I watched the documentary Merchants of Doubt (2014) last weekend and found it to be engaging and applicable, especially in light of the current election cycle where a number of candidates deny a connection between human activity and climate change.
Marco Rubio told ABC, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” and John Kasich said in September: “I don’t believe that humans are the primary cause of climate change.”
Merchants of Doubt, first a book published in 2010, and now a documentary from Sony Pictures, draws parallels between pseudo-scientists of the 1950s and 60s who spread misinformation about the dangers of tobacco and pseudo-scientists of today, who spread misinformation about the drivers of climate change. Both groups are, in reality, corporate-financed public relations efforts to confuse the public and cast doubt on findings from unbiased and educated researchers.
One of the authors of Merchants of Doubt, historian of science Naomi Oreskes (Harvard University) first came to public attention in 2004 when she released her study "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change," in Science. Dr. Oreskes examined 928 papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003. Not one paper disagreed that there is compelling evidence for human-related modification of climate change.
Merchants of Doubt asks the question: if this is the case, how does controversy over this issue persist in politics and public opinion? This confusion also existed for issues such as ozone depletion, tobacco’s effects on health, the chemical DDT, and acid rain. The primary reason: propaganda.
Which unfortunately leads to this:
In the book and the documentary, Oreskes, Erik Conway, and filmmaker Robert Kenner build a picture of the individuals and groups that produce and promote “scientific” misinformation. Shockingly, three physicists, Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer (who, by the way, are not climate scientists) are the “experts” behind a great deal of the anti-global warming propaganda. These men work closely with institutes funded by corporations and conservative foundations that oppose many forms of state intervention or regulation of U.S. citizens. This includes a friendly bunch you may know well, the Koch brothers.
These individuals and groups publish false reports on various topics that often look very similar to reports prepared by groups of academic researchers. Additionally, they often make media appearances to spread their message to the general public. News organizations often present this as a point-counter-point debate—leading people to believe that there is still a scientific dispute about the degree of human involvement in climate change. However, as demonstrated in Dr. Oreskes study, there is a strong consensus on this issue amongst research scientists.
Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, I think this documentary is eye opening and concerning, particularly for young scientists who hope that their work will be properly interpreted by the public. You can check it out on Amazon and iTunes.
And, stay tuned this spring for an upcoming interview on our podcast with Dr. Naomi Oreskes!