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Is science being misused for social policy?

Like many Americans, I tune in to the new reboot of “Cosmos” on TV and drink it up (the original was aired in 1980, hosted by Carl Sagan). Granted, it’s middle-school science at best, complete with cartoon vignettes of complicated figures. Still, it includes me in the wonder and excitement of a field that isn’t my own.

As a social scientist, I see lessons well beyond the science. Perhaps the most important came when “Cosmos” highlighted the corrupting influence of moneyed interests on social policy, hampering the ability of scientists to protect us. The vignette spotlighted Clair Patterson, who gave us a more accurate calculation of the Earth’s age. In the process, however, he also discovered dangerous levels of lead in the environment and tried to inform us.

Lead contamination was everywhere — on the walls of our homes and on our children’s toys as well as in the food on our tables (lead was in paint and food cans). But since lead was also in the air from gasoline emissions, Patterson became pitted against the Ethyl Corporation, which was bad news for him (and us). For speaking truth to power, Patterson was denied contracts and seats on panels. The Ethyl Corporation hired its own specialist, Robert Kehoe, to defend the use of lead in fuel. While Patterson analyzed the data and lead’s effects on human health, Kehoe protected the profit margins of his employer.

Fortunately for us, Patterson persisted. It took him 20 years to break through the well-financed campaign of moneyed interests.

Of course, it was no coincidence that “Cosmos” included the larger Patterson story. As narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “This was one of the first times that the authority of science was used to cloak a threat to public health and the environment,” which has contemporary relevance since the same thing is happening in the debate over global warming today.

Recently, for example, 16 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals published a report, signed by the former secretary of homeland security and the former secretary of defense, calling for urgent action on climate change to avert the grave national security threat it poses (“Accelerating risks of climate change,” May 2014).

Although a majority of experts, including those from NASA (which links to other concurring agencies worldwide), are desperately trying to tell us we are damaging the planet in ways that will bring catastrophe to humankind, moneyed interests have hired their own spokesmen to refute the evidence and cloud the issue. This underlines the significance of the backing of the military leaders who have added their weight to the scientific community.

The scientists in the minority who don’t concur, or only partially concur, have reasons for their position, of course, because nothing is guaranteed in this life. But deniers are mostly nonscientists. Yet they claim to be the mavericks and Galileos of our day, skeptics willing to buck the sleepy consensus of the scientific world — or, worse, to expose its conspiracy against us. Let’s consider the latter notion for a moment.

What do these scientists have to gain by fooling us? How do they communicate their intentions to one another to present a united front and keep anyone from breaking ranks? How do they sustain the effort, and why have there been no leaks? How do they manipulate their studies, which are all public? And why would they corrupt an enterprise they’ve given their lives to and risk delegitimizing it in this way?

Moreover, scientists make their mark precisely by presenting surprising findings, opening new doors and even shaking up the establishment, so there’s an incentive to be novel. But they can’t just say anything. Their findings are subject to peer-reviewed journals, so they must go where the facts lead them.

That kind of rigor doesn’t hamper politicians and pundits. Instead, like good advertisers or lawyers, they employ their often considerable intelligence to spin the facts in a way that serves their clients.

Are they really the Galileos of our generation? Well, that will be a discussion for another time. But here’s a hint: Galileo was also one who spoke truth to power. He didn’t follow the money; he followed the facts.

In the meantime, rumor has it that we’ll hear more about climate change on “Cosmos” this Sunday, so stay tuned.

Mary Barker teaches political science in Salt Lake City and Madrid, Spain.