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‘Merchants’: The selling of doubt

Based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, the new film “Merchants of Doubt” sheds light on the sleight of hand used by climate-change deniers, using a magician demonstrating card tricks to illustrate the metaphor.

The sowing of doubt about the validity of scientific data didn’t start with global warming. “Merchants” — by Robert Kenner, who directed “Food, Inc.” — cites the debate over the safety of cigarettes, when the tobacco industry publicly denied for years that its product was harmful until the release of its own internal documents revealed a carefully concealed coverup.

Since the tobacco industry push-back, public-relations flacks have honed their tack of either flat-out denying incontrovertible scientific evidence, or insisting that data is insufficient, ambiguous, or otherwise not convincing enough to act upon.

Before zeroing in on climate change, “Merchants” looks at manufacturers of flame-retardant products, which got fired up by big-tobacco tactics, but took them further. Chemical companies created front groups such as Citizens for Fire Safety to push for fire-retardant upholstery, which did not protect against fire, and proved to be carcinogenic.

The culmination of doubt-peddling currently plays out in the ongoing discussion about global warming, which scientists almost unanimously agree is largely caused by human activity: fossil-fuel burning, woodlands reducing, and more that increases the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The evidence continues to grow.

Unlike with the tobacco industry, climate-change deniers are not solely motivated by financial interests. Instead, “Merchants” puts them into two camps: financial and ideological.

The fossil-fuels industry trots out its experts — some of whom may be scientists in fields not familiar with climatology — to testify before Congress, opinionate in the media, or otherwise spread their contrarian message. As spin doctors, most are more effective at communication than real experts who engage in academic speak.

For example, “Merchants” interviews former salesman Marc Morano, an amusing if amoral pundit-for-hire who brags about working to debunk global warming just for the thrill of it. Morano cops to getting his kicks from debating qualified experts while getting his message across with more readily digestible sound bites.

“I’m not a scientist. I just play one on TV,” he quips. “Communication is about sales. Keep it simple; people will fill in the blanks with their own, I hate to say it, bias … with their own perspectives, in many cases.” Assessing the role he and his like fill, Morano adds, “We’re the negative force; we’re just trying to stop stuff.”

The other camp is dominated by Cold War veterans fixated on communism and anti-government ideologues who deny climate change simply because they don’t want government to wield its power to reduce it. As one of them colorfully puts it, “Environmentalists are like watermelons — green on the outside, red on the inside.”

While many deniers stick to the story that climate change is a hoax, some of the more practical people have proved adaptable: changing their rationale to deal with growing evidence. First, they claimed the Earth wasn’t warming. Then, they said that even if it were, humans can’t be blamed — it’s just cyclical. And now, they say that no matter what’s causing it, there isn’t anything that can be done about it anyway.

“Merchants” manages to find a couple former doubters who have switched sides: The Skeptic Society founder Michael Shermer, who ultimately decided that “you have to follow the science; data trumps politics,” and former Congressman Bob Inglis, who lost his re-election bid to a Tea Party member for siding with the enemy, but maintains “there are things we can do to change. The lie is that we can’t do it.”

The recurring theme of a magician relying on misdirection to work a trick runs through “Merchants.” Distraction is the key, warns Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the source book. “It’s all about preventing people from looking where the real action is, which is in the science.”

“Merchants of Doubt” is available on disc from Netflix; as video on demand from iTunes, Vudu and PlayStation; and, along with the book, from area libraries

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