Sunday, August 16, 2015

Movie Review: Merchants of Doubt: propaganda posing as documentary

Republicans hate science. It's been said thousands of times in books, op-eds, blog posts and stupid info graphics. It's also a myth, one that's been debunked time and time again, but it's so commonly accepted that it won't die easily.

So I couldn't help but sigh yesterday as I watched a 2014 documentary cleverly titled Merchants of Doubt (MOD). The film is a biography, based on the 2010 book of the same title, of the lobbyists and think tanks that are paid to cast doubt on science in order promote a political agenda, usually to fend off government regulation and protect corporate profits.

Dishonest lobbyists who deny science have been around for decades, and they exert tremendous influence over national public policy, unfortunately. So it's good to have whistle blowers documenting this problem when they see it. The problem with MOD, however, is that the filmmakers don't blow the whistle consistently. They have wrongly identified conservative think tanks and politicians as the only anti-science camp in society and are doing their cause a great disservice as a result.

The first problem caught my attention within five minutes. The film begins with a brief history of the political battle between big tobacco and the public health establishment, which sets the stage for the argument made throughout the film. And who better to narrate this history lesson than Stanton Glantz: tobacco researcher at UCSF, anti-smoking advocate--complete hack.

Glantz is actually a scientist, which is more than can be said for many of the anti-smoking movement's mouthpieces, but he is a very dishonest one. His research is often simplistic, incomplete or just downright bullshit. His results have been called into question over and over again by other scientists, his former students among his critics. His claims about the risks posed by e-cigarettes are particularly atrocious and could actually deter people from giving up traditional cigarettes, which means more smoking-related morbidity and mortality, by the way.

There is no mention of this tattered research in MOD; Glantz is treated as a fair-minded observer and defender of public health. This is farcical, to say the very least.

The next problem is just as ridiculous but far more serious. Politically-motivated skepticism of scientific consensus is treated as a sickness only Republicans are susceptible to. You see, there are big corporations and powerful conservative politicians. They all belong to the same global cabal dedicated to advancing capitalism at the expense of everything else--the environment, social justice, babies. You name it and these worshipers of the invisible hand will destroy it for the sake of their bottom lines.

There are many problems with this hypothesis, but let's start with the most blatant. The environmental lobby, usually consisting of left-leaning political interests, and portrayed mostly favorably in the film, are happy to deny science when it suits their agenda. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, rejects the scientific consensus on GM technology, technology which is allowing us to feed a growing global population.

Moreover, vaccine skepticism, alternative medicine advocacy, and phobia of nuclear energy are all very unscientific positions, and they belong almost exclusively to the left. Some of these pose a very serious and immediate risk to the world. Climate change could flood major coastal cities around the globe, depending on whom you ask, within the next 50 years. Cigarettes will kill you, but it'll take you decades to die from smoking-related illness. Meanwhile, infectious disease and starvation kill people around the world every day, right now.Yet there is no outrage, no fist shaking towards the sky about these issues in MOD. Why not?

Anyway, let's get back to the corporate-y, money-grubbing idealists. This group consists exclusively of Exxon-Mobil executives and tobacco lobbyists, right? Ha. Greenpeace takes corporate money (though indirectly), so do dozens of other environmentalist groups. They all do it because they've become very politically influential, and the companies who supply us with everything from cleaning supplies to soda know how the game is played. So they give money, alter their products and launch major marketing campaigns to prove just how earth friendly and health conscious they are, all in hopes of avoiding arduous regulations and public shaming.

But all this talk about corruption and corporate money leads us to a very important question. What exactly do your funding sources say about the strength of your argument? Well, not much. Pat Michaels is a climatologist at the Cato Institute, indeed one of the think tanks attacked in MOD, and he has garnered a lot of criticism for his claim that the IPCC has greatly overestimated climate sensitivity. Yet Michaels' research continues to pass peer review in major journals and at scientific meetings year after year. So despite the fact that he has taken money from the fossil fuel industry, Michaels may actually be right.

The point here is not that climate change is a hoax or entirely natural; it is neither. But we need to focus on the arguments people make and less on who they're affiliated with. The tobacco industry didn't lose their PR war because they were outspent by the Surgeon General or the FDA, but because they could no longer deny the health effects of smoking as their customers continued to drop dead. The data was undeniable.

MOD makes very little effort to analyze the arguments related to any of the issues it covers, however. "We're right, the yucky corporations are wrong" was the take home message, and that's my biggest problem with the film. If this is really a debate about science literacy, then let's talk about the data, all of the data. Quit taking shots just at your political opponents and chastise everybody who throws science under the bus to protect their pet causes, because that's the only way to bring science denial under control.