By Greg Evans
1 March 2015
(Newsweek) – In Merchants of Doubt, their 2010 book that vivisects bad science and industrial cynicism, science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway decried the uneven battle for the popular imagination fought, on one side, by scientists ill-equipped for high-volume cable-TV tussles and, on the other, by the “well-financed contrarians” bent on dismantling whatever lab results, peer-reviewed theories and settled science might lead to even the most benign corporate regulations.
The authors unraveled the deny-and-obfuscate tactics concocted in the 1950s by Mad Men and Big Tobacco to cloud understanding of what even the proto-mainstream media was beginning to grasp. “Cancer by the Carton,” read a 1953 headline in Reader's Digest. “Doubt,” countered a public relations memo exhumed decades later from Big Tobacco's yellowed files, “is our product.”
And doubt, argued Oreskes and Conway, became the mantra for purveyors of acid rain, ozone holes and, most significant, global warming. Keep the cigarettes burning, the CO2 combusting and the profits flowing for as long as possible.
Joining the fray is filmmaker Robert Kenner, whose surprisingly rollicking screen adaptation of Merchants of Doubt opens March 6 in New York and Los Angeles. It’s a worthy follow-up to his 2008 Oscar-nominated Food, Inc., which arrived when Americans were primed to point fat fingers at Big Agra. This time, Doubt lands amid a national debate over science—legit, pseudo or just plain bad—that intensifies with every foot of Boston snow or new case of Disneyland measles.
Along with corporate greed and Madison Avenue chicanery, Kenner's film exposes a devoted and long-lived cadre of scientists (and their philosophical descendants) who established their careers during the A-bomb era and the Cold War's Big Science rivalries. Anti-communist ideologues, well-trained and often brilliant scientists such as physicists S. Fred Singer and the late Frederick Seitz saw (and see) corporate regulation as a pathway to socialism, an endgame more fearsome than any secondhand smoke or patchy ozone.
Kenner spoke to Newsweek as he was heading for the Ambulante Documentary Film Festival in Mexico City, the latest stop on his festival circuit after Telluride, Toronto and New York. He was prepared, he said, for more of the anti-science vitriol documented in his film. “It’s pretty amazing, this anger out there. … I'm going to be attacked. I just hope it only takes the form of written words.” [more]