Because my sister knows me well, she bought me the new Cosmos on DVD for Christmas. I had seen much of it before, but I’m glad to have it. For one thing, it has allowed me to share it with my father who likes such things. But I have to admit that it bothers for a few reasons. The most minor of these is simply that I’m an old curmudgeon. I know far too much science and I bristle at every statement that isn’t quite right. I found that to be especially true in the fifth episode because it dealt with relativity and that’s a subject that people seem to be unable to discuss with any degree of clarity. And then there was some mixing up of special relativity and general relativity and I was fit to be tied. But that really is minor.
What most bothers me about it is the politics of it. The first several episode were filled with scientific hubris. This is an issue that causes me no end of problems in my relationships with fellow atheists. It’s kind of weird. The scientific process is an amazingly powerful thing that I greatly admire. But there is a tendency among people to think that it is the end all of knowledge. And it just isn’t. It is the ultimate in the old joke about the drunk guy looking for his keys under the lamp even though he dropped the keys in a different location, “The light is better here!” Science is a great way to answer certain kinds of questions. But there are questions that science just can’t parse. So those questions are just avoided or defined as non-questions.
So it is great that we have science around to pound away at our knowledge. But it is generally not the case that what we want for is a scientific approach to solving problems. In the 13th century, for example, the Dominican Theodoric of Freiberg managed to figure out the rainbow. The biggest problem is not how we will go about answering questions. The biggest problem is that it doesn’t even occur to us that questions ought to be answered. To me, the best example of this today is found in the field of economics. It seems like a science. The same process is used with data and models and all that. But fundamental questions are simply not acceptable. Where in the world of mainstream economics are there people asking how property — a commonly held resource — can be privately owned? That’s just an illegitimate question. The best we get is an analysis of income inequality, which the profession has denied to generations and now shoves aside with various arguments — most notably with the idea that inequality is great because we have iPhones.
And this gets to my primary problem with Cosmos. The takeaway from the original series really wasn’t scientific. Rather, it was that science is a powerful means of understanding the universe and so it must be used to counter bad ideas in the lives of humans. In particular, Carl Sagan was interested in nuclear arms. But what is the new series interested in? Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the big fight now is just against ignorant theists who want to teach Creationism in science classes. But I think it is a major mistake to even step down to that level. So what great policy is Tyson willing to tackle? Nothing really. He doesn’t say much more about global warming than Carl Sagan said three and half decades earlier.
Add to this the fact that the producers of the series made the terrible decision to put the show on commercial television. The original series provided a whole hour to deal with a subject. But here, the narrative is interrupted every ten minutes for everyone to be reminded what really matters: commerce. And that’s what I mean about the questions we don’t ask. Is science a common good that should be shared with all of humanity? Or is it just a way of delivering eyeballs for commercials about soft drinks and erectile dysfunction medications? I think the former, but our society clearly thinks the latter. Sadly, the new Cosmos does not have an opinion on such matters. That means that the producers of the series are doing just what those who ran the Library of Alexandria did: nothing. And Carl Sagan pointed out the problem with this kind of disinterested science in the original Cosmos.