RATING |

IF YOU DRILL a hole into Antarctic ice and pull out a core sample, it will show atmospheric CO2 levels dating back hundreds of thousands of years.

The data, correlated with temperatures, will be interesting and informative, and will have almost no ability to move the needle on any popular discussion of CO2 rates and climate change.

Instead, that "debate" will be re-routed by lobbyists and showmen who are highly skilled, highly motivated and highly paid to turn scientific questions into political/media theater (a U.S. Senator holding aloft a snowball, cable networks reporting this as if it were actual news).

So says the documentary "Merchants of Doubt," which contends that these opinioneers have been running a playbook invented in the 1960s by tobacco companies.

Tobacco execs knew that their products were addictive, toxic and deadly, didn't care, and developed a PR strategy to create enough uncertainty in the minds of consumers to keep profits hefty as long as possible, which turned out to be 50 years.

That same mechanism is at work today, say the filmmakers, in the field of climate science. "Merchants of Doubt" reports that oil and coal companies are paying pseudo-scientists and salesmen to mount a rear-guard retreat against data: there's no climate change, there's change but we're not causing it, we're causing it but it's too late, let's have a martini.

The documentary has some great "gets": Not climate scientists (there are several of those), but the men who devote their lives to the science of doubt.

And I wish the movie had pressed them harder to explain why they do what they do, especially since there are hints that they don't actually believe what's coming out of their mouths.

The so-called merchants of doubt don't say. But the movie has a guess - some of the early pro-tobacco scientists were Cold Warriors and virulent anti-communists who saw any government intrusion into personal choice as socialist and therefore worse than widespread lung cancer.

Today's "merchants," as the title implies, seem motivated mostly by money. They tend to come from libertarian circles and believe fervently in the invisible hand of the market, particularly when it's writing them big checks.

One says he wouldn't work for Greenpeace because they "couldn't afford me."

It may be that, like zealous free-marketeers who ran Wall Street (into the ground) 10 years ago, they believe that the hand of the market is infallible as well as invisible.

That turned out to be bad for the nation's economy.

Do these men worry that their work could be bad for the planet's ecology?

I think I know the answer, but I still wanted "Merchants" to ask.