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Popcorn Preview: Merchants of Doubt

03/20/2015 08:19 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

Merchants of Doubt (2014)
Writer/Director: Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.)
Genre: Documentary (96 minutes)

At first we wonder if we're in the right movie. Magician Jamy Ian Swiss puts on his signature red shirt, suit and tie for a performance at the Magic Castle. "My occupation is deception," he says. "I make an honest living." He explains that his audience expects to be fooled. "I take offense when people use tricks to fool the public and block needed change." For example... tobacco... in 1978, scientist Stanton Glantz put forth the outrageous notion that indoor spaces needed non-smoking areas. "Bullshit," was the cry. "It's not about science. It's about politics!" The focus soon changed from science to the scientists. "People would think we were paranoid delusional."

Then one day a large box mysteriously appeared. Someone inside Big Tobacco collected documents dating from 1958 to 1984 and sent them to Glantz anonymously. It turns out there was abundant evidence from tobacco industry scientists, showing that tobacco was "addictive... harmful... a carcinogen..." In 1994, top tobacco industry executive all testified before congress that tobacco wasn't addictive. Around this time, the industry hired PR firm Hill and Knowlton. "You can't prove that cigarettes don't cause cancer. What you can do is cast doubt." They unleash an army of pseudo-scientists to refute real scientists. Doubt buys time, and time is worth money... 50 years worth, in the case of Big Tobacco.

But it isn't just tobacco. Acid rain, DDT, global warming, asbestos, ozone, flame retardants... the industries and interest groups are very diverse and the tactics have become very sophisticated. They blame the scientists. They blame socialism and communism. They blame big government, trying to take away our freedom. They do anything and everything to extend the length of time it takes for a public groundswell to force legislative change.

Although the primary concern in Merchants of Doubt is global warming, the film doesn't focus primarily on environmental issues. It's really about the dirty tricks that are used to cast doubt. Just when you think there is nothing more they can do to hijack important issues, the film shows us yet another... and another. It actually becomes painful to watch! By the time there's a groundswell demanding action on the environment, it'll be too late... if it isn't already. The magician shows us one of his standard tricks and how he uses sleight of hand to fool us. "Once revealed. Never concealed." And it's true... After he shows us how it's done, we see it every time. The filmmakers hope to reveal how merchants of doubt fool us, and they hope we'll stop being fooled by the dirty tricks. "The earth is getting warmer -- no question about it."

4 popped kernels (Scale: 0-4)
How creating doubt became the strategy of choice in dealing with important global issues

Popcorn Profile
Audience: Grown-ups
Gender Style: Neutral
Distribution: Art House
Mood: Sober
Tempo: Cruises Comfortably
Visual Style: Unvarnished Realism
Nutshell: Global warming and other issues
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Timely Topic, Informative & Thought Provoking

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