Restricting the Cosmos

I didn’t take any science subjects in school, which is something I regret more and more as I get older. In my high/secondary/whatever school, geography was considered a science, and I took that as my mandatory science requirement instead of biology, chemistry or physics. While geography in an abstract sense is interesting, the subject itself is not so much: different types of rocks, glaciers moving, rivers moving stuff. It’s ok, but not especially fascinating. As I mentioned, I regret not taking any advanced science courses, as I see more and more that there is a big gap in my education when it comes to such things the periodic table of elements, species classification and generally how stuff works. I have tried to rectify this in my adult life by reading a lot of popular science books, mostly with regard to physics. After reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, I went on to a few Stephen Hawking books, became interested in quantum physics and went on to some Brian Greene and Roger Penrose . At around this time I hit a wall with popular physics books, as no one out there really compares to Stephen Hawking when it comes to explaining complex theories in a simple yet interesting way. Most popular science books are an absolute chore, and the main reason for this is that they are written by academics, whose basic job is to bore people into accepting them as an authority on a subject.

A few years ago I was about to start another dull Brian Greene book, and then discovered that it was the tie-in to a TV documentary series he had done on the topic. I downloaded it (legally), took in the information passively in a fraction of the time I would have spent reading, and never looked back. Since then, I have been relying on documentaries to supplement my lack of scientific expertise. Physics documentaries in particular are a rare beast, as given how complex the concepts in modern physics are, computer animated graphics are required every few seconds in order to communicate even the least important idea. Therefore it was exciting to hear that Fox TV and National Geographic were funding a new big-budget version of Cosmos, to debut in spring 2014. The original Cosmos, with renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan narrating the vastness of space and time, is the absolute gold standard in communicating complex science effectively to a large, diverse audience. It was such an institution that it has been shown in physics classrooms around the world for almost 35 years, despite our understanding of its subject changing so much in that time period. An update was needed however in order to chart our advances in describing the universe, and the torch was handed to Neil deGrasse Tyson, a disciple and informal student of Sagan, who takes us through space and time with the help of blockbuster special effects and thousands of years of cumulative scientific progress.

Tyson is such a capable host that after the first episode I looked him up and found it hard to believe that he was actually an academic: I was convinced he was an actor. He does a good job of simplifying the material and also making it interesting and relevant for the viewer. The producers of this version of Cosmos however decided to expand the scope of the material, so in addition to describing the formation and vastness of the known universe, they include discussion on the process of evolution. This was always going to be a problem, given that this is an American documentary and a significant minority of Americans reject evolution, and are creationists who believe in the idea of a Grand Design by some sort of eternal Creator. Cosmos is an expensive, mass-marketed blockbuster series, and therefore can’t afford to isolate any part of its audience and must dance a fine line between the two views. Tyson does just that in the first episode, mentioning evolution as something that is “still controversial to this day”. In the second episode he bravely (and surprisingly to me) goes further and directly confronts the creationists to try and win them to his side. He spends a large portion of the episode attempting to debunk the seminal intelligent design argument that the human eye is so complex and intricate, it is impossible that it is the result of chance improvements that an evolutionary process would suggest. With irreducible complexity seemingly destroyed as a logical argument, Tyson then goes on a passionate rant about how evolution is more than just theory. His efforts are noble, but the damage had already been done.

It had finally come to this. After years laughing at those idiot Americans across the Atlantic passing law after law that rejected the theory of evolution, they finally made their way into scientific debate. In contrast to Tyson and Cosmos’s view of debunking creationism with their second episode, in my opinion this was the moment of acceptance for intelligent design. The fact that the production team felt they needed to address the issue of creationism in a serious, educational documentary gives the movement the legitimacy that no law in any hick town nor state can give. If this iteration of Cosmos is to achieve the legacy that its predecessor had, classrooms around the world for the next few decades will see the same frustrated, highly educated man defending a perfectly scientific and falsifiable* theory such as evolution against a popular view of an outspoken element of society at a certain time. This is not science, and it is not educational. It simply shows that political bullying can get any message at all into the classroom. The producers of Cosmos knew what they were getting into when they signed on to produce the show for Fox, which is a network that panders to the right-leaning and often evolution-doubting sect of the United States. The producers were given a lot of freedom, and were allowed to get their message across, yet still were forced to address the creationist ideology as if it were a legitimate concern in the scientific world. Cosmos spent half an episode arguing against creationism, but in doing so acted as if creationism was a real scientific and falsifiable theory, which amounts to nothing but creationist propaganda.

I have yet to get past this second episode, but Cosmos may still prove a useful tool in understanding the universe. The invasion of politics into science is highly frustrating however, and if I watch subsequent episodes I will be viewing it more as entertainment rather than as something informative or educational: its credibility has been lost. Much better are Brian Cox’s BBC Documentaries on the same topic, starting with Wonders of the Solar System and most recently with Wonders of Life. In the three series, Cox describes the formation and future of the universe, and all life on Earth without one reference to any god, and it was all funded by UK taxpayers. If Cosmos is what we get from a US-based corporation afraid of alienating a small but powerful minority of the population, just imagine what a science documentary funded by US taxpayers would look like.

*Falsifiability is a fundamental characteristic of a scientific theory. In order to be considered a valid argument, a statement must be falsifiable: there must be a possibility to prove the statement/theory wrong. Creationism is based on faith and therefore is not falsifiable nor a valid scientific theory.

2 thoughts on “Restricting the Cosmos

  1. II don’t know what kind of school system lets you not take any natural sciences, but it’s true, they’re pretty fundamental to a basic scientific understanding. Seems like you’ve done a good job of catching up, but you could also just pick up a introductory chemistry/physics/bio textbook and read it for yourself. Astronomy was probably the most interesting course I took in uni… and geology was the worst.

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