Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Merchants of Doubt

Only a couple days left for this one in Boston, and I'm not totally sure I want to recommend it. It's a pretty good movie, sure, and I learned some things and had other details clarified as I watched it, but the question then becomes whether that's enough reason to spend a little money. Who reads this and isn't aware that so many of the people acting like certain topics are controversial are shills more speed in getting a sound bite out than the topic they are supposedly discussing?

Then again, maybe reinforcement is important. That seems to be the tack that those whom this film means to expose follow, after all, and it seems to be depressingly effective: People seem to get more intransigent on these subjects, and you'd think that absent this sort of buttressing, natural human curiosity and experience would eventually draw people toward the things that can be demonstrated, but then, to use one of the film's first examples, people keep on smoking.

Not as much as they used to, though, so apparently progress can be made. Hopefully it can be made fast enough that I can get away with not considering elevation above sea level when choosing my next place to live.

Apropos of nothing: One of the first lines of the movie is magician Jamy Ian Swiss saying that he is "an honest liar", the title of last week's documentary on The Amazing Randi. I think Swiss might even have spared in that one, too, and is kind of funny that despite likely being much more of a working magician than Randi at this point, Swiss and the director seemed to have little issue revealing how a trick worked.

It is amazing to me, though, how avidly magicians spend their time debunking this sort of material. The title isn't really close to appropriate any more, with most of the famous ones, from Houdini through Randi and Penn & Teller to younger guys like Swiss really being on the front lines of explaining things rationally, and that what they do is a matter of skill. For all that this is a profession built around secrecy and mimicking the occult, there sure seem to be a lot deeply invested in making their audiences less gullible.

Merchants of Doubt

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2015 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

The most impressive thing about Merchants of Doubt may be the apparent lack of resignation on the part of its makers. It is, after all, a documentary that is well-researched, clear in its message, and attractively presented, but which ultimately seems to conclude that being all of those things may not matter. Director Robert Kenner must have known this going in, but makes the effort anyway, trying to dismantle the apparatus built to repel the point he would probably rather be making.

It's a solidly-built and well-honed defense mechanism, a system of living, anticipating challenges, and outright lying/fraud that not only served the tobacco industry well, but which in doing so created the template (and trained the personnel) for a number of other battles against causes where the merits often seem quite clear. The film starts by looking at how the tobacco industry and its offshoot, flame-retardant materials, worked to manipulate public opinion, a proving ground for today's bitter fight to minimize the acceptance of climate change.

Kenner and his colleagues do not spend a whole lot of time establishing the worthiness of fighting against tobacco or climate change, although the mountains of evidence are referenced in order to establish a certain sort of scale. Instead, the techniques used for sowing doubt are laid out, with examples given and some effort made to explain why these techniques work. Interestingly, this is perhaps best communicated by James Shermer (publisher of the magazine Skeptic) and former Republican Congressperson Bob Inglis, both clearly more politically conservative than many of the others interviewed, who can bring a less accusatory tone when talking about the frustrations of the "us vs. them" mentality that drives much of today's American politics.

Full review on EFC.

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