MOD busts corporate pimps, pundits and prevaricators

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Merchants Of Doubt
RPL Theatre
May 14-18

When conservative politicians are pressed on their lack of action on climate change, they respond with the same argument: it’s still under debate. But according to a peer-reviewed survey, 97 per cent of all scientific papers published in the last 20 years agree that humans are responsible for global warming.

In spite of the evidence, the lie has endured.

Merchants of Doubt takes a look at the playbook of skeptics-for-hire: people whose services are bought by corporations. The “profession” has been around for 50 years, started by tobacco producers desperate to delay legislation to regulate the industry. In 2015, the most prominent employers are Big Coal and Big Oil. But the strategy is pretty much the same.

Director Robert Kenner (nominated for an Academy Award for Food, Inc.) puts together an ironclad case against these characters and the think-tanks and supposedly expert groups that sell their clients’ positions without any scientific evidence to back it up. And it’s worked: action on climate change has been delayed.

At last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, I spoke with Keener about his documentary.

Tell me about this project’s origin.

When I was doing Food, Inc., I went to a hearing on whether to label cloned meat. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. Someone got up and said “it’s really not in the best interest of the consumer to be given that information.” It was the Center for Consumers’ Freedom, which represented fast food chains and soda companies, spreading that message. We dug deeper, and there were tons of these groups with Orwellian names that did just the opposite of what you were expecting them to do.

And they all claim to have scientific support?

It’s a weird phenomenon. Many legitimate, even well-respected scientists, at some point abandoned their belief in science in favour of their ideological beliefs. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, they started to see environmentalists as the new communists because they felt there should be rules for things. When President Reagan backed a ban on [ozone-depleting chemicals], many were outraged.

The film also indicts the media for treating manufacturers of doubt as legitimate voices.

That was one of the most outrageous and disappointing things for me: how legitimate news sources give equal weight to marginal players with no scientific background. I’m happy to say that the BBC is saying they won’t allow climate change deniers in their network. The New York Times, which was thoroughly guilty of bad reporting in that area, has come around and is doing good work on the matter. Hopefully, the tide is turning. But it’s amazing how long it took.

It took forever to deal properly with the tobacco industry.

We used tobacco as point of reference because it’s the same people. As one of the spin-masters said, “If you can do tobacco, you can do everything.” They went on working for pharmaceuticals, chemicals, food, and the ultimate payday of all, energy. Their only interest is to create doubt, and they use the same words and same methods as before.

A chief merchant of doubt, Marc Morano, comes across as very glib. But he’s surprisingly open about his modus operandi.

Morano is charming, quick and funny to be with. He sees this as entertainment. Ultimately, I think he is unaware of the incredible damage he is causing.

One of the conclusions I drew from the film is that, given the close relationship between lobbyists and politicians, change won’t come from inside. How do you believe change could materialize?

Ultimately, companies are sensitive to their consumers and shareholders. With Food, Inc., we helped to put pressure on the industry to change. Science is not a popularity contest. Hopefully, we are making it safe enough for conservatives to acknowledge the science and start pressuring the companies and the government to change. It’s in all of our interests.

Do you believe there is a parallel between the food and energy industries and their methods?

No doubt. In the food world, governments are subsidizing corn and soy, which is creating mass epidemics of health diseases. In the energy field, the government subsidizes oil and coal, which in turn are bringing the destruction of the planet. If we had real free enterprise — a conservative issue! — we wouldn’t be subsidizing these industries.

Has the knowledge you acquired making Food, Inc. and Merchants of Doubt informed the way you live your life?

About a year after I made Food, Inc. I was on a plane. I started to eat a mint and my wife, who reads labels, said, “Look what’s in this! Didn’t you see the movie Food, Inc.?” I don’t think people can be perfect. It’s too paralyzing. That said, industrial food doesn’t look the same to me, doesn’t taste great. I look at energy differently. LED light bulbs are awesome, solar panels have become a good investment [to lower your carbon footprint].

It’s hard to change your life, but when you do, you start to feel a little better.