"Cosmos" Week 7: People, People Never Change
This week Cosmos veered in a very different direction than it’s been coasting in the last few weeks. It settles down and tells the story of how the man who discovered the age of the Earth also spent decades fighting against vested interests that insisted that lead was perfectly harmless in our gasoline. That the amount of lead in the atmosphere was exactly the same as it had been for centuries. They spent millions of dollars to pay teams of people to look at exactly the same data and come to exactly the opposite conclusion of anyone who they weren’t paying. And for decades we suffered chronic and universal low level lead poisoning. Because damned if it didn’t make some people a shit load of money.
This runs in gorgeous contrast to the previous weeks and their repeated refrains on the role that religion has played in repressing science throughout the centuries. Corporations aren’t churches, and their suppression of science is based on much more mundane censorship. But it makes a beautiful foil because the underlying impulse is exactly the same: refusing to accept evidence contrary to your own biases. The case of religion is at least more palatable in the sense that one can ascribe a good faith motivation (pun intended and apologized for). If you believe the world works a certain way, and believe in medieval notions of contrary evidence being mere traps laid for the unfaithful, then you are at least being consistent with your own beliefs. Oh, you’re a backwards luddite with your head crammed up the dark ages of your own bung hole, but at least you’re true to your world view.
Ah but corporations have no such excuses. They’d pay a scientist a million dollars to say the moon was made of cheese if there were a million and one dollars in it for them. But let’s not turn this into some bashing of the mystical company, as if it were some demon that lays in wait to crush dreams and corrupt knowledge. At their hearts, they’re made up of people. And people, as Tyson so cleverly interjects with his example of the Romans and the way that they continued to use lead in their pipes and wine long after discovering it was horrifically toxic, will come up with any excuse, any rationalization, when evidence is at odds with the way that they prefer the world to be.
There’s something easy about the earlier shots at religion, accurate though they might be. Easy because we can dismiss them as somehow not mattering so much anymore. That those silly cranks who insisted the world was flat and the sun revolved around the Earth are all dead and gone now, and that now we know better. We can have a laugh at the irrational ancients while we recline in the fruits of our technological society.
But people, people never change.
And as Tyson notes in closing, nature will bear out the truth, whether we care to listen to those crying it out or not.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.