Merchants of Doubt

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Merchants of Doubt Movie Poster Image
Docu raises important questions about media reliability.
  • PG-13
  • 2015
  • 96 minutes

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Kids say

age 11+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

By pointing out the tricky ways in which media hides and deflects information, the movie educates viewers on how to be savvier with their media and how to potentially question the messages and information that come to them.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though no one is a "main character," a few of the subjects began as deniers of the climate crisis, researched it for themselves, changed their minds, and risked their reputation to try to share their findings. Scientists are depicted as having risked their lives to put information out into the world (they receive death threats).

Violence

Death threats to climate scientists via email. Heated debates on TV.

Sex
Language

Angry emails read out loud include brief uses of "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," "damn," "piss," and "bitch." A use of "bulls--t" is bleeped, and one person says "effing" in place of a bad word.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Merchants of Doubt is a documentary about the use of deception and deflection to cast doubt on issues that are scientifically sound. It begins with the tobacco industry -- which long ago convinced people it was OK to smoke -- and moves up to the more current climate crisis. The main content issue is language; in one scene, scientists read some of the angry emails and death threats they've received, which include momentary uses of "f--k" and "s--t." The death threats are also alarming. Otherwise, this is a thought-provoking film for both teens and adults, addressing the idea that not everything presented in the media is entirely true; it's important to recognize that deception exists and that it's possible to see beyond it.

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What's the story?

Based on a book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the documentary MERCHANTS OF DOUBT begins by looking at big tobacco companies, which, unable to flat-out lie about the dangers of their products, learned techniques of casting doubt. An entire industry -- flame retardants for furniture -- sprung up based on their misinformation. Decades later, the movie argues, these same tactics are being used to combat climate scientists who assert that greenhouse gasses are destroying the planet. Big businesses and right-wing conservatives risk big profit losses and other changes if they agree, so they follow in the tobacco industry's footsteps, using similar tactics to deflect attention away from the core issue. Magician Jamy Ian Swiss also turns up, explaining similarities to the psychological techniques of magic tricks.

Is it any good?

Directed by Robert Kenner, of the excellent documentary Food, Inc., MERCHANTS OF DOUBT feels a little scattershot. It's as if it's unsure whether to stay focused on the topic of misdirection or dive directly into the immediate and pressing issue of climate change. When it is on topic, it's quite educational, illustrating just how people are hired for the purpose of misrepresenting data (or presenting false data) and how they cast doubt.

Kenner somehow scored fascinating interviews with some of these "fakers," who usually wouldn't agree to appear in a movie like this. Meanwhile, the featured scientists are less charismatic, if more straightforward in their interviews. (Many are shocked and saddened by this whole phenomenon.) And, as the topic moves over to climate change, the movie becomes more emotional and less analytical. But on the whole, it has a great deal of important information presented in a lively way, and it has the power to get you riled up.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the ways in which the media conveys information. Have you ever been convinced by information that turned out to not be entirely true? How can you tell what's true and what isn't?

  • Does Merchants of Doubt make you believe that the climate crisis exists? Doesn't exist? What information is given on the subject?

  • Is it easier to understand the media representation of the climate crisis in perspective to the media representation of tobacco? The perception of tobacco has changed a lot over the years. Is it possible that the perception of the climate crisis will, too?

  • What's the difference between lying and casting doubt, or deflecting attention?

Movie details

For kids who love powerful stories

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