Thoughts on Merchants of Doubt, the Documentary

Last Wednesday, a few of us from class went to see the movie Merchants of Doubt, which is based on Naomi Oreskes‘ book Merchants of Doubt. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the theater, but am so happy that I went to watch the movie.


I thought the documentary was presented especially well, and helped me learn a lot about how corporations, to preserve their own interests, will skew information and evidence of the harmful effects of what they are doing to the environment.

The movie represented how this happened during the controversy around cigarettes. The biggest argument cigarette companies had was “We just don’t know if cigarettes are harmful.” I was so angry at these corporations after seeing that their internal documents, which were not disclosed to the public, showed that they in fact did have proof of the negative consequences of cigarettes on people’s health. Yet, their only concern was the bottom line. Greed was their motivation.

Something that really stuck with me that was said in the movie was that the problem of cigarettes lasted a long time, but as the facts and science kept appearing and influencing the public, becoming indisputable, the cigarette companies were unable to deny the negative effects of cigarettes. Yet, this took about 50 years to accomplish. The “we just don’t know” propaganda took way longer than it should have to be eliminated.

But that fact provides hope and confidence that the same thing could happen in terms of companies that are negatively impacting the environment. Unfortunately, the environment doesn’t have 50 years. It will be too late at that point, and the harm will be too grave.

It made me so angry to see how the corporations go about instilling doubt into citizens. At one point in the movie, they spoke to one man who was, on behalf of oil companies, going against a scientist providing data and graphs that climate change and its negative effects are happening. He brought up the “we still don’t know” idea. In the documentary, they asked him what qualified him to deny climate change, and he said he was an economics major in college and took a few environmental science classes, and he thought that was adequate credibility. I couldn’t wrap my head around this. People are so misled by the media and corporate representatives who don’t even know anything about the environment and science.

The ongoing analogy in the movie was to a magician doing card tricks. He made it clear that the corporations were just hiding the methods of their tricks from the public. They were creating illusions. What gave me hope was when he drew our attention to how he was creating the illusion. He showed that he just had to distract people from noticing the whole frame. While that part represented what corporations are doing, he showed us that once we see how he does the trick, we can never un-see it. Once the truth is revealed, it becomes the truth that everyone believes. The difficult part is fighting corporate entities who have so much power and are preventing people from seeing and believing in the whole frame and from noticing what is actually happening.

card trick

Another part of the movie showed that corporations who are drilling for oil actually benefit from global warming. In places like the arctic, they benefit from the melting icecaps. Those places are one of the greatest untapped resources for the oil industry. It is a new place for them to drill, which means more profit for them. They know the negative effects and the science isn’t disputable, but they don’t care as long as it benefits them. They are not concerned with the greater good and saving our planet.

At one point, there was a representative speaking against climate change that I just couldn’t believe could be so awful. He put up the emails of certain scientists and major people who spoke to disseminate information about climate change on his anti-climate change website, Climate Depot. These scientists’ lives were ruined after this. They were constantly receiving hate mail and even death threats for their data and stance on climate change. They were living in misery. And this man thought it was funny. I couldn’t believe that someone who presumable isn’t a sociopath could actually intentionally cause harm to someone that way. I can’t believe that he is going unpunished for this. I can’t believe something that causes so much emotional trauma and harm could be legal. Technically, he isn’t doing anything wrong by putting up someone’s contact information. But it is against their will and is done maliciously. There is no disputing that it’s wrong, plain and simple.

I’m really just not sure how to feel after this movie. I am so angered, and I know something needs to be done about this. The process of making people see the truth and believe the facts needs to happen quickly. It needs to happen now. We can’t wait 50 years for the corporations to cave and admit to the negative effects of what they are doing to the environment. They can’t keep drilling for oil, they can’t keep using fossil fuels and gas for energy. We need to shift away from this before it becomes too late.

There are already entities that exist, consisting of thousands of scientists, which are fighting against climate change. One of the most powerful of these is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which assesses the various risks of climate change caused by humans. People need to see the data they are finding, without corporations trying to create doubt in their minds at the same time. People need to understand this more simply though.

I feel like, for most people, it’s hard to wrap our heads around statistics and analysis and graphs that show the immense increase in temperatures and rising sea levels on Earth. Science isn’t always easily understood by people who aren’t well versed in its methodology and the meaning of its results. People can’t just hear testimonies from scientists that climate change is real, because they see corporate representatives who are saying “we just don’t know” as equally credible. This is by no fault of their own; people simply do not know better because the media and corporate influence is manipulative and misleading. That is not their fault. But scientists and climate change experts need to find a way to get around this and make people believe in the science and the data.

What upset me as I was leaving the theater, so impacted by and emotional about the documentary, was how few people there were in the theater. Aside from Brendan, Reut, Anastasia, and me, there were only five others. It’s such an important documentary for everyone to see. People need to understand how corporations are manipulating them and actually lying to them about not knowing about climate change and if humans are harming the environment. Oil companies know that they are harming the environment. They just don’t want the average citizen to know. So they lie. And people don’t know this. I think this film did a great job of uncovering the truth and presenting the facts in a manner that people can understand and get behind.

The documentary, in my opinion, was definitely successful in creating anger against these corporations and people who are lying that climate change does not exist. The difficult part is getting the word out about the documentary and getting people to actually see it. Undoubtedly, Merchants of Doubt needs and deserves more publicity. If only the oil industry didn’t have so much influence…

One thought on “Thoughts on Merchants of Doubt, the Documentary

  1. Your passionate response to the film and several key issues situation are noted, Prachi. I’m glad that you guys saw the film together; I am very glad that you went. Reading chapters/sections of the book might have a different type of resonance now that you have seen the faces and heard the voices. The stakes are very high.

    ” It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope and pride. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.” — Patrick Henry

    I was just thinking how this relatively famous (and relatively obscure!) quote could be re-worded and applied toward the culture of waste.