For my Communications 233 class, Mass Communication in Modern Society, one of the things we were meant to learn about in the course is media literacy. I say were because today is the day of our final exam so the course is technically over but… I’m not really here to get into semantics. Media literacy was defined by our professor as having the ability to analyze the impact that forms of communications have on life. This referred especially to being able to look at things like advertisements and being able to discern their true meanings through semiotics, for example.
Merchants of Doubt is a 2014 documentary directed by Robert Kenner that’s based on a book co-authored by Erik M. Conway. The film talks about global warming — how propaganda and techniques of deception are utilized to cultivate doubt in scientific data so fossil fuel companies can continue to profit. It also addresses how other companies use similar techniques to achieve the same ends in their respective fields of interest.
Because of how the movie addresses use of things like social media and journalism to subtly push agendas and play on desires to avoid change in our greater society, it’s a good example of why learning media literacy is important. Blindly trusting figures that appear to be experts can have disastrous results, especially with subjects that so drastically involve the planet we live on and our individual health.
Personally, I fall on the side of science more than the denial of it. I’ve taken various courses in subjects like Geology which have talked about the data for climate change and how the current global warming crisis is a result of human activities dating back to the Industrial Revolution. While a few classes doesn’t make me an expert, they are enough to help me cultivate my opinions. It’s a bias, but I don’t see it as a particularly negative bias in any respect, and I often find myself confounded to see people who hold opinions other than the one I do in this subject more than many other subjects. One of the things this movie highlighted most for me was how things like greed lead to the advocacy for denial of the science behind global warming, and it’s kind of a despicable thing in my mind.
One way I interpreted parts of the film brought to mind Donald Trump. This isn’t a necessarily political post, I’m referring more to the methods behind his presidential campaign. Trump has come as far as he has in this election cycle partially through riling up a (mostly) Republican base of people who are xenophobic, among other things. While arguments are passed around commonly that Trump himself is not xenophobic, and is in fact more liberal in general than he comes across, I feel like that’s not the point behind why Trump is a problem. He’s riled up this base that has shown itself to be extremely hostile, negative and violent in various situations all for his own benefit, to become the Republican nominee, and then leaves that base to its own devices without condemning some of the terrible things they’ve done.
The global warming denial in this movie feels so similar to me because of how it advocates for something that’s clearly disastrous to the longevity of our planet’s survival in the name of economic profit. The companies mentioned in the film do things to instill doubt in the people of America so they can continue to sell their products, and then when the things they deny start to happen there’s a sense that they benefit off these effects as well. The most despicable thing about it, in my mind at least, is that there are interviews where subjects agree with or at least see the science behind what they’re denying, but only because they want to cherry pick out the information that eventually benefits their profits. It’s a horribly dishonest way to do business, and it has some really nasty results on the climate that aren’t being condemned by those who cause the problems.
As someone interested in the wider effects of journalism and science in general, I would highly recommend Merchants of Doubt as something everyone should see. Whether you’re a believer in climate change or not, being able to see the inner workings of things that can instill skepticism would be helpful for anyone who wants to analyze a situation from a more objective standpoint.
If you want to watch the documentary yourself and cultivate your own opinions, you can find it on iTunes or rent the movie on Netflix. Let me know what you thought of the film if you’ve seen it, or let me know what you think about my comparison and ideas laid out above, I’d be happy to hear other opinions on things that cross my realm of intrigue.