Cinephilia: Merchants of Doubt presents a scientific argument without the science

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Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Robert Kenner’s Merchants of Doubt follows the deceptive tactics of corporations who hire “experts” to publicly doubt scientists in order to continue selling harmful products for profit. Cigarettes, fire retardants, and man-made climate change; the film tracks the similarities between their PR scandals, before becoming as deceptive as the corporations.

During the 1960s there was backlash from scientists who began to strongly oppose the smoking of cigarettes. To combat this backlash, big tobacco hired scientists from unrelated fields to combat the evidence by casting doubt with lies. These “experts” were talented spin doctors who excelled at public speaking, while academics trying to expose the injustice struggled in the public forum.

The film traces similar occurrences with regards to the climate change debate. On one side, there are knowledgeable scientists, and their opponents are big, bad oil companies who ignore the scientific consensus so they can continue making profits.

Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

As with cigarettes, if we wait too long and fail to recognize the harmful effects of climate change, there will be catastrophic circumstances. Merchants of Doubt aims to motivate the masses to stand up against major polluters and recognize how they have been manipulated by big corporations.

The film is not concerned with science, yet it tries to make scientific claims anyways. Its argument for man-made global warming comes from the way it frames the debate. The problem is that this form of argumentation is misleading and simply untrue. It’s ironic that a film that tries to expose deception ends up using deceiving arguments itself.

By framing the debate on man-made climate change as being scientists vs. non-scientists, the film asserts that there is no debate regarding how to interpret the empirical data. The film completely ignores any real scientists on the opposing side. Merchants of Doubt claims that those who don’t believe the inconvenient truth do so only for political reasons. During an interview in the film, Naomi Oreskes, one of the authors of the book on which this film is based, states that there is a consensus among scientists which proves that man-made global warming is a fact.

There are two problems with this line of reasoning. Firstly, the argument is classic ad populum: something must be true because most people believe it. Merchants of Doubt commits this fallacy by arguing that man-made global warming must be real because all scientists working in the field believe it.

The problem is that it’s not the number of scientists that matters, but the evidence that has convinced them. The movie wants to make empirical scientific claims without giving any empirical scientific evidence.

Secondly, the notion that there are no expert scientists who oppose the idea of man-made global warming is completely untrue. In 2006, a large group of Canadian scientists involved with research on climate change wrote an open letter to Stephen Harper that called into question what many, including this film, deem to be cold facts. They wrote “observational evidence does not support today’s computer climate models, so there is little reason to trust model predictions of the future. Yet this is precisely what the United Nations did in creating and promoting Kyoto.”

Merchants of Doubt aligns itself with the views of scientists, yet its argumentation is far from scientific. It wants to close the debate by ignoring its opposition while deceiving the audience with lies and fallacies.