Cosmos and Culture War

I retain vivid and valued memories of watching the original Cosmos series when I was 5 years old.  I have one memory of my father picking me up in his giant hands and setting me next to him on the couch as the opening credits came up.  I blame this family experience for my life-long fascination with the depth of time and the origins of things.

I was, of course, not critical of the series, or even of the book, which I read in high school.  But I am now critical as I watch the new series.  I recognize this series as a weapon in the culture wars.  It directly attacks creationism, religious fundamentalism in general, and global warming denial.  The show also makes it pretty clear that scientists are the good guys and religious people are, at best naive, probably stupid, and, at worst, wicked.  Fine.  But the show is itself profoundly ideological.  There’s nothing neutral about it or about science in general.

The show is at its best when it uses the latest science to blow our minds about something.  The segments on the origins of dogs and the future collision of our galaxy with Andromeda are my favorites from the first three episodes.

The show is at its worst when it portrays the history of science or tries to explain the thinking of non- or pre-scientific peoples.  While they might use the latest astronomy or biology for the science segments, they fail to turn to the latest work of historians and sociologists for the history parts.  For that, they pretty much just make things up based on their own prejudices.

An example: They portray Copernicus as a radical who defied religious thinking.  Wrong.  He was profoundly conservative.  The reason he put the Sun at the center wasn’t because he was a radical and courageous visionary, but because he wanted to preserve the old, tottering order.  He believed, along with everyone else in the West, that God must have created the Cosmos using the divinely perfect form of the circle.  But astronomical observations had long shown inconsistencies.  People overcame these with epicycles – circles upon circles.  But, as the epicycles proliferated, the beauty of the simple circle was lost.  Copernicus found that if he placed the Sun at the center, then he could eliminate the epicycles and preserve the obvious truth of the divine circle in a divinely-created and sustained cosmos.  By the way, this is far from a cutting-edge view of Copernicus.  This is the view that historians of science came to recognize 60 years ago!

ImageThe show repeatedly state that people believe in non-scientific ideas out of fear and ignorance.  The show sometimes speaks of these people in a condescending way, suggesting that these poor ignorant people had no choice about their inferior thinking.  At other times, they’re portrayed as deliberately wicked people fighting against the truth in order to hold on to their own power.  There are people out there who study the sociology of knowledge and science.  They spend their careers trying to understand why people believe the things they do.  They long ago demolished the idea that people believe scientific claims because they’re true, or at least derived through superior methods, and that people believe other sorts of knowledge out of fear, ignorance, or whatever.  People come to believe all types of knowledge, including scientific knowledge, for the same broad range of reasons.

Misrepresenting Copernicus’s motivations serves the ideological interests of scientists.  By portraying him as a revolutionary, they claim him as their predecessor and hero in a fight against ignorance and dangerous superstition.  Scientists and rational people, we are told, are willing to question anything.  I dare Tyson to ask on Cosmos whether or not there are biological differences that explain the dominance of engineering by men.  Larry Summers ended up resigning as president of Harvard and lost his bid for Treasury Secretary partly as a result of controversy over him raising this very question, despite the fact that he actually wants to increase the number of women in engineering.  So it seems that we still have our own forbidden, career-destroying questions.  It’s just that now our sins and heresies have been secularized.

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2 Responses to Cosmos and Culture War

  1. stim says:

    Copernicus was revolutionary because he attempted a rigorous mathematical approach to prove a heliocentric universe. He didn’t eliminate epicycles. Kepler’s mathematical proof of planets’ elliptical orbits eliminated epicycles.

    Regarding your penultimate paragraph, I think Cosmos and Tyson are pretty straightforward in expressing, in essence: Just because he/she believes something to be true that doesn’t mean it is true.

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    • jonsonmiller says:

      Thanks for responding.

      Cosmos said it was the heliocentrism itself that was revolutionary. You’re right that Copernicus’s work didn’t – at least in the end – eliminate the need for epicycles. But it took decades of more data collection and argument to create a consensus about whether or not whether or not that was so. Regardless, it was the problem he was responding to.

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