Merchants of Doubt – Those who lie for a living

I have written before about the public relations efforts of the fossil fuel industry to convince people everything they do is perfectly safe. The efforts also play on our minds and hearts that they create jobs and safer communities, at the same time they are stealing our lunch money. One in particular post plays off the five D’s of public relations – deny, discredit, disinform, diffuse and defray. A new documentary is out which highlights these efforts called “Merchants of Doubt” written by Robert Kenner and Kim Roberts and directed by Kenner.

The story focuses on those who mask science, use science out of context and in many cases distort the truth to tell consumers the products they are buying are not harmful. The public relations consultants use these folks to present an alternate truth which is fed hook, line and sinker to politicians funded by these industries. The documentary begins with the smoking industry to convey the message smoking is not addictive. The PR merchants had a unified campaign which led to several CEOs of the companies lying in front of Congress in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary.

But, they did not stop there, as if you can sell cigarettes are safe, you can sell just about anything. They helped sell folks that the flame retardants in fabric would save lives using a scientific study taken out of context as evidence. When the scientist who led the study found out about this years later, he said that is not what the study found. The flame retardants actually caused cancer in owners of the sofas, caused cancers in the firemen and women who were putting out the fires while not really retarding flames. Yet, the industry staved off regulation, until it was discovered the industry was funding what appeared to be supportive charity to kids, but was really a PR sales engine to obfuscate the truth. There is another documentary on this subject called “Toxic Hotseat.”

Yet, the two biggest campaigns have unfolded in the last few years dating primarily back to the time of “An Inconvenient Truth” about global warming. The PR folks started with a campaign that “global warming is hoax,” and were (and are) so successful about it, Congress has had people to testify on these subject. And, the current Environmental Committee chair, Senator James Inhofe, is a denier who recently brought a snowball into the chambers to reiterate global warming is a hoax. Anytime you see one of these bumper stickers or hear the new party line of “I am not a scientist” to offer contradictory opinion, remember these merchants of doubt. The answer to this statement, by the way, is “neither am I , but I can read.”

The other is on how safe fracking is. The PR campaign has been equally robust on the safety of fracking and the significant number of jobs it creates. Yet, like the climate change deniers, this message is starting to break down with actual data piling up to the contrary. No process this hard and expensive is perfectly safe, yet that is what we are constantly told in commercials. Even if it were safe, it is only as safe as its worst operator and there are a lot of them. However, with the air and water pollution being caused by fracking, with the environmental degradation, with the earthquakes that have been proven to be causal with water disposal and correlated with the process itself and with the sheer volume of water used that cannot be reused, this is one Return on Investment that has been miscalculated.  The costs, especially the healthcare costs, are vastly understated.

Please understand why these merchants get paid a lot. They are very good at what they do. And, it is easier with the new information age, as everyone can have their own version of truth. It is critical for us consumers and citizens to question data sources, news sources and politicians. Trace the money. Who owns what and who funds what? Why should we get rid of all regulations? Do you stand to benefit from that change? We must be more skeptical of information as often it is opinion or advertisement conveyed as news. Some online sources look like news, but they are written by people to close to the action or in on the action. It makes it hard to get at the real truth. But, we have to.

Companies make money selling us things. They want our money. The will try to get it legitimately, they will distort the message and some will outright lie. The hard truth is climate change is here and causing problems already. We are late, but can still make a difference. A good truth is solar energy is one of the fastest growing employers in the country as the cost to produce continues to fall. Fracking will occur, but it is not as safe as it is portrayed and we need to move away from it primarily because of the vast use of water and the impact on our health. Chemicals are over used to grow things. The greatest threat to our civilization may be anti-bacterial resistant bugs that move beyond our bodies ability to withstand them.

These are real truths. So, do me a favor. If you hear the disclaimer, “I am not a scientist,” the next phrase should be taken with a grain of salt as it is like untrue. If anyone tells you something is “perfectly safe,” do not believe them. The only thing perfectly safe is the assurance you will die at some point. If anything sounds too good to be true, question it. And, look for cited and peer-reviewed data sources conveyed by people who have a track record of good journalism. A news organization that has been proven wrong on over half of their news stories by Politifacts would not qualify as a source of good journalism.

3 thoughts on “Merchants of Doubt – Those who lie for a living

  1. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. If a lie is told often enough, it becomes true. If the spokesperson appears sincere, he is speaking the truth.

    We all need to learn to become a tad cynical in our daily lives, and really learn to question everything. That is the only way we will be able to separate (most) of the truth from the half lies.

    And anyone saying “I am not a scientist,” or “the American people,” is automatically lying.

    Good post

  2. Note to Readers: I saw the recent episode of “Vice” on HBO which is an in-depth “60 Minutes” like review of various issues around the planet. The focus last night was on speaking to the issues raised by the Merchants of Doubt who are packaging the storyboard message on climate change denial. One of the “out of context” issues raised is the ice in Antarctica is expanding. So, the Vice crew went with the scientists who measure the ice at Antarctica. The land ice which is kilometers thick is breaking off at an accelerated rate, even right in front of your eyes. But, the sophisticated annual measurements show this as well. In the scientists mind, it is already to late to save the ice from melting there.

    What the denier merchants are selling is the sea ice on the other end of Antarctica is refreezing, about a meter thick. But, this ice freezes, thaws and refreezes. So, this refreeze of sea ice is being taken out of context to show climate change is not occurring. The scientists, equate the two to ice in a glass of water. The ice can thaw and refreeze, but will not change the volume in the glass. Yet, when the land ice melts, it is adding more water to the glass and it will over flow. This is a key point about taking things out of context, but is a great example of what the merchants of doubt do and have done.

    The Vice crew did not stop there. They traveled to Bangladesh to see how much of the rice fields, farm lands and houses have now been consumed by the ocean. Seeing this impact of climate change and sea level rise is depressing. The emphasis is these folks get dislocated ad have to go somewhere. They note that by the end of the century, it is estimated 300 million people will be dislocated in the world. The crew finally brought it home to the success of the denier merchants in our Congress. It is quite depressing to see so called leaders of our country be sucked into a story like this and hold us back from doing things to address it. And, several of them are running for President, denying climate change, at the same time their home land is being impacted. The droughts in Texas are exacerbated by climate change, so says the NASA models, yet Governor Rick Perry and Senator Ted Cruz are deniers. Miami’s Dade County and three other counties are invested $200 million to address the sea level rise which is now coming up through the storm drains. Senator Marco Rubio is from this area, but is a climate change denier. Then, senator why are these people spending $200 million to address something that is not a problem in your mind? Truth be told, Miami will be one of the cities greatly impacted by climate change, should nothing be done and one of its senator, a neighbor denies it’s a problem – to me that is irresponsible.

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