Merchants of Doubt opens with a con artist. The con artist in question, magician Jamy Ian Swiss of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, is brought back throughout the film to illustrate the film’s central point: there are so-called “experts” in various fields who are more than willing to manipulate facts – through misdirection, deceit, and even blatant lies – to produce the results desired by their employers. In these cases, those employers are involved in areas like tobacco, oil, pharmaceuticals, and climate change.
The film focuses on tobacco first, pointing to the tobacco industry’s work over decades to convince the American public that tobacco didn’t cause cancer. Their methods included funding “research” teams who would argue that tobacco didn’t cause cancer, and that nicotine wasn’t addictive.
What’s most alarming is how recently this was done. Hint: if you’re reading this, it was likely at some point in your lifetime.
In some ways, the tobacco industry is still fighting against certain ideas, like how a lit cigarette can cause a fire. The film explores how the tobacco industry fights for flame retardant materials to be used on household items, even though there’s significant concern about the health hazards of these chemicals, because they don’t want to share in the responsibility of cigarettes potentially causing fires.
And the tobacco industry isn’t alone. The film explores how other industries have adopted many of the tobacco industry’s methods. The most alarming is the use of these methods by climate change deniers, who are shown using pseudo-scientific jargon to rally people who don’t want to believe in climate change, and have no compunction about helping to generate threats of violence against scientists who study climate change in some capacity.
Merchants of Doubt is a frustrating film, because there’s clearly a target audience that should see the film. The problem is that those who need to see it the most are the ones most likely to avoid it. The audience that’s actually likely to see it will feel a sense of righteous anger, and it’s well earned. This is a solid documentary about a subject that should be examined, and it’s worth bringing someone who’s a skeptic about these issues.