This week's episode of Cosmos tackles the Rock of Ages, the age of rocks and getting the lead out of our commitment to the environment. The episode takes the form of a fable, a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting any institution, but most especially science, fall into the clutches of the Argument From Authority and the ulterior motives of self-declared experts.
After a brief recap of the formation of the solar system and the accretion of our own world, Tyson describes Bishop Ussher's famous attempt to provide a precise, begat-based estimation of the age of the world. Ussher's Biblical arithmetic, which places the date and time of creation at Saturday, Oct 22nd, 4004 BC at 6:00 PM (presumably Eden Standard Time) stood for years as the authoritative age of creation until scientists began examining the geological layers of the Earth.
But as the layers of stone replaced the sequence of begats, we found that calculating the precise age of the Earth is beyond the scope of the geological record. Layers that normally take centuries to form can form in an instant during a catastrophic flood. And the active geology of the Earth means that the lowest accessible layers of the geological record are still far younger than the Earth itself.
So while the geological record is fantastic for telling us the order of relatively recent events, we have to look elsewhere to find a more reliable clock, one that runs at the same pace regardless of environmental conditions or catastrophic events.
And so we meet the hero of this particular fable, a Manhattan Project scientist by the name of Clair Patterson, who took on what he thought would be the simple task of measuring the age of the Earth based on analysis of the radioactive decay of the elements found in meteorites. Meterorites are as old as the Earth itself, and have remained unaffected by geological processes in all that time. Lead is the ultimate product of radioactive decay, and so the age of a meteorite can be determined by comparing the level of lead to the level of more radioactive elements, like uranium, found in the rock.
The only problem was, back in 1966, lead was common in our environment. What should have been a fairly quick measurement became a six-year quest to eliminate lead contaminants from his laboratory. When he finally did, Cosmos depicts Patterson thanking his own lineage of begats: Charles Lyell, Michael Farraday, J.J. Thompson, Ernest Rutherford and Harrison Brown, all the giants upon whose shoulders he stood to determine the true age of the Earth: four and a half billion years.
In the course of developing a clean lab, Patterson became aware of the danger all that environmental lead posed, eventually pushing a national campaign to eliminate lead additives from gasoline and ban lead in US consumer projects. The Ethyl Corporation pushed back, offering Patterson hush money to study anything other than lead. Fortunately for our brain cells, Patterson refused and challenged the self-appointed industry lead experts whose conclusion that the Ethyl Corporation's signature product Tetraethyllead was harmless was based solely on their unwillingness to look for harm.
Some might accuse the church of being reluctant to accept scientific findings that contradict dogma, but they are rank amateurs when compared with big business. The obvious comparison being made here is to modern climate change denial, which is based largely on the Argument From Negative Consequences. We don't want to solve the problem, so there is no problem. Can anyone seriously doubt that the same people who claim the evidence for climate change is unreliable today would be tout it as proof of their good environmental citizenship if climate change were found to be beneficial tomorrow?
Climate change is not the only instance we've seen of this pattern of fitting the evidence to a predetermined, financially lucrative conclusion. From lead in our gasoline and children's toys, to the famous "Seven Dwarves" testifying that they had no knowledge of any negative health effects from smoking tobacco, to prognostications of doom for the aerosol food additive and hairspray industries should we be so shortsighted as to ban CFCs, industry has been more stubborn than any church at spinning, concealing, distorting and cherry picking evidence to suit their bottom line.
But there is always hope that the truth will shine through the layers of smoke. As Tyson has said, the great thing about science is that it's true whether you believe it or not. And the great thing about candles in the dark is that they shine whether you open your eyes or not.