Friday, March 13, 2015

"Merchants of Doubt": people make careers doing PR for industries spreading false info, especially about climate change

Merchants of Doubt” is a new documentary about the lobbying of “denial” based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.  The film is directed by Robert Kenner, written with Kim Roberts. 
The film actually starts with a magician’s session, almost out of “The Illusionist”.  That’s a metaphor for how the process of selling “denial” works.
Corporations fear government regulation, so they tend to form small trade groups to represent their common interests and then hire lobbyists to spin the denial.  This has been true of issues like asbestos, tobacco, acid rain, and other pollution concerns, and now is particularly the case with climate change.  The process of denial started probably in the late 80s, but had to accelerate particularly after Al Gore’s prize-winning “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2005 (directed by David Guggenheim).
Oreskes, sitting in a small apartment (apparently in Cambridge, MA near Harvard) describes how she researched the academic journals on climate change, and found zero peer-reviewed articles supporting the denier crowd.  Incidentally, that little segment could make an argument for “open access” to journals, which was a cause of Aaron Swartz (and more recently Jack Andraka).
The denial crowd becomes partisan, and is particularly critical for the Tea Party, which engineered the primary loss for a South Carolina Senatorial candidate who wanted to take a much more pro-active position on climate change reform.
The denial crowd appears to a certain quasi-libertarian element, which fears that government regulation (aka socialism and communism) will take their way of life away. The Cato Institute gets mentioned.

The film does mention a basic moral point. Our grandparents' generation probably had no way to know that industrial practices would lead to climate change.  Ours does.  So are we stealing from future generations?  Can you commit a crime against someone who does not yet even exist?  (That's not the same as the usual right-to-life question.)
What strikes me is people get hired to speak somebody else’s message, join someone else’s cause, regardless of “truth”.  They’ve got to earn a living, right?  I’ve stayed away from this, but even that becomes morally problematic.  After “retirement” in 2001, I was often approached with a “we give you the words” pitch.  My answer is that you have to win arguments with facts and sound reasoning before you can win converts. 

The official site is here and it has enormous resouces.
Above, Naomi speaks at Kansas State University (Manhattan). 
The theatrical release is from Sony Pictures Classics and I saw if before a small but appreciative early evening show at the AMC Shirlington.  

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