The Amazing Randi insists that the public wants to be fooled, that it's easier and more comforting for us not to see unromantic truths -- you can see him proclaiming this, a little sadly, in Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom's doc An Honest Liar, which plays like a companion piece to Robert Kenner's sly and enraging Merchants of Doubt. Randi dedicated a lifetime to exposing frauds, deceivers, and liars, only to see such scoundrels triumph again not long after their exposure. Now, Merchants argues, those frauds have co-opted his spirit — committing their deceptions (and jeopardizing our world) as they themselves adopt the mantle of principled skepticism.
The film lays bare the way that moneyed interests sell doubt to keep us from believing in things that actually are true -- and damaging for business. An episodic narrative vaults from the lies of the tobacco companies, which for half a century pretended there was no link between smoking and cancer, to those of the think-tanks that scientists are lying about climate change.
This material might be familiar to Frontline viewers and magazine readers, but Kenner's telling of the stories proves independently dramatic: It's heartening to hear Chicago Tribune reporters dish about exposing the lies in the testimony of an expert witness for the manufacturers of flame-retardant (and carcinogenic) furniture. And it's heartbreaking to see GOP apostate Bob Inglis try to talk a Mississippi talk-radio host into taking climate change seriously. Inglis sighs a hard truth about the comforts of disbelief: "The reason [people] need the science to be wrong is that otherwise we realize that we need to change. That's a hard pill to swallow."