The book Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes, was made into a box office bomb (it crashed). But, darkly, it has an ongoing life in our schools. Tony Thomas uncovers the push to put propaganda in front of children, dressed up as education. The director of the film tells the world that his aim is to stop skeptics from being broadcast on TV. (Because that’s what you do when you can’t win a fair debate eh?)
This film was never about science, but about doing exactly what it claims to “expose”. (It’s projection all the way down.) The real merchants of doubt are those that seed doubts about honest whistleblower scientists, using character assassination, namecalling, tenuous associations, innuendo and allusion instead of scientific arguments. They don’t find a scientific fault in anything skeptics say, but resort to twenty year old false tobacco smears.
What we need are resources for teachers to help students critically analyze propaganda like this. How do children spot what isn’t said? What clues do we see in this movie that reveal its anti-science, political nature? Is it that they don’t let their skeptic targets talk about climate science at all? Readers suggestions are welcome. How do we sharpen students to spot the hypocrisy and fallacies? As I said before, Naomi Oreskes IS the Merchant of Doubt.
“Ponder the irony of what Oreskes herself is doing. Is she not profiteering from being a doubt-monger about scientists’ reputations? Is she not a conspiracy theorist about webs of vested interests among conservative speakers? Could it be that her entire reasoning dies by its own sword and her claims turn out to be as hypocritical as they are mindless?”
Merchants of Censorship: the authoritarians’ new push
By Tony Thomas
On a flight home over the Pacific last month, with nothing better to do, I took a look at the Naomi Oreskes-based Sony film Merchants of Doubt. Back home, I delved further.
The film urges direct action now: to get all skeptic commentators blacklisted from TV news and comment because they are liars and shills for corporate vested interests.
The film’s director Robert Kenner emailed pals on March 6, 2015:
“Why I produced MD [Merchants of Doubt]. People who mislead the public on climate change should not be on TV. Period. That is one big reason why I produced Merchants of Doubt, a film that lays bare the greedy, shameful world of climate denial and the journalists who broadcast it.
This is also why, right now, we are launching a people power national campaign that could keep climate deniers out of the news for good…
“Forecast the Facts” has successfully held the media accountable before. One year ago, over 100,000 of us pushed the Washington Post to improve its climate reporting and we won. Now we can do it again with our TV news . RK.”
The film’s backers also helped push the Los Angeles Times and a dozen other US papers into banning “anti-fact” skeptic views.
Merchant of Doubt’s second target is the education system. The film comes conveniently packaged with classroom study guides for teachers and students. Green groups such as Cool Australia and Australian Youth Climate Coalition will waste no time in leveraging their influence in schools to get the film playing and streaming on the smart whiteboards.
The film has bombed commercially, grossing a mere $US192,000 in March-April on the US cinema circuit.
Through their Participant Media offshoot, they’ve made dozens of activist films, including Inconvenient Truth (2005) and Climate of Change (2010). “Participant creates a unique social action campaign designed to give audiences specific actions they can taken on the issues illuminated in the project.” Skoll also runs the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which focuses on five global issues “that , if unchecked, could bring the world to its knees: climate change, water security, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and Middle East conflict.”
The official website for the Merchant’s of Doubt has a “Take Action” button. There we find a “Petition to Help End Climate Change Denial in the Media” with 17,500 signatories to date (target: 30,000).
The petition reads,
“The links between fossil fuel pollution and climate change are as well established as the links between cigarettes and cancer. Yet too often, your network provides a platform for pundits who are paid to intentionally confuse the public on climate science.
[Because the public are too stupid to make up their own minds eh? – Jo]
The film Merchants of Doubt documents some of these individuals and the self-serving corporations and front groups that hire them. Your network has a reputation as a respected news source, and a responsibility to book credible guests who legitimately inform the American public about climate change. As long as your programs allow hired con artists on air, you serve as a tool for irresponsible industries and threaten your good name.
That’s why I urge you to stop booking merchants of doubt and all those who distort the established science on climate change on your news programs.
[Your name here]
The producers say, “Merchants of Doubt exposes a group of slick, camera-ready pundits who get paid to confuse the public on climate change. Many are the exact same people who, for years, lied about the dangers of smoking.”
The website itself concedes that only 50% of Americans support the IPCC line that most of recent warming is human-caused. The documentary-makers blame “spin that’s masterfully orchestrated by some of the world’s largest corporations”.
The film looks like it was hoping to be the successor to Participant Media’s Oscar-winning hit Inconvenient Truth that garnered Al Gore half a Nobel Peace Prize.
Inconvenient Truth swamped non-US Western education systems from 2006. Some Australian students reported being shown it multiple times as they travelled between grades and courses. In Northern Ontario, a student reported being force-fed the film four times in a single year.
By government fiat, England, Scotland and Wales had the error-riddled tract shown in every secondary school. The Spanish government sent 30,000 copies to schools.
The dark art of “Education” – teaching the kiddies to vote for big-government
Merchants of Doubt was designed from inception as part of an education package. The film’s website includes study guides for high school and college students to “develop critical thinking skills that will allow them to sort through confusing messages and distinguish between truth, propaganda, and misinformation.”
Here are some of the supposed discussion topics they offer:
- Corporate interests fund think tanks, who create disinformation and promote ‘contradictory experts’. Under the guise of fairness, journalists fall for this strategy, creating a “false balance” in coverage in which scientists are opposed by industry shills.
- Journalists should no longer cover global warming as a balance between two competing sides. Global warming should be covered as a scientific fact, deniers should be investigated, and their biases and partisan interests revealed.
- The media has enabled elements of the political right, backed by a few scientists from the Cold War, to use it as a platform to distort, distract and subvert the scientific findings of climate scientists.
- Taking a cue from the [tobacco] playbook, powerful individuals and corporate interests create a “Twilight Zone” effect, that is, an “alternate universe,” where nonscientific reports “mirror” in appearance and structure scientific ones.
- A handful of scientists, none of whom are experts on climate, have obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.
- Think of and discuss a time when you felt “fooled” by a message from an ad, the news, or a politician. Evaluate the use of the illusionist analogy in describing the political and corporate deniers of global warming. Is it a fair comparison?
- When responsible scientists speak out, they not only have their work attacked, some are harassed and receive death threats.
- How does the story of Dr. Stockmann compare and contrast with stories of climate scientists Benjamin Santer, Michael Man, and Katharine Hayhoe who receive threatening emails? 
- Global warming deniers:
- are primarily concerned about the implications of climate science, including the role of government and the need for government regulation.
- view such regulation as a threat to democracy, individual freedom, and free enterprise.
- have countered rational evidence with political slogans and appeals to the passions and fears of the general public.
- see the science as a threat to their way of life, that “the science needs to be wrong, or else I need to change.”
- Scientists have clearly demonstrated that global warming, if it continues unchecked, will do irreparable harm to the planet, to the survival of certain species, and to human civilization.
- Why do you think many people tend to reject scientific truths predicting future harm when such truths threaten the status quo or call into question the sustainability of certain economic and cultural habits and values?
- Corporate interests can buy the testimony of supposed scientific experts, such as the doctor who testified [falsely] on the death of babies in crib fires.
[This last one seems a bit self defeating. Yes please, let’s follow the thought that scientists can be bought and see where it takes us in a debate about the importance of "expert consensus". – Jo]
Orthodox climate science, in Oreskes’ words in the film, is “settled”. Those disputing its veracity are therefore on an ideological crusade against benevolent inter-government regulation to save the planet. In contrast, climate scientists like Ben Santer, James Hansen, Michael Man, Katherine Heyhoe and people like Oreskes work selflessly for the public good but get hate emails and death threats from, well, no need to say from whom.
Actually, there’s little in the film about climate science per se.  It’s just an exercise in fitting its heroes and villains with white and black hats, respectively. The blackest villains are physicists Fred Seitz (died 2008 at 96) and Fred Singer (90) because of their one-time tobacco roles. Seitz was on the nuclear weapons program; Singer had been (literally) a rocket scientist. Seitz was a recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest award in science. The arms’ race by 1989 bankrupted the Soviet Union.
Seitz explained that because RJ Reynolds had been funding biomedical research at Rockefeller University where he was president, he agreed to chair a Reynolds’ panel that distributed a total $US46m in research grants from 1979-88 for studies in degenerative diseases. The book alleges that RJ Reynolds hoped to thereby create a cadre of favorable expert witnesses (and/or get research findings favorable to their political agenda), but the film makes no allegation that this actually occurred. Indeed, one of the Seitz grants supported work on prions (connected to Creutzfeld-Jacobs Disease), which earned a Nobel Prize for Dr Stanley Prusiner in 1997. Seitz’ panel included other distinguished scientists. On Oreskes’ and the film’s logic, they would also have to be evil.
Fred Singer attacked studies in 1993 (note how old the film’s material is) by the US Environmental Protection Agency purporting to prove the cancer hazards of second-hand (not original) cigarette smoke. Singer argued that the studies were “junk science” based on fudged EPA analysis. His work was funded by PR firm APCO which was an intermediary for tobacco funding. Singer said he didn’t know that, and that in any event, the source of funding made no difference to his critique, which focused on flawed statistical analysis and had been validated judicially and by a Congress probe.
Fred Singer added that he found second-hand smoke irritating and unpleasant, served on the board of an anti-smoking organization, and personally believed that second-hand smoke, in addition to being objectionable, cannot possibly be healthy.
None of his defence made it into the film.
Purely for amusement, I checked IPCC stalwarts for links to the tobacco industry, and found that Jean Jouzel and Herve le Treut both won cash prizes from Philip Morris in France in 1992.
The German recipients of the equivalent Morris prize got $US100,000 each so we’re not talking mere honor and glory here. Jouzel has been a vice-chair of the prestigious “Science” group of the IPCC since 2008 (plus variously a drafting author, review editor, Bureau member and lead author). Le Treut was a coordinating lead author of the 5th IPCC report. Unlike Oreskes, I’m not saying that they must be bad people and that their climate work must be worthless because of a distant tobacco connection.
The Oreskes/Conway Merchants book of smear was picked up by unskeptical types as a post-Copenhagen stick to beat scientists with. Oreskes, showered with honors, became a global hit with fans of man-made climate control. Eighteen months ago, she urged at Harvard that climate skeptics be prosecuted under the Racketeering and Corrupt Organisations Act, the same way that Big Tobacco was convicted under RICO in 2006.
She followed up with another book (with Conway) cheerily titled “The Collapse of Western Civilisation”, published in 2014 but written cleverly in the distant 21st Century when all the IPCC predictions of disaster have come true. The entire population of Australia “of course” is wiped out, she says unkindly. (Which rather contradicts a recent study suggesting Australia was one of the countries best adapted to surviving climate change.) And as early as 2023, we learn, people’s puppies and kittens succumbed en masse to global over-heating.
Tarring skeptics with tobacco tar and writing from the future are not Oreskes’ only talents. She was a pioneer of the “97% consensus” meme, through a paper in Science Magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2004 she inspected 928 climate paper abstracts from 1993-2003 and found that not one disputed the IPCC line on climate. (Her work is a poor way to get insight about the climate, but a reasonable proxy for the ratio of government funding for believers versus skeptics – Jo.)
What I found remarkable (apart from the Soviet-style 100% consensus) was her abstract’s conclusion:
“(O)ur grandchildren will surely blame us if they find that we understood the reality of anthropogenic climate change and failed to do anything about it.” Strange “science”: could her forecast somehow be tested, confirmed or rebutted?
Oreskes’ acolytes like Illinois’ Zimmerman/Doran (2009) and Queensland University’s John Cook (2013) enhanced the literature with their own 97% consensus-finding tracts.
How is the Oreskes-based film put together? It uses a card trickster Jamy Swiss at Leitmotif to highlight how magicians do ‘honest’ disinformation while climate skeptics “offend him” like “con-men, thieves and liars… twisting, distorting and manipulating.” Shots of smokestacks recur, the blacker the smoke the better.
The film goes into detail about how a medico shill for the flame-retardant-chemicals industry brazenly lied to legislators about how babies (in various manifestations) had burnt to death because flame-retardant materials weren’t used. It was later shown that he’d been paid $US240,000 by the industry to lie about mythical burnt babies. “How many other groups are out there doing the same thing?” the film’s narrator asks , obviously with skeptics on his radar.
The scientists, pushing their case for a global restructuring to non-fossil energy, pretend to be dragged blinking from their labs/computer models into an unfamiliar media spotlight. Even media tart James Hansen of NASA (who had held over 1,000 press conferences already when NASA tried to make him toe the corporate line in 2006, which led to charges that George Bush was silencing him) tries this gambit: “I would rather do my research than be interviewed by TV”. The film later mentions that he’s been arrested four times at demos. Among Hansen’s factoids in the film:
- Hansen: “The science has become so clear that things we predicted are actually happening, some even faster than we thought.” (The film instances Artic ice down by 23-50% and 99% of glaciers shrinking, and shows dramatic footage of Arizona wildfires, heat and drought in the US, and “the strongest tropical cyclone on earth ever to make land”).
- Hansen: “We know as much about climate as doctors know about how your body works”
- Hansen predicts “tens of metres of sea level rises from a couple of degrees warming” and “if the ice sheets begin to disintegrate we have passed the tipping point, you will get consequences out of control.” We then witness the drowning of all the big coastal cities from New York via Asia/London to Sydney. I felt no pang as the film showed cops bundling Hansen into the back of a paddy-wagon.
Environmental activists are depicted as fresh-faced mothers and their kids, with panda puppets and carrying “Halt global warming!” signs. Their spokesman is John Passacatando, pre-2008 executive director of Greenpeace USA. He says modestly, “You know I really just trundled into this fight as just another earnest environmentalist.” [Shots of plucky Greenpeace boats in icy waters]
Oreskes appears in the film writing on a blackboard about her 2003 consensus study. Publication, she said, led to hate-emails calling her a Communist and wanting her sacked. She said she researched her attackers and found the ‘startling fact’ that they were “the same people who attacked scientists on all these issues.”
The film’s liveliest interview is with the Washington Climate Depot’s irreverent skeptic Marc Morano, who even manages to get in a reference to “16 years without warming” and accuses the sainted James Hansen of “inspiring people to acts of eco-terrorism”. He adds, “I get death threats. I enjoy them. I email back!”
The senior scientist Fred Singer makes a rather fun appearance to say man-made catastrophic warming is “all bunk”. Challenged that the IPCC and numerous academies support the consensus, he says, “What can I say? They are wrong!”
The film cuts (in satiric mode) to a skeptic convention in Las Vegas, where a speaker is saying “CO2 increases have followed…” But the film cuts off the rest of the sentence, namely that from ice core data, CO2 rises followed, not caused, past temperature rises.
Another speaker says current temperatures are not abnormally warm, in fact are abnormally cool, but we are not told in what paleoclimatic context.
The ground is thus made safe for the film to mock skeptics with parallel universes and twilight zones, using clips from the old Twilight Zone movie and comments about black being white and up being down. A Twilight Zone character adds, “Call that rational?”
The IPCC is described as “thousands of professional climate scientists from all over the world” and the rival Non-Governmental IPCC (NIPCC) is depicted with a clip of a dozen old guys sitting around a garden table. Oreskes dismisses the skeptic Oregon Petition (31,000 US signatories including 9,000 Ph.Ds) on the ground that signatories included spoofs like the Spice Girls, actor Michael J Fox and Charles Darwin. The Oregon organisers website says only one forged applicant briefly made the list, and specifically instances signatory Michael Fox as being a scientist with the same name as the actor.
Oreskes makes the false statement in the film that the Oregon Petition claims to represent thousands of “climate” scientists, when in fact signatories are invited from qualified people in science, engineering and medicine. Only 39 signatories are climatologists.
The film, after more interludes of card-sharping and smokestacks, settles on an obscure Republican ex-congressman Bob Inglis, who was a climate skeptic but saw the light and recanted. Inglis decided to vote for a carbon tax and, as a result, was wiped out in the 2010 Republican primaries vote. “I was buzz-saw fodder,” he laments.
He took a climate-alarm show on the road to re-educate the public, but the film shows him isolated and ridiculed. For some reason the film-makers set him up to give the final climate message: “We are leaving to our children and grandchildren the legacy of people who failed to lead. When it came their time to be awakened, they slept. We didn’t have enough faith in the future so we just gave up. We could not rise to higher things. I don’t want to be part of that, I want to say we did rise to it, you bet we did!”
Director Robert Kenner must have liked the religiosity of that.
Tony Thomas blogs at tthomas061.wordpress.com
[1^] Plus Popular Science magazine, the BBC (via its “28-gate” secret conference of green advisers), and the Sydney Morning Herald.
[2^] She was joined by Adam Majcher, local boss of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project.
[3^] http://www.takepart.com/merchants-of-doubt/take-action (in one of the three “Take Action” sub-pages). Skeptic standard-bearers Anthony Watts (US), Steve McIntyre (Canada), Andrew Mountford (“Bishop Hill”, UK) and JoNova (Australia) go un-mentioned by the film, despite their influence. None, incidentally, are salaried.
[5^] Dr Stockmann is a hero of an Ibsen play (1882) who tries to alert his town that a water source has turned poisonous from tannery contamination. Instead he is subjected to threats and persecution by vested tannery interests. “But in the Merchants of Doubt, threats and slanderous allegations against responsible scientists cause real harm. In spite of an overwhelming consensus among their peers about the nature of climate change, scientists are called communists and threats to American democracy. Concerted efforts are made to undercut their work, to marginalize them, even to subject them and their families to harm.”
[7^] Although the website includes an SkS tract headed: “The ‘No Warming in 16 Years’ Crock”. So-called Skeptical Science proves there is no pause by subtracting from the 35-year temperature graph the supposed impact of volcanos, the sun, and el Nino/la Nina cycles. It then discovers that the temperature actually has a rising slope due to human-made CO2.
[8^] Prusiner: “I was extremely fortunate to receive much larger funding from the R. J. Reynolds Company through a program administered by Fred Seitz and Macyln McCarty… While the vast majority of my funding always came from the NIH, these private sources were crucial in providing funds for the infrastructure which was the thousands of mice and hamsters that were mandatory. ”
[9^] E.g. Science Communicator of the Year, George Mason University, 2011; American Geophysical Union, Presidential Citation for Science in Society, 2014 .
[10^] Hansen in the film makes the analogy that CO2 emissions are like “putting a blanket around the planet which holds in the heat”. I wonder if he is the inventor of this threadbare meme.