Merchants of Doubt – those who lie for a living (a reprise)

I wrote the following post in 2015 and it still resonates today. Especially when an invasion is occurring of another country, where fossil fuel is a backdrop to the reason and producing more fossil fuel in the states is being pursued as a panacea, rather driving harder to use less of it.

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.

8 thoughts on “Merchants of Doubt – those who lie for a living (a reprise)

  1. Sadly, this is still so very relevant, Keith. I just hope that one of the after effects of Putin’s war is a huge reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels, but that is probably a vain hope when so many are getting rich from them. Even now, some of the Conservative Party MPs here are calling for the government to rescind the ban on fracking that it imposed last year – some people never learn, do they, but at least it is good for their bank balances.

    • Clive, in their minds, don’t let any opportunity pass, to get more fossil fuel. It has long been the most subsidized industry, which is why politicians garner so much fossil fuel funding. Keith

      • It’s less of an issue here, since most of our coalfields have been decommissioned, but I suspect the link between the producers and politicians is still there. They are fairly easy to spot, as most of them are climate change deniers too. Over there it is pretty blatant, from what I see.

      • Clive, what has been of interest to me, before Exxon Mobil and others hired the tobacco industry PR firm and launch the “global warming is a hoax” campaign, their own scientists would for years researched, taught and spoke on their concerns about global warming. Shell Oil even did an educational video on the concerns of global warming in the 1990s. Now, the industry funds about 30,000 websites to varying degrees to create doubt or water down climate change as opposed to about 700 peer reviewed sites on the climate change concerns. I do like that institutional investors are making Exxon Mobil and other companies report on climate change mitigation actions to their shareholders. Keith

        PS – By the way, I have read the PR campaign was successful in relabeling global warming as climate change.

  2. As Clive said, this post is still relevant today … in fact, I think it may be even more so today. I like your response to someone who says, “I am not a scientist” … Yes, I can and DO read. When I hear something, I do my own research from reliable sources to either verify or discredit it. The information age, the Internet, might have made factual information more readily available than back in the day when we had to go to the library to research a topic. And it has, but it has also made false information … dangerously false information … even more readily available. Conspiracy theories abound, denial of science … I saw a tweet this afternoon actually calling for the execution of Dr. Anthony Fauci because they claim he is producing bioweapons in some secret laboratory. And hundreds of people had ‘liked’ and commented on that tweet, all but myself agreeing with its author. Even without researching it, it is obviously untrue if one just uses a bit of common sense! That seems to be largely lacking today. The liars wouldn’t be as successful if people would think more and talk less.

    • Thanks Jill for your comment. Calling for the death of anyone with people liking it is not what I would call good form or in keeping with WWJD. As we have chatted before, the best source on our lack of pandemic preparedness is well-researched book “The Premonition” by Michael Lewis. Keith

      • Agreed, my friend. That is not something most of us would even consider, but more and more it seems to fly out of the mouths of some to call for violence and murder. And when many cheer them on, I am truly sickened.

      • Jill, it would embarrass the hell out of someone cheering for the death of someone if you asked them did they really believe that? I recall one Republican presidential debate, I think in 2012, when one of the candidates said a hospital should turn away people without insurance and many clapped. My first thought was these would be the same people screaming bloody murder if a they or family were turned away. Keith

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