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Merchants Of Doubt’ Suggests We’re All Being Conned

San Diego magician Jamy Ian Swiss explains his role as a ‘skeptical activist’ in the documentary

Global warming skeptic Fred Singer is featured in the new documentary,

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Above: Global warming skeptic Fred Singer is featured in the new documentary, "Merchants of Doubt."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the documentary, "Merchants of Doubt."


Companion Viewing

"F is For Fake" (1973)

"Thank You For Smoking" (2010)

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" (2010)

Merchants of Doubt” (opening March 20 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas) is a documentary that wants to alert us to how we’re being conned and sometimes as willing participants.

Robert Kenner’s documentary “Merchants of Doubt” is based on the 2010 non-fiction book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” by American historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

Authors Oreskes and Conway point out that paid pundits keep controversy brewing by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached. They succeed because they get their false message out with more media savvy than scientists get the facts out. The lengthy and dense subtitle to the book is a bit ironic in this context. But filmmaker Kenner tries to help Oreskes and Conway spruce up the scientific side with some flair and media friendly clarity to convey the book’s themes to a wider audience.

So the slickly produced film mixes humor, rational arguments and sleight of hand to dissect the methods corporations use to advance their own agenda at the expense of the public’s and the planet’s best interests.

San Diego magician Jamy Ian Swiss frames the documentary and provides it with a visual leitmotif. Kenner’s opening credits feature card tricks and Swiss demonstrates his prestidigitation intermittently throughout the film. Swiss calls himself a skeptical activist as well as an honest liar (since he’s up front about the deceptions he presents and is not scamming the audience).

He agreed to be in the film because “I’m an expert in deception. My expertise is narrow but deep. I know how to fool people and I know how to recognize when people are being fooled.”

He is part of a long line of magicians (dating back he said to the 1500s) who have actively worked to expose fraud and fakery. Swiss came to the KPBS studios to discuss his role in the film. He said one point he hoped the film conveys is don’t blame the public for being gullible but rather credit the con man for conning them.

“Once revealed, never concealed,” Swiss stated emphatically. “And we hope that’s not just true about magic tricks, which have an artistic reason to be concealed, but that in the sense of revealing the mechanism by which the public has been hoaxed and deceived about climate change that maybe people will be more aware next time it happens to see the mechanism of professional deceivers. It’s easy and glib to say people are stupid or people are gullible. With that line of reasoning — as tempting as it may be — what it leads us to is blaming the victim and I always say credit the con man. The three-card Monte may seem like a simple game but the elements of it are incredibly powerful and psychologically ruthless and those elements have been developed and refined for over 150 years.”

Kenner’s documentary shows how ruthless and good these professional deceivers are; in fact Kenner seems oddly beguiled by people he is essentially painting as the villains.

But perhaps that’s his point. He shows the real scientists as being awkward an uncomfortable on camera. They can’t look directly into the lens of the camera, they stumble over their words, and at a government inquiry they have to be instructed on how to use the microphone properly.

Climate scientist Ben Santer says in the film, “As a scientist you are trained to defend the science.”

But receive no training in terms of how to present oneself in the media or deal with public attacks.

But the paid pundits and spin masters are so at ease on camera and so versed in telling lies that they inspire confidence (that’s where the “con” in con man and con game comes from) in the viewer or listener.

Marc Morano, for example, is a former door-to-door salesman and now calls himself “an environmental journalist.” (He could be the inspiration for Aaron Eckhart's character in "Thank you for Smoking," a film that inspired Kenner to make his documentary.) When asked if he is an actual scientist he replies, “not a scientist but I play one on TV.”

You have to be impressed by how unashamed and even boastful he is about how he has managed to deceive not just the public but the mainstream media as well.

That’s one of the things the film tries to make clear is how the media is complicit by pretending to be objective. The media’s desire to present both sides of an issue (because presenting an issue as a conflict is inherently more interesting) often leads them to giving air time to people like Morano who actually bring no science to the table but instead just manage to inject doubt about the real science that does exist in order to stop or stall political action on things that would be bad for the bottom lines of the corporations he works for.

Naomi Oreskes, one of the authors of the book the film is based on, explains in the documentary that corporations create institutes that then “promote their own experts as contrary experts who can give you the other side of the issue and journalists fall for it. They fall for it lock, stock, and barrel.”

The proof lies in the clips the documentary shows of not just outlets like Fox News calling on these false experts but also more respected news organizations like CNN.

Morano is credited with perfecting the don’t attack the science, attack the scientist approach. He laughs about his attacks on real scientists and calls it having “fun” even after the filmmakers point out that many scientists now receive angry and threatening emails prompted by Morano’s attacks.

In contrast to Morano’s slick media persona, Kenner gives us real scientists who just seem baffled by all the resistance they are getting to the real science on things like global warming. James Hansen, a climate scientist, naively states, “We just assumed that humanity would take sensible actions to avoid undesirable consequences.”

He later adds that “most scientists are not good communicators [because] the science is hard enough.”

Swiss promotes scientific skepticism, which is the practice of questioning whether claims are supported by empirical research and have testable claims.

He said what the documentary is trying to present is “a multi-faceted story and it has to do with deception on remarkable levels that goes back to tobacco companies trying to deny the idea that there was any connection between cigarettes and cancer. That tobacco companies when cigarettes used to burn in ashtrays for 30 minutes and set fire to apartments and homes and killed people, the tobacco companies said, it’s not the fault of the cigarettes, it’s the fault of the couch, it’s the fault of the furniture, it’s not the ignition, it’s the fuel.”

“Merchants of Doubt” tries to convey a complex picture of how misinformation is used and how it seems to be overshadowing real science. And in doing that it suggests that money is not the only motivational force at work.

Oreskes examined massive amounts of data on a variety of issues and tried to figure out why a few scientists would turn against their peers. One thing she discovered about a pair of Cold War scientists (Fred Seitz and Fred Singer) was their deep-seated anti-communist feelings. Oreskes serves up this epiphany in the film: “All of these issues [global warming, acid rain, tobacco, DDT, ozone, asbestos] are issues that involve the need for government action that’s when the penny dropped ‘cause then I began to realize none of this is about the science, all of this is a political debate about the role of government.” So people like Seitz and Singer see environmentalists as “reds under the bed” and “watermelons, green on outside and red on inside,” and as “putting us on slippery slope to socialism.”

If Swiss can have you leave the film with a single action item it would be this: when presented with statistical information and comparisons “you always have to ask compared to what? So one question is always to say compared to what? Show me the comparison. Show me the real numbers. But also compared to what means who’s talking to whom? Who are these sides working for? Who’s talking to you? Are you really listening to the evidence or are you reaching a conclusion first and then pulling evidence that is convenient to you to help support the conclusion you have already reached? That’s a cognitive bias that we all fall prey to. None of us is immune from information bias. It’s difficult to fight it but this is part of what’s revealed in the film. The most convincing and dangerous lie of all is the one we tell ourselves.”

“Merchants of Doubt” (rated PG-13 for brief strong language) is an enlightening look at America’s spin factory and a fascinating look at the people who are perversely skilled at deception and misdirection.

NOTE: Jamy Ian Swiss will hold a Q&A at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas on Saturday, Mar. 21 after the 7:30pm show.


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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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