I just finished watching Merchants of Doubt and will have to spend the rest of the day trying to channel my frustration into something positive. It’s a great documentary (based on a book by Naomi Oreskes) that investigates the industry-sponsored practice of quashing research or movements that are inconvenient to them. The title refers to the so-called “independent experts” funded by industries to create confusion or doubt around an issue, slowing progress so that the industries can continue doing their thing for as long as possible. And progress can be delayed for a long time through these devices: it took 50 years for Big Tobacco to go from knowing the truth to being forced to publicly admit that they concealed the truth. These tactics of diversion and misinformation have been heavily used for the last 30 years in campaigns to discredit the evidence for climate change (Yep, 30 years!).
Industry-sponsored “experts” versus scientists.
It’s very frustrating to watch mild-mannered scientists in Merchants of Doubt, presenting the evidence for something like climate change in a head-to-head debate against industry-hired sociopaths who are slicker, more aggressive, and have no qualms about lying through their teeth. The story of an “expert” who testified for the necessity of flame retardant chemicals in furniture is fascinating. When confronted by the journalists who told him that they knew his story (helpless baby, candle, pillow containing no flame retardants… you get the picture) was actually not true, he brazenly said that it was an allegorical story (!) and then added that he wasn’t under oath. It’s also timely that the documentary shows footage of Rex Tillerson (CEO of Exxon Mobil and currently giving testimony to prove how incompetent he is to become U.S. Secretary of State) clinking champagne glasses with Vladimir Putin as they celebrate the prospect of drilling for oil in the Russian Arctic. The sad irony there is that the drilling became possible because of the massive melting of the ice cap.
What does the Merchants of Doubt and all of this have to do with the Green Stars Project?
Three things come to mind:
- Constant Vigilance! As mentioned in a previous post on protein intake, it’s sad but true that you have to be very, very skeptical about everything that you read or watch. These days, rather than speaking out about something, industry will deliver their messages through highly-paid shills posing as independent experts and organizations (Councils, Associations, Think Tanks) that profess to have society’s best interests at heart. The lying flame retardant “expert” was a member of Citizens for Fire Safety, an organization created by the industry, and was paid almost $250,000 to give his false testimony.
- We do hold the power, but we need to learn how to use it in the right way. The process of having to scientifically prove (using public funds) that some industry practice or product is harmful can take a long time, particularly since the industry will do its best to discredit findings and slow down progress towards regulation. And, as any scientist will tell you, absolute 100% proof for a cause and effect is hard to achieve. I wrote about this in the post on microbeads, on how the path of consumer action can be much more rapid and effective.
- Persevere and stay calm – difficult times are ahead. Beginning soon, the quagmire of misinformation and misdirection is only going to become harder to wade through. As you know, many people are coming into power in the U.S. that have agendas to protect corporate interests (and the 1%) and are skilled in the art of manipulation. And as Meryl Streep recently pointed out, the media is under fire too.
How to avoid being worn down by corporate propaganda
I’ve come across some defeatist articles claiming that ethical consumerism is a myth, or makes no difference. Well, you have a choice – allow yourself to be worn down by these merchants of doubt and give up on the possibility that you can make a difference; that your actions matter. Or you take a stand and attempt to maintain your integrity, and remember what’s important in life.
What’s required is that we take the time to search for truth in the world around us – it sometimes takes a bit of digging to uncover something tangible amid the smokescreens, misdirection and carefully worded bullshit that we are bombarded with every day. But it’s worth it – if you do some decent research like a good investigative journalist or scientist, follow your instincts, use your expertise, and focus on the issues you are most passionate about, I think you’ll find it satisfying. By sharing what you’ve found as a review on a public site, you will reach thousands of other people (see my other posts and example reviews for more info on this). Useful information spreads fast and it will make a difference: for almost every item or service that I can think of, there is a very large difference in impact between the best and the worst providers – have no doubt about that.
Dedicated to my Aunt Siobhán, a seeker of truth.
2 thoughts on “Truth, revisited: Merchants of Doubt.”
Thank you so much for this reminder, of the importance of facts, of doing personal research, and of not feeling defeatist. It should matter to each of us personally how we use products in our daily life and how our children will use them in the future.
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Thank you for taking the time to comment – I agree.
It’s easy to fall into the pattern of ignoring these issues, and not necessarily because we don’t care but often because we find them overwhelming. But it’s a worthwhile use of time and even, I think, a moral duty. I’ve outlined some of the positive benefits that have come about for me since I started putting more effort into researching the products and services that I use (at the end of this post): https://greenstarsproject.org/2016/10/29/a-new-earth-eckhart-tolle-ethical-consumerism/