Merchants of Doubt: Pretend Experts Cause Real Damage


The documentary film Merchants of Doubt exposes deceptive corporate media spokesmen who essentially lie for a living.


by Steve Wagner

Kurt Vonnegut, in the introduction to his 1961 novel Mother Night, offered a moral to the story he was about to tell. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In the context of the story, this principle concerns the war-time activity of an American agent, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who is working under-cover as a Nazi media figure—a race-baiting, anti-Semitic radio announcer—who communicates key information to the Allies within the structure of his mad, on-air, tirades. Think Rush Limbaugh on women. Or the LGBT community. Or African-Americans. Or actors with Parkinson’s disease. You get the picture—it’s turtles all the way down.

In the book, Howard Campbell pretends to be someone he is not, and eventually becomes a broken man contemplating suicide. Campbell spent his life convincing himself that his actions were secretly for a good cause—a life and death struggle!—and yet in the end he feels he deserves to hang for “crimes against himself.” It is noteworthy that Campbell’s anguish is not primarily rooted in the actions he took, or even the guilt he felt for hoodwinking his fellow men and women, but from feeling traitorous to his own very nature, his own truth. He sold out, and he knew it.

What does it mean to sell out? We speak this phrase frequently as we discuss the arts, or sports…but isn’t it really a personal question, one we must ask ourselves as opposed to a label we use to define others? And if we are pretending to be someone we are not, or to be more specific, representing as true something we know to be false, does this not constitute the very definition of selling out?

The documentary film Merchants of Doubt, from director Robert Kenner, tackles the dismaying fact of paid punditry, where agents of disinformation are employed by powerful corporations and lobbying efforts to misinform public opinion—or at least confound consensus and delay legislation—on some of the most pressing health, environmental, and social issues of our time: climate change, food engineering, toxic products, corporate responsibility, etc.

Inspired by the 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants compares this media obfuscation with the smoke and mirrors approach of entertainment magic.

Featuring a professional magician (Jamy Ian Swiss) who explains how illusion is really created (be it in the “honest” con game of traditional magic or the far more duplicitous approach of these “merchants of doubt”), Kenner’s film shows how public confidence can be manufactured, or deflated, through psychological manipulation. This is achieved—in media politics as in three-card-monty—by the employment of “shills,” people specifically planted for the purpose of confusing the debate with issue deflection and the illusion of moral opposition.

Because, in this game, it is not about winning, but delaying the inevitable loss. The facts, for the most part, are irrefutable on many of these still-hotly-contested issues. Peer-reviewed research and statistical consensus prove that climate IS changing—warming—at an alarming rate, that food HAS been dangerously manipulated to be void of essential nutrients, that pollutants ARE destroying our environment and causing serious imbalance to the earth’s ecological systems. And on and on and on.

Merchants-of-DoubtBut of course there are interests that see these problems as (at-best) secondary to a far more important concern: profit. For men with this world-view (and make no mistake, the vast majority of the financial pirates and their lackey pundits are men, not women) there is nothing that can challenge their conviction, because everything, even their own personal ethic, is for sale at the right price. This approach may make a mogul, but it does not make a man.

Selling out has to do ethics; the money, status etc. is only the bi-product of making the choice. To get the devil’s dollars one must first align with the devil’s agenda. Selling out is when one abandons the truth, and denial on grounds of political or faith-based agenda is no excuse. Enlightened men understand that the truth makes our families safer, our communities stronger, and our children more prepared to deal with reality. It also makes our own accomplishments actually mean something.

Deeply ensconced in the culture of consumerism as we are, the very idea of what it means to sell out has been obscured by our modern concept of success, and we blithely accept, for instance, the legal manipulations of lawyers on behalf of guilty clients, or a business’s ethically blind march to positive quarterly margins, as the price we pay for a certain individual freedom (capitalism isn’t perfect, but its better than the alternative, etc.). It is when we accept this approach as valid for us personally that we tumble into the moral abyss, and the damage to our sense of self is then all but guaranteed. When we accept that abandoning truth is justified by personal wealth, comfort, or even the esteem of loved ones, we erase the line of demarcation that in the end makes a man a man—his strength of character.

Watching Merchants of Doubt, one is compelled to ask (or scream) how anyone could knowingly mislead anyone, much less society at large, to the degree that these men do, without seeming to have any remorse whatsoever. Because, unlike Howard Campbell, these paid pundits, corporate shills, and pseudo-scientists seem to be proud of their deceptive skills. They think valuing faith, politics, or bank balance over fact is just peachy. They sure seem like they sleep just fine.

Consider Peter Sparber. In the early 70s, after a growing number of house fires ignited by cigarettes, the tobacco industry was under heavy pressure to engineer a self-extinguishing cigarette, which would have of course cost them a lot of money. Enter Peter Sparber, the ciggie spy. Sparber, secretly employed by big tobacco, managed to get himself on the board of the National Association of State Fire Marshalls, and proceeded to convince them that house fires were not caused by errant smokes (which in those days could burn for up to 30 minutes) left unattended, but because of—wait for it—furniture!

Yes, what we needed was flame-retardant in our furniture, and this quickly became legally required and eventually the unhealthy reality in homes all over America. Because the problem was that flame-retardants didn’t really reduce the threat of fire, but they did cause cancer. Yeah, you read that correctly. We now have very high concentrations of this poison in our bodies, and our children are born with it in theirs. And those most exposed to the toxicity? Firemen. Every time they respond to a building or office fire.

Sparber cheerfully declined to appear in Merchants; according to Kenner he said, “You can still make a good film, and I can still live a good life.” Really? I couldn’t if I were him. I wouldn’t feel like a man if I couldn’t look in the mirror. It calls to mind a curious element of the Dracula legend: Vampires have no reflection in mirrors. Perhaps it is because they are too afraid to look in the first place.

I’m not going to waste the bytes on the other “Sparbers” in Merchants, but there are a number of them, and one can only hope they will find enough of a heart to at least question their actions at some point. I suspect they will do their best to avoid that moment where they, like Howard Campbell in Mother Night, understand that their greatest crime (and that’s saying something) is the one they committed against themselves. But I suspect they have deceived themselves even more than they have deceived us, and I doubt they have the courage to look in that mirror.

You may intuit I am beginning to get agitated as I write. This film will do that to you. Merchants of Doubt is equally infuriating and important; a continuation of the incisive work Kenner began with his 2008 documentary Food, Inc. I recommend it highly, as valuable information on how we receive information, but also because it serves as a personal and spiritual cautionary tale. I believe it is healthy for men to see the faces of those who would compromise truth for success, even if those faces seem unconcerned with the consequences of their choices. We can see right through them. A man who seeks moral clarity will instinctively see these intellectual charlatans and cultural traitors for the failures as men they truly are.

Kurt Vonnegut, at the end of his introduction to Mother Night, decided the story needed another moral: “Make love when you can. It’s good for you.”

That’s the one that works for me. Perhaps these doubt merchants could try that approach; they clearly haven’t yet.


Hear Steve Wagner in conversation with Robert Kenner, director of Merchants of Doubt, for Flick Nation Radio.

Photo: Top tobacco executives lying under oath to Congress. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Author: Steve Wagner

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