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Professional Deceivers: People Who Can Convince You A Garbage Man Knows More Science Than A NASA PhD

TORONTO, CANADA — I can tell Robert Kenner has been making the most of the TIFF party circuit. He is in good spirits. He is hungover. It’s noon.

The Food Inc. director is in town for his latest documentary, Merchants of Doubt, an examination of the people who make a living by convincing the public that science is fiction and fiction is science. Handsomely compensated by corporations, these operators have been in the doubt-casting business since big tobacco needed some help telling the masses that cigarettes were perfectly safe and, once that jig was up, changing the conversation from the addictive and fatal qualities of nicotine to “don’t let the government take away your freedom to smoke.” Kenner navigates across decades, from one big industry to another, using everyone’s favorite deception — magic tricks — as his organizing principle. We talked about the making of his movie, how these guys are good enough to convince Americans that a garbage man knows more about climate change than one of NASA’s most brilliant scientists, and why Kenner is still optimistic about the future.

I want to start with the structure of the film, because I imagine you’ve got a million sources and the hardest part is getting everything lined up in a coherent, engaging way.

This was a really difficult structure, because ultimately, the more we thought about it, it became more a film about deception than climate change. So it was seeing all the levels of how the destruction — sorry, deception! — was being used. So that became our guiding principle. And somewhere in the middle, we kept saying, these guys are like magicians. They’re so good at what they do. There are a few talented people out there who learn this amazing craft of creating doubt where there is no doubt. Somehow the image of a magician just kept coming up in our minds. And we had an absolute desire to find something to take it away from the obvious, straight-ahead, good and bad movie.

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What’s fascinating about deception and magicians — I remember learning this from Ricky Jay, the master sleight-of-hand artist, who told me that magicians are more scandalized by the use of deception for untoward purposes than anyone.

Well, the Skeptic Society was created when Uri Geller said he was a psychic who said he could bend spoons. But he was just doing a magic trick. And the magician community was outraged. Here he was, pawning himself off as someone with special powers when he was just a mere magicians. So I think that’s what brought them about: to debunk false theories. But we got very excited by the metaphor of magic to lead us through this story. Wanting to be able to tell what, on some levels, is a difficult story about deception from tobacco, where they knew for 50 years that their product not only killed but was addictive. And now, one of our characters, Peter Sparber, said, “If you can sell tobacco, you can sell anything.” He said that with such great pride. And how they went off to multiple industries, and ultimately, the greatest deception of all is the destruction of the planet.

And yet, it’s funny, I just read this quote recently about Jack Benny, who was a comedian. And he was famously cheap. He said he was held up and the thief said, “Your money or your life.” And he said, “Give me a minute to think about it.” And that’s where we are in this world now, with the Exxon Mobils and coal companies. It’s your money or your life, and many of them are choosing the money.

I thought, watching this movie, you could make a conspiracy theorist out of everyone, because all these people seem connected.

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It’s interesting: they’re connected, and they’re not connected. I think they’re doing it for different reasons. So I don’t think of it as a conspiracy theory; people are operating on multiple levels. They’re connected tangentially. I think there are a few reasons that motivate people. One of them is obviously economic, and these companies have a hard time leaving the money in the ground. They can’t walk away. Then there’s this ideological fear of regulation: anything to do with regulation is evil. This idea that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, environmentalists are the new communists. That watermelon thing. (Editor’s note: as in, “green on the outside, red on the inside.”) The irony of that is, these guys were upset with Ronald Reagan when he put in the Ozone regulations. They thought Reagan was perverting — they wouldn’t call him a communist, but he was as guilty as everyone. So anyone can be attacked. And then I think the third reason is this tribal instinct. One group says one thing, the other group thinks they must be wrong, regardless. We have a large percentage of the country that’s actually doubting the science because it comes from one side. And if I’ve gotten any positive feedback from this movie, it’s the numbers of conservatives saying, “We can listen to the science, we can come up with different solutions. We can come up with a conservative response, but you can’t deny the science.” And I am optimistic that things are going to change soon.

You are? Because it’s hard not to feel very overwhelmed and daunted by the PR war, let alone the legislative battle.

The greatest deception of all is the destruction of the planet.

There’s certainly a gigantic impasse in the world out there. But I’m feeling this is going to turn to some degree pretty rapidly. If we can only inspire a sense of, what Bob English talks about: think about Americans. We crossed the ocean in small boats, we went across the prairie in covered wagons, we put a man on the moon. We can do so many great things, and they’re just waiting to be done in this world of technology and invention. When the automobile was invented, we didn’t say we have to stay with the horse and buggy. And it’s hard. It’s hard to give up a technology that’s making lots of money and brought us tons of wonderful things. Energy created the American century. So it’s hard for people to turn their backs on it. And the last reason, beyond tribal, is it’s hard to change. It’s hard to think of giving up things. But I don’t think we necessarily have to give them up. We have to think of the world in a new way.

In the making of this film, I met with George Shultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State. He has solar panels and he drives an electric car. And he saw my gas car and he said, “What are you, an idiot?” I’ve since gotten my solar panels, it’s become a great investment, and I’m thrilled. I switched to these now beautiful LED light bulbs, as opposed to those old harsh ones. Which I think is important; I never wanted those harsh, ugly light bulbs in my house. But I’m thrilled to have these beautiful light bulbs, and my energy has gone down to zero. And I will be making money off of it. I think it’s Al Gore who was saying that there’s a tipping point for things: if you look at water, 33 degrees is liquid, 32 is ice. And we’re just about to cross that threshold with solar and alternative energy, where it will become transformative.

HowStuffWorks Snag PlayerEdit descriptionsnagplayer.video.howstuffworks.comThis whole “way of life” argument, it really reminded me of the way that people used to talk about slavery. The idea of, “You can’t tell us to abolish this. This is our way of life, this is our entire economy.”

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I think there’s an absolute parallel, because it’s slavery of the Earth. But think about slavery: you had a Southern president in 1856, and less than ten years later, it was abolished. That’s pretty amazing, how fast that changed. I think that’s a good, interesting analogy: how that changed so quickly from the unthinkable of giving it up. Six years later, it was over. (Editor’s note: Um, sort of.)

This idea that scientists are terrible communicators came up so many times in the film. And that’s why they get their asses kicked when an “expert” shows up to debate them. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that; is one of the avenues of addressing that to train all these scientists in public speaking and communication, or is that just not a valuable use of time?

It’s really a story of deception and how these deceivers operate.

I think it’s unfair to ask people who have one set of skills to have to become public spokespeople. That’s not their job. To ask them to be communication experts is not right. I found it ironic that when I went to shoot with Jim Hansen or Ben Santer, these guys had nothing in their house. They hardly had chairs for us to do interviews. There was hardly anything. All they had was their computer to do science. And then I’d meet with these deniers who said, “These scientists are just doing it for the money.” They lived in these mansions, and they were pointing fingers at these guys who didn’t have chairs for interviews! That, to me, is one of the great ironies of this story.

Why do you think those narratives become so popular? Is it because people can’t imagine anyone else being motivated by something different from what motivates them?

I almost feel like people are holding up a mirror and looking at themselves, talking about all of the things that they are and putting it on their opposition.

Was there anyone who you interviewed who you just wanted to jump in and cut them off? People who made you lose your cool? Like Marc Morano, who would post the private emails of people he opposed and subject them to this endless online harassment?

I really enjoyed being with Morano. He was thoroughly entertaining, he was thoroughly unfiltered. And he, there was a degree of honestly coming from Marc Morano of talking about what he did. So there was no need for me to lose my cool with Marc. He was very straight-ahead, on some levels. And there was no question that he would be offended. There were one or two people who I felt were very thin-skinned; Marc was not thin-skinned. If I asked a tough question, he’d give a tougher answer. At the same time, I don’t think he was really in touch with the damage he was doing, to put it mildly.

I do think that people have this level of disconnect with what online harassment really entails, and you can tell yourself it’s fake until it’s happening to you, and you realize that it’s not fake at all.

I don’t think Mark was in touch with the consequences of his actions. But he was very open, and on some levels, he helped inspire how I should tell this story. Saying: you have to connect with humor. It’s ironic, but he’s been very successful, and I thought, okay, I could learn from him.

So tell me about these storytelling techniques: finding all these old news clips, the advertisements, the reporting. It’s so much information and it’s so many different types of information.

Well, I think on some levels, those old clips, that’s not an unusual way of telling films. What became interesting was the metaphor of magic to understand that it’s not so much about misdirection, but it’s about direction. When tobacco realized they can’t say the science is wrong, because that’s libelous, they can say, “You’re taking our freedoms away.” So they’re directing you to something to try to make you upset about something other than dealing with the scientific reality. This is a story, ultimately, about how when science becomes inconvenient, they direct people to something else to be upset about.

At least with cigarettes, once the science comes out, it’s relatively easy for a person to understand why a cigarette would affect your lungs. But it’s so much harder to wrap your head around how everything we do would affect the entire Earth. Or I hear this all the time, “If global warming is happening, why was it so cold this winter?” You can logic your way out of the science.

As easy as it is to understand the science of tobacco, it took 50 years to understand it, even though it was absolutely known for over 50 years. So it’s amazing how long and how successful they were in confusing such a simplistic issue. And I asked Naomi Oreskes [Harvard professor of the history of science], how much have we learned since Hansen testified in 1988? She said, we knew everything we needed to know in 1988. CO2 warms the Earth.

Although in some ways, we’re a much savvier public now than we were in the 1950s. We have access to more misinformation but we also just have access to more real information.

There’s two worlds of information, and they’re parallel realities. And there’s weather and there’s climate, and it’s hard to distinguish. But there’s one basic reality: CO2 puts a blanket around the Earth, and that keeps it very simple.

What was the most challenging interview?

Perhaps the ones that didn’t happen.

Who did you want that you couldn’t get?Steve Milloy. He’s the one who says, from Fox News, when someone says to him, “Are you in bed with big oil, and if so, how good in bed are they?” And he says, “No, I’m just trying to do the right thing.” And of course, he’s getting big bucks from energy companies. We had a date to meet with him in Washington, and we flew there, and he cancelled on us. That was rather annoying. On that level, I was appreciative of Mark Morano being totally up front. Tim Phillips, working with the Kochs, is a very, very, very polished fellow. And he’s kind of aww-shucks good.

But more than anything, it was coming up with a structure that was the challenge. I think the challenge is, how to make a film that ultimately leads up to climate change but is not about climate change. It’s really a story of deception and how these deceivers operate, and to see the world through their eyes, on some levels. Because they steal the show. We’ve seen the scientists. People who think this is a serious issue sort of know about it. But we don’t know about the deceivers and the deception quite as well.

How did the Chicago Tribune journalists who broke the flame retardants story get involved? Were they in the book as well?

No, the book really was an inspiration, but the movie is very different from the book. And we had all kinds of deceptions. Really, there’s endless stories that you could go to. But the deception in that was extraordinary. And they tracked that guy, Peter Sparber, for years. They followed him to Europe, went to his door, and he would never respond. I called him and he called me back right away.

He said: “You can take Jim Hansen. I could take a garbage man. And I could get American to believe the garbage man knows more about science than you could get America to believe Jim Hansen knows about it.”

I said, listen, Peter, you’re so good at what you do — you sold anything, you were so good, I’d love to interview you. And he told me he was such a fan of my work, had to call me back, he was writing a book about tobacco and perhaps I’d be interested in directing it. And I said we were also talking about climate in this. He said: “You can take Jim Hansen. I could take a garbage man. And I could get American to believe the garbage man knows more about science than you could get America to believe Jim Hansen knows about it.” I told him that’s why I wanted him in the movie. He said, “You can make a good movie without me, and I can lead a great life without you.” Then I called the reporters and they said, “Boy, did he sucker you.” We’re dealing with very talented people who have no sense of caring about the consequences of what they do. And I wasn’t out to say, “Gotcha!” I was more out to try to understand what is it that gets them to go do it. And I think there are different reasons; it’s not like they’re a unified block. Peter Sparber enjoys his craft. Morano enjoys publicity.

It’s part of this rising anti-science sentiment, it seems. Like: vaccines must be bad, don’t believe the elitist mentality, that sort of thing.

It’s ironic: they love science until it becomes inconvenient. These companies, they worship science, until it gets in the way.

That reminds me, An Inconvenient Truth is mentioned in the film. Did you have any concerns about duplicating efforts there?

I don’t see this film as being connected to An Inconvenient Truth. I see it much more as an extension of Food Inc. Because it’s really about trying to understand how this works. It’s not about the science of climate change. It’s not a film about climate change. Climate change just happens to be one of the bigger issues in deception. It’s the ultimate payday of the deceivers at this moment. There’s a lot of money in this game, and it’s hard for them to walk away from it. It’s the Jack Benny story.

Do you think that these deceivers believe climate change is real and dire?

Some of them might, some of them might not. I certainly believe there are numbers of people in Congress who will vote against any climate change legislation who believe it’s real. That I’m convinced of. And I think they could be on the verge of changing. Bob Inglis certainly is hearing that from people. But they need the backing of their public. They also like to stay in power, and Bob’s an example of how you can lose power.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.