05 March 2015

Merchants of Doubt Movie

Do go see the Merchants of Doubt Movie.  Los Angeles and New York March 6 opening, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC the 13th.  More widely starting the 20th of March.  The movie is inspired by the book of the same name, about how it is established industries can sell Doubt even in areas where the science is pretty well established.

The movie is not the book, nor does it make the mistake of trying to put the book on screen.  But it does pick up many of the threads, and, most importantly, shows well how the Merchants of Doubt ply their trade.  And it does so in an engaging way.  One element of that being the extended visual, and practical, illustration of close up magic.  Sleight of hand, misdirection, using shills (3 card monte was the example for this) all have their analogues for the Merchants of Doubt.

The phrase itself derives from the tobacco industry, PR firm, which concluded that doubt was their product -- they could not argue the science, but they could still cast doubt.  Decades later (not from the movie) this was echoed by Frank Luntz, who also observed "A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth," Mr Luntz notes in the memo.

We see this item primarily through the flame retardants theme in the move.  A doctor testifies to legislators about the harrowing death of a child, burned on the parts of its body that were on the non-flame-retardant pillow as opposed to the flame-retarded mattress.  Once the testimony is given, the bill to lift requirements for the chemicals is promptly defeated.  Except, it turns out, and the doctor confirms, that the events in his testimony never actually happened.  But his story was far more compelling that mere recitation of facts about the (in)effectiveness of the fire-retardants.  And that's the important part.  (? For the doctor, at least, and his funders.  See who that turns out to be.)

How did we get to fire retardants from tobacco?  Cancer is a long stretch from fire, after all.  But that's part of the tangled web of merchandising Doubt.  Burning cigarettes start fires.  Tobacco companies could have been told to develop cigarettes that didn't burn so long unattended.  Rather than do so (potentially expensive), they pushed the argument, successfully, that the problem was the couches/mattresses/pillows.  They shouldn't catch fire so easily; that was the real problem.  If you can convince people that it's the fault of couches for letting themselves be burned, rather than of the cigarettes for burning couches (thence homes and people), there are few limits to what you can convince people of.

That's one of the methods of the PR flacks, and those methods are what the movie explores in a number of difference stories and ways.  Climate looms large in the movie, larger than in the book.  That renders it a little hard for me to say much about -- I have too much first hand experience with the people and events.  What I can say from that first hand knowledge (or at worst second hand) is that it represents well how the people in the climate 'debate' actually talk.  And I can say with some confidence that it represents them fairly.  That's true whether it's Marc Morano (who's quite up front about the fact that he is attacking the scientists, not the science, and is pleased about the hate-mail that scientists get after he releases their email addresses) or Katharine Hayhoe (receiving end of some of that hate-mail, a scientist working on understanding climate who has been talking publicly to groups about creation care).  Katharine is also a conservative evangelical Christian.  One of the themes in the moving being about tribalism, so such identifiers sometimes are important.

I don't give away much, the meat is how you get to this point, in observing that I also like Producer/Director Robert Kenner's choice to end the movie with some optimism from Bob Inglis (6 time congressman elected from very conservative part of very conservative South Carolina) as to his belief that the problems of climate change are real (which got him massacred in his last primary) and can be addressed.  The Merchants of Doubt have their successes, as does the magician.  But, as more people see how the trick is done, the fewer who fall for it.  I hope.  See the movie and let me know in the comments what you think.

Since I was at a special preview, I'll write a separate note about that, and about some of the discussion we had with Kenner after the movie.

In the mean time, some potentially useful other links:
Movie's official web site with release dates
Rotten Tomatoes


Mitchell Coffey said...

Good review.

It's worth emphasizing how entertaining this film is.

Mitchell Coffey said...

Good review.

It's worth emphasizing how entertaining this film is.

EliRabett said...

The fantasy testimony you describe is the motivation for Rep Grijava's letter. After he has been subject to such behavior, perhaps patience has run out?