In the Spring of 2016 I taught a course entitled Environmental Ethics at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA. One of the assignments was for the students to choose an environmental film and write a review in which they address the question of who or what is to be included in moral consideration, according to the film. They also needed to take and justify an ethical position on the environmental problem depicted in the film using the theological, ethical and philosophical vocabularies we covered in class. Finally, they were asked to explore the ambiguities and challenges of the problem and articulate what they would suggest a viewer do after watching the film.
I invited some of the students to share their reviews as a guest blog post. Here is one by:
Dr. Leah Schade
Film Review: Merchants of Doubt
The movie Merchants of Doubt begins with a scene of a magician telling the audience about magic tricks and how magic is truly just all about illusion and misdirection. As I started watching I was confused as to what a magician had to do with the tobacco industry, flame retardant manufactures and greenhouse gas emissions. But then it quickly hit me. The documentary forms an analogy between the illusion tactics magicians use on their audiences and the way the government and large corporations mislead the public. At that point, I could tell that this documentary would dive into places no one really thought of before.
The first major case the movie, based on the book of the same name, showcases is one within the big tobacco industry. This issue started around the 1960’s when scientists were finding evidence that nicotine is addictive. When these scientists released this information, the magic tricks began. When the big tobacco industries were put on trial for selling addictive drugs they knew they were in trouble. So what did they do? They denied. They all stated under oath that they believed nicotine was not addictive and that their products were not addictive. However, once more scientific research and evidence was released, denying was not much of an option anymore. So what did they do? They played the doubt card. The big tobacco industries that were interviewed about their addictive products responded to those criticizing them by saying that there was still a great deal of doubt as to whether or not nicotine was addictive, even though deep down they knew it was.
However, what the public failed to realize was that the evidence was all there. Scientists knew nicotine was addictive and they knew cigarettes were killing thousands of people. But the big tobacco industries had the bigger voice. They had more power. They had more money. According to Cynthia Moe-Lobeda in her book Resisting Structural Evil, “A company may put enormous amounts of creative and financial resources into public relations to construct a convincing socially responsible public face regardless of how far it may be from the truth.” Using this idea, it is clear that the companies were able to cast a smokescreen of doubt on the public with their power and wealth so that those who were buying their products would still purchase them despite the scientific evidence. The film then cuts to a clip of the magician with his deck of cards which allows the audience to really make the connection as to how powerfully the tobacco companies were misleading the public just so their product would continue to sell.
This “trick” the big tobacco companies were using to cast this doubt about the scientifically proven negativity of their product is known as the “Playbook.” Within this playbook there were tricks as to how to delay effective policy so they could make more money. Such tricks included shifting the blame, questioning the science, attacking the messenger, and creating controversy. All of these are related to Moe-Lobeda’s point about companies using their power to portray an image that is not true. The companies knew that their products were bad. They knew nicotine was addictive, they knew it was causing deaths. But they would never admit that. They would never admit anything that would make them lose money. Therefore, they used these tricks on the public so that they could continue selling their product. What is really unbelievable is that these tricks fooled the public for about 50 years until we started to finally believe the science.
The film continues with a similar story line about flame retardants and flame retardant manufacturing companies and then again with greenhouse gas emissions and companies that produce fossil fuels. Both of these cases have instances similar to those of the big tobacco case where large companies and political figures were using the “Playbook” in order to continue creating doubt, denying the science, deceiving the public, and selling their product.
After viewing this film, I could not help but find myself sitting in shock and disbelief. How do people come up with these “tricks”? How are we, as a public, so blind that we cannot see what they are doing? How could someone lie about their product that is harming or killing thousands of people? It led me to question the ethical perspective of this “Playbook” that is used by so many companies and political officials.
It was clear to me that these companies were doing things that were ethically and morally wrong. Virtue ethics is an ethics based system that asks “what kind of person do I want to be?” Clearly, by the rules of the playbook, these “professional deceivers” did not care about their virtues. They told lie after lie, spinning stories into giant webs, hurting thousands of people, just so they could continue making money. The tobacco companies denied the negative effects of nicotine that were killing thousands of people. The flame retardant manufactures claimed their products protected more than they harmed despite the fact that American babies were being born with the highest amount of flame retardant chemicals in their blood compared to the rest of the world. The fossil fuel industries denied the negative effect of CO2 emissions that are destroying our planet. All of these companies used their “tricks” to deceive and manipulate the public and the planet in order to make a profit.
I believe that what these companies are doing are undoubtedly wrong. These companies take advantage of their wealth and power and use it to deceive the public. They use their “tricks” to help them deny the fact that they are killing and harming people as well as harming the planet. This film allows the audience to see that they are a part of the ones being deceived. It really made me question how many times a company has tricked me and misled me just because they had the money and power to do so.
This film sheds light on the dirty tricks these companies are playing and I would highly recommend it to anyone. Everyone should see this film because we are the ones who are being affected. We are the targets for the corporate magicians to deceive and take advantage of. Rosemary Reuther states, “the legal fictions of the corporation as a ‘person’ who has permanent rights to exists, but without liability for the harm it causes to individuals or communities, must be altered.” Now that we know these tricks exist and we are fooled by them daily, we can help stop it. We can find the trick and reveal it to the audience before it deceives us all.