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Movie review: Documentary ‘Merchants of Doubt’ targets ‘pundits for hire’ who present themselves as experts

For a movie that spends a good amount of time exposing the bogus claims of the manufacturers of “flame retardant” fabric, “Merchants of Doubt” is not particularly incendiary.

Inspired by a 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, the documentary makes its progressivist case but lacks the firebrand entertainment value of — for example — a John Oliver rant. Its slick, unimaginative professionalism — the stutter of David Bowie’s “Changes,” accompanies clips of Newt Gingrich, John Boehner and Mitt Romney backpedaling from statements about man’s role in global climate change — is unlikely to impress the sympathetic or convert those who parrot the unscientific propaganda generated by the trade groups and so-called think tanks that camouflage their agenda behind such Orwellian identities as “Americans for Prosperity” and “Citizens for Fire Safety.”

The book’s full subtitle tells the story: “How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.” Directed by Robert Kenner, the film credits the tobacco industry with developing the “playbook” that would show big business how to avoid the consequences of its harmful — even deadly — actions.

Medical researchers determine your product causes cancer? Climatologists conclude that greenhouse gases are warming the Earth? The corporate defense against the threat of government regulation and consumer outrage is always the same: Cast doubt on the science. Attack the messengers. Shift the blame. In the 1970s, thousands of people died in fires caused by cigarettes, according to the film, but the tobacco industry’s response was not to alter the product but to identify a scapegoat: furniture. (“You need to fireproof the world around the cigarette,” in the words of one observer.) Tobacco lobbyists pushed for mandatory “fire-retardant” chemicals in household products, and politicians were happy to oblige, even as new evidence showed the chemicals were not just ineffective but health hazards in their own right.

The movie’s villains are the lobbyists and scientists-for-hire who have convinced the media that their “expert” opinion on climate change and other topics is as relevant and valuable — if only as a sacrifice to the shibboleth of “balance” — as the research of specialists in the field. Its heroes are the scientists and journalists who favor data over ideology and obfuscation. (A more original soundtrack choice than the Bowie song is Big Star’s “Don’t Lie to Me.”) Like most activist documentaries, the closing credits represent not just a roll call but a call to action: Viewers are invited to learn more at takepart.com/doubt.

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