Magicians use deception to steer the audience away from the means they use to perform a trick. Look over here and I’ll do something over there without you seeing; there’s no magic, just a grand illusion created by the performer’s deception. Throughout Merchants of Doubt, Robert Kenner (Food Inc.) uses this analogy to explain how powerful corporations manipulate the masses by hiring “experts” to doubt the real scientists. The corporations reassure the populace that their unhealthy or detrimental products are safe by butting heads against academia with bold-faced lies. Merchants of Doubt argues that the tactics used to trick people about the harmful effects of cigarettes are now being used to ignore the scientific fact of man-made climate change.
During the 1960s, when many were starting to question the health problems caused by smoking cigarettes, tobacco companies started hiring scientists in unrelated fields to combat the evidence. The scientists who had studied the issue of cigarette smoking and health were warning the public but unfortunately, they were not charismatic or skilled at public speaking, so their findings through popular outlets like television failed to convince viewers.
Meanwhile, the cigarette companies made sure that they hired people that were gifted at twisting words. These spin doctors would often use phrases like “there is no scientific consensus” and “we just don’t know enough.” This cast sufficient doubt and caused many to continue in their habit of smoking, unaware of the harmful effects. The tobacco companies can’t plead ignorance to what they did. Thousands of documents have been uncovered where researchers that worked for tobacco companies documented the health risks for them. The film traces similar occurrences in the use of fire retardants before ultimately investing its time investigating how oil companies and other major polluters have created an illusion that man-made global warming is not a fact.
The film itself fails to give any empirical data to prove that climate change is primarily man-made. Rather, it relies on the argument that all scientists working in the field that touches on global warming agree that it is primarily caused by human beings. And, because a consensus of scientists believe the inconvenient truth, you should, too. It’s ironic that a documentary about the deceptive tactics of corporations deceives the audience with fallacious arguments and factually inaccurate testimony.
Let me clarify what I mean. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to cut down pollution, and I’m not saying that the earth’s temperature isn’t rising. I’m also not defending the powerful corporations that propagandize lies for profit. I’m not advocating for ignorant political movements like Americans for Prosperity, who use scarily dumb slogans like “warmer is better.” What I am saying is that if you’re going to argue for man-made climate change, you can’t do it like a magician; you must do it like a scientist or a philosopher. Merchants of Doubt wants to make empirical, scientific claims without providing any empirical, scientific evidence. It wants to call you to action to combat man-made climate change when no evidence has been provided.
Naomi Oreskes, an American historian of science who wrote the book on which this film is based, is interviewed here and states boldly that no expert climatologists deny that humans caused global warming. Oreskes believes there is a scientific consensus and thus concludes that man-made global warming must be true. By contrast, the opposition is portrayed as fast-talking public relations experts who spew out propaganda for big oil. Nowhere is there an opposing view presented by an expert on global warming, giving the impression that none exists. The film depicts that not even the corporations’ talking heads question the science, they merely try to put doubt in the public’s mind.
This is simply pure deception, as there are experts in the field of global warming that do not think that it is primarily caused by human beings (read this). Not only is this blatantly untrue, but the film’s argument for man-made global warming is fallacious. The ad populum fallacy is committed when someone argues that something is true just because most people believe it. Merchants of Doubt commits to this falsehood, arguing that man-made global warming must be true because all scientists working in that field believe it. However, the number of scientists that believe it is irrelevant to the truthfulness of the proposition. It may lend some credence, but ultimately, it is the evidence that the scientists can muster that determines the truth or falsity of man-made global warming. Certainly in the past there have been consensuses delivered by scientists that turned out to be wrong.
Additionally, the genetic fallacy is when a conclusion is drawn based solely on the origin or context. Merchants of Doubt tries to argue that because big, bad polluters don’t agree with man-made global warming proponents, they must be wrong. Neither of these arguments proposes any scientific evidence, they merely appeal to the emotions of the viewer.
Another implicit argument offered by the film is an inductive one. Merchants of Doubt draws parallels with past controversies like tobacco smoking, acid rain and fire retardants. In each case, there is a scientific consensus which is opposed by the corporation by trying to spread doubt by using their so-called experts, and harm ensues. In the same way there is a scientific consensus that humans are primarily responsible for global warming, which is opposed by the oil companies who have hired their own so-called experts to cast doubt, and harm ensues. There is simply not enough examples to be able come to their conclusion. Additionally, there is an opposing view that is believed by expert scientists who are not hired by the oil companies.
Now do you see how this documentary is deceptive in its argumentation? It gets you to look over here when the real debate is over there. A true magician! But look behind all the illusions and there is really nothing. Merchants of Doubt has no science and no evidence. Unless you already believe in man-made climate change, it should do absolutely nothing to convince you.
Untrue, ineptly argued and artlessly constructed, Merchants of Doubt preaches to the choir without offering any meaningful evidence for the unconverted.