The highest profile people in Washington, D.C., particularly those who (sometimes) inhabit the White House, constantly bring to mind the fine documentary film “Merchants of Doubt,” a story about how scientific misinformation makes its way into the media and then the minds of the general public. In some ways it is an old story, best summarized in the inimitable words of Deep Throat (Mark Felt), “Follow the money.” In other ways it is an entirely new story because the stakes and consequences of a public filled with scientific misinformation are unprecedented in all history.
A couple of years ago an opinion piece by the Denver Post Editorial Board caught my eye. It epitomizes Deep Throat’s wisdom. It begins: “One of the stock charges used by those who campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas drilling is that it endangers groundwater supplies. And yet the pile of studies largely refuting this fear-mongering keeps growing by the year.” One study mentioned refuting “this fear-mongering” was conducted by Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources. Yes, and, according to High Country News, Exxon Mobile in 2010 “…gave the university $5 million to study energy development impacts on western Colorado’s sage grouse, mule deer and other wildlife, spawning 20 new research contracts. Shell, BP and others have also recently poured millions of dollars into CSU’s research. Warner College is named for alum Ed Warner, who donated $30 million in 2005 after making a fortune pioneering hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has opened hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves worldwide.”
A press release from Physicians for Social Responsibility at that time reads: “A partnership of prominent health organizations encompassing nationwide medical and public health experts and scientists released the third edition of their ‘Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking’ on Wednesday. The Compendium compiles and summarizes hundreds of peer-reviewed studies and other important findings on fracking, showing the significance and extent of the evidence demonstrating risks to public health, air and water quality, birth and infant health, the environment, and climate change.”
Who would you rather have as sources of scientific information about public health, Physicians for Social Responsibility or Exxon Mobil, Shell and BP? It seems obvious to me, but “Merchants of Doubt” is a stunning and disturbing documentary of the history and current practice of how public relation firms working for large businesses pervert truth and deceive the public for profit. “Merchants of Doubt” director Robert Kenner says, all of today’s “doubtmeisters” learned at the feet of the old masters from the Marlboro days.
“I spoke to Peter Sparber, who was masterful at working for tobacco,” says Kenner. “He helped slow down legislation on a slow burning cigarette. He was able to convince people it was not cigarettes that cause house fires, it was couches. He was able to make a law that (requires) chemicals to be put in these couches. It turned out it didn’t prevent fires and it also caused cancer.” Sparber, who was interviewed for the film, told Kenner that if a person can successfully create doubt around tobacco products, they can do it with just about anything. He said, “You could take James Hansen, the leading climate scientist, and I could take a garbage man and I could get America to believe that the garbage man knows more about climate change than Hansen does.”
“Merchants of Doubt” will help the public differentiate between garbage and science. Don’t miss it.
Keep it in mind every time you watch/read about and/or listen to the high profile doubtmeisters of Washington—Donald, Sean, Mike, Betsy, Kellyanne, Jared, Reince, Rex, Jeff, Ryan, Scott and so many others—peddle garbage instead of cleaning it up.