did what they did was all about capitalism. They think if you allow government intervention into the marketplace, you lose political and personal freedom.”

“People will maximize their profits, people will get away with as much as they can, for as long as they can,” says Inglis. “It’s all about how long people can get away with it, until society stops them from doing it.”

As far as climate change is concerned, a recent poll has found that the majority of Americans support government action to fight it. But whether or not this will happen soon is open to debate. Oreskes believes the “problem isn’t so much public opinion, it’s the disconnect between what the public wants the government to do, and what the government is doing.”

“These things happen in fits and starts,” says Kenner. “Society is capable of changing rapidly, and we’re at a key moment [in terms of climate change]. I’d rather make a film showing how we are being deceived, and my goal was to make people angry that they are being lied to. And when they see that, things will begin to change.”