The Latest ‘Cosmos’ Explains How Corporations Fund Science Denial

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York in September 2006. (Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)

This post first appeared on Mother Jones.

The most amazing thing about Fox’s new Cosmos series is that it exists at all. A program that is, at its core, educational, airing at 9 p.m. on Sunday and competing with shows like Game of Thrones…in what universe does that happen?

Today’s audiences are not accustomed to this sort of fare, and the show certainly hasn’t been a runaway success when judged by the most traditional metric: ratings. Sunday night, though, Cosmos powerfully demonstrated that those who haven’t watched it yet really ought to give it a shot (watch here). Simply put, Cosmos told a magnificent scientific story that drew together (yes, really) the tale of how we determined the age of the Earth (about 4.5 billion years old) and of how one courageous scientist showed, in the face of intense challenges, the dangers of leaded gasoline.

The story centers on Clair Patterson, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology whose personal research trajectory explains this surprising overlap. Who knew that environmental-health insights would emerge from an inquiry in geology and physics? But that’s the thing about science: It leads you in surprising directions, and sometimes, vested interests don’t like where you end up.

Patterson’s life epitomizes that pattern. As Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson explained last night, we are able to calculate the ages of rocks — and thus, ultimately, the age of the Earth — because we know that various radioactive elements decay, over time, at a fixed rate. Take uranium: It ultimately decays into lead. Thus, by measuring the lead content of rocks (or, in the case of determining the age of the Earth, in meteorites that are the same age as our planet), Patterson would ultimately manage to calculate the Earth’s age. (For more explanation, see here.)

The task turned out to be very difficult, however: Patterson’s early experiments were constantly being contaminated by the presence of environmental lead in his laboratory. Ultimately, Patterson had to design a completely sterile environment, a “clean room,” in order to get a reliable measurement. That’s how he got the basic answer that is still accepted today: The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. (Sorry, creationists.)

Neil de Grasse Tyson on Science Literacy
And that’s also where the two narrative threads of last night’s Cosmos episode connect. “His award for this discovery?” explains Tyson of Patterson’s insight. “A world of trouble. He didn’t know it, but he was on a collision course with some of the most powerful people on the planet.”

Given his immense ordeals in conducting his measurements, it’s small wonder that Patterson grew attuned to the fact that lead, a potent neurotoxin, is all around us (this was the 1950s). So fresh off discovering the age of the Earth, Patterson started researching lead in the environment. He was ideally positioned to do so: After all, he really, really knew how to measure lead.

But now, Patterson wasn’t ticking off the creationists any longer; rather, he was about to encounter another source of science denial in America: corporate and special interests. “In searching for the age of the Earth, Patterson had stumbled on the evidence for a mass poisoning on an unprecedented scale,” relates Tyson.

The story of leaded gasoline, and the attempts to call into question its dangers, has been extensively told. Along with the stories of cigarettes and perhaps asbestos, it is part of a series of historic tales of how corporate interests have tended to challenge and attack science that demonstrates the risks emanating from their practices or products. “This was one of the first times that the authority of science was used to cloak a threat to public health and the environment,” says Tyson.

Also at the center of Sunday’s Cosmos episode was a scientist named Robert Kehoe, whose work was funded by the lead industry and who was a “longtime scientific advocate for leaded gasoline,” in Tyson’s words. The episode depicted a historic clash between Patterson and Kehoe before the US Congress over the science of lead in the environment. It also explored just how hard it was for Patterson to take on this topic. “Patterson’s funding from the oil industry vanished overnight. In fact, they tried to get him fired,” asserted Tyson. (For a history of the battle over the safety of leaded gasoline, including Kehoe’s role, see this extensive 2000 article in The Nation. For a fascinating feature story by Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum on the surprising connection between lead exposure and crime rates, see here.)

But of course, Patterson’s science ultimately won out on lead, just as it did on the age of the Earth. Tyson ended last night’s episode like this: “Today, scientists sound the alarm on other environmental dangers. Vested interests still hire their own scientists to confuse the issue. But in the end, nature will not be fooled.” As he says these words, we are looking down from above on a rotating Earth — not-too-subtle allusion to global warming.

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, podcaster and the host of Climate Desk Live. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science.
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  • MaineBob

    …AND the -not-to-subtle allusion to…. the Genetically Modified Organism….. GMO Industrial Complex…. Monsanto et. al.

  • Anonymous

    This program might do better on another night other than Sunday. It’s running against too many other entertaining programs at the same time.

  • Craig Smith

    Koch brothers fund climate-change denial becaue they are completely heartless and they put corporate profits above the future of humanity and our planet.

  • Anonymous

    And Al Gore promotes it to sell “smart” meters.

  • Jason Lowe

    They did the same thing with Tobacco as they did with Lead as they
    explained on Cosmos on Sunday. It is also happening with many, many
    other things. Vaccines, Medication, Drugs, and just Modern Day “Health
    Care” in general is all just a big Ponzi / Money Making Pyramid scheme.

    The Modern Day Medical system is no longer looking to help or heal people nor are they looking for causes and cures, all they
    do is look for ways keep people confused and fighting and paying them
    money instead of paying attention to the facts and the truth.

    Then you got GMOs, Fluoride in the water, Geo-Engineering / Chem-trails,
    the whole Climate Science debacle that is still going on, the list goes
    on and on and on.

    Government, Corporate, and privately OWNED
    and FUNDED Scientists are LYINIG TO THE WORLD and are
    responsible for SO MANY UNCOUNTED DEATHS IT IS NOT EVEN HUMOROUS…

  • Ron Eheman

    Same as the fluoride story – same players, same science for hire, same mass poisoning.
    Only difference is the fluoride debacle still exists, but the end is near

  • Anonymous

    So does the Chamber of Commerce, the evil conjoined twin of ALEC. People need to wake up to how the “chambers” have become local voices for the 1%.

  • Melia Newman

    My understanding is that Gore donates all his profits from his green investments to charity.

  • Anonymous

    So you agree with me, these so-called “greens” are motivated by money.

    “I believe it is appropriate to have an ‘over-representation’ of the facts on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience.”
    - Al Gore

  • Anonymous

    It’s not that greens are motivated by money. It’s that everyone is motivated by money, so economics have to be considered. And in this case, Gore is proving that the economics of green energy make sense, so profit does not need to be sacrificed to save the world. If you really want to deamonize the man for that, then it says a lot more about you than it does about Gore.

  • John Ward

    No, Malpighi is saying that the way to interest people who are not green but who are motivated by money is to show that green products can make money. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s concern about being green is to make money.

  • Anonymous

    So who convinced Al “I use half the electricity in Tennesee” Gore, who is CLEARLY not green?

  • Dennis Nilsson

    What do you have for solution? Who should fund science?

    Without any science we would still live in the dark ages.

  • Anonymous

    Gore was convinced by the scientific evidence, with which he has been familiar since quite early in the data collection process. As was I, and pretty much the entire scientific community, with the exception of a small number of hired guns. He is fully aware of the contradictions inherent in flying around the world to discuss carbon emissions: we are in a transitional period, where these contradictions will continue to plague us. I by no means agree with your assertion that “these greens” are motivated by money, nor do I see any relevance in your attack on the energy consumption in Gore’s large compound to the gravity of the actual environmental predicament.

  • Jim

    nice caps

  • Anonymous

    If you can’t see the relevance of someone purporting to be a hero of the environment hypocritically wasting electricity on a staggering scale, we probably don’t have much further to discuss. At least Ed Begley walks the walk.

    As someone who lives in a state being desecrated by useless giant lawn ornaments just to make Angus King and his ilk richer, while artificially capping the amount of useful hydro that can be used (in a low-wind state full of lakes and rivers) in order to avoid “unfairly” disadvantaging the wind industry, I see firsthand the greedy hypocrisy of the so-called “greens”.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if Tyson smokes as much weed as Sagan did.

  • Anonymous

    Cowcharge, You quite obviously have an anti-Gore agenda even more irrationally rabbid than your anti-environmental agenda, both of which resonate remarkably with the sound of an anti-progressive agenda. Tell me, have you watched An Inconvenient Truth, or did you just take your pre-chewed opinions from the well-known set of obscenely well-funded manipulators without even bothering to pretend to listen to the evidence? Or do you simply work in a high-polluting industry such as fracking? I have no doubt whatsoever your vitriol is motivated by either greed or the willful ignorance of the “social conservative”.

  • Anonymous

    This is intentional. Fox has a history of covertly trying to tank shows that it hates on a philosophical level but can’t justify turning away the money to its shareholders. Family Guy is a well-known example. They tried the same kind of shenanigans, from putting it in a bad time slot to repeatedly moving its timeslot when the former failed, so as to prevent people being able to settle into a habit of watching.

  • Anonymous

    Do let us know when YOU get a Ph.d. in astrophysics.

  • Anonymous

    You’re jumbling some actual problems together with baseless and thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories. Refusing to vaccinate your kids is not just irresponsible parenting; it’s socially irresponsible, with the potential to cause illness and death on an epidemic, or even pandemic scale, even when only a relatively small number of parents act irresponsibly. “Chem-trails” was debunked ages ago. As for the “climate change debacle”, please explain how virtual universal agreement among scientists at every level, including in academia, is explained away by corporate funding. It is just breathtakingly stupid to think 97% of all scientists on the planet are ignoring their consciences and purposefully conspiring together to publish lies. To what end? That “big green” industrial complex that would have to be bigger and more influential than the oil and gas industry? Give us a break. But hey, way to hold onto every conspiracy theory that comes along, no matter how soundly spanked it has been.

  • Anonymous

    “Social conservatives” aren’t in the least conservative (or social, for that matter). And greed is why I dislike the fake-green scammers. So your attempt to comprehend my position through simple-minded pigeonholing just shows what a shallow, closed-minded “thinker” you are. My “anti-Gore” “agenda” (which implies I have some goal other than to point out the utter hypocrisy of self-styled “progressives”, which isn’t the case) is completely due to his lies (self-admitted) and pure, unadulterated greed.

  • Anonymous

    I was just wondering, it wasn’t a slam. Sagan said he did his best writing stoned.