Cosmos and the Lack of Politics

CosmosBecause 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.

5 thoughts on “Cosmos and the Lack of Politics

  1. I’ve defended the show before and will again here. First/foremost; it’s largely meant for kids. It tries to make science seem cool to kids, and I can’t fault that. Given that most programming aimed at kids makes the only cool adult profession out as being an Auto-Tune pop sensation, I’m happy something like “Cosmos” exists.

    The culture is much more fractured among fundamentalist/non-fundamentalist lines than it was when Sagan did the original series. So the writers (the same writers as the original version) had to be a lot more cautious. An expensive science series on PBS overtly about global warming and how fundamentalist ignorance threatens us all would lose PBS half its funding, if not get the network killed.

    Let’s imagine (“come with me and imagine”) that the show had been more hard-hitting and aired on HBO. Who would watch it? Mostly people who already know or suspect that global warming is a real problem. This version is attempting to back-door its way into the homes of people who don’t think about it much. Was that a better choice, a more effective choice, than trying to really scare/motivate the people already leaning to our side? I can’t say. I don’t fault the choice. Good is better than nothing.

    If kids tuned in for the often-cheesy CGI graphics and animation, they saw some good stuff. The depiction of oppressed people making a name for themselves science was terrific. Annie Cannon, Faraday, Tyson himself. The episode about Clair Patterson, by far my favorite, fit in the age of the Earth (a fundamentalist no-no), how government regulation can save lives, the pressures on scientists receiving corporate funding, and how industry uses false science to create confusion and doubt about its toxic effects. That’s a hell of a lot in 40-odd minutes of a kids’ show! (The messages in that episode were actually more relevant to current events than those in the episode specifically about global warming. Not Kennedy’s moon speech again, please!)

    It is a shame that the far right has shifted our dialogue so far, and a big-budget program with such an ingratiating host and talented writers has to be so timid compared to its predecessor. Is the new “Cosmos” a bad thing, then? No way!

    I was listening to a sports podcast yesterday, about a crummy baseball team. (OK, the Twins.) The people on the podcast made a very good point about trying to get better. It’s unproductive for a crummy baseball team to think, “well, signing this player or that player won’t get us back into contention, so why waste the money?” You don’t go from terrible to the World Series in one season. You go from terrible to mediocre, from mediocre to above average, and so on.

    Fundamentalist propaganda has been beating us down for so long that we wish for that World Series jump, but it doesn’t work that way. We have to, step-by-step, shift the national consensus on faith-based politics. Remember how we got here. Twenty years ago, no serious politician would propose a personhood status for unborn fetuses, and people like Newt Gingrich were publicly against global warming. Fundamentalists shifted the dialogue through poke after tiny poke at rationality (can I say “millions and millions” of tiny pokes?)

    Now, this doesn’t apply to things like economic policy, where the Democrats are way behind what people support in polls. There, we should be advocating much more defiantly liberal government than we can get, just to move the middle in our favor. You’re written about that.

    I think it does apply to reducing fundamentalism. The numbers of people who believe the Bible is a historical document, who don’t believe in evolution, those polls are insanely high.

    You’ve written well about how we should deal with Islamic fundamentalism. We sure as hell don’t bomb or demonize any/all Muslims; that makes fundamentalists stronger. The same goes for Christian fundamentalism. Our mainstream media approach has to be gentle and persuasive. We can still be angry as hell on private blogs and on niche cable programs and the like; we have to keep our side fired up. When we’re trying to sway fundamentalists back from gazing into the abyss, we should probably approach with caution. I think that’s what the writers of the new “Cosmos” were shooting for, besides making science seem cool to kids, and I think they used a valid approach.

    That’s my take! It may be horribly wrong, which would be naturally an all-time first for me . . .

    • I didn’t mean to be that negative. If I were a stars kind of guy, I would give the original series 5 stars and this one 4. I’m just focusing on some problems I have here and not trying to do a review. I might do that at some point.

      I don’t think the society is any more fundamentalist now. I think it is just that in the past, we dismissed those people as beneath consideration. And let’s face it: they weren’t watching the show regardless. Well, a few were so they could get into flame wars on Twitter. But that’s it.

      I certainly think HBO would have been a mistake. The original show was on PBS and this one should have been too. Was that impossible because we don’t fund the network properly? Maybe so. Also: there is no companion book for the show. That’s a major mistake from my perspective.

      You are right about the lead episode. I liked that one two. But I kept waiting for, “And this is exactly what corporate America did about cigarette smoking and global warming!” But I guess I’m asking for too much. It is kind of like the Democratic Party constantly trying to meet the Republicans half way. It doesn’t work. If you’ve watched Flock of Dodos, the part that comes off best for most viewers is the end where one of the scientists totally dismisses the ID folks and says something like, “Look, these people are disingenuous and they are destroying my culture.” People respond to that because they respond to honesty. The fundamentalist crowd is not going to let their children watch Cosmos simply because it takes evolution as a fact. I suspect the show is going light on other issues because it is afraid of upsetting the corporations — not the religious freaks.

      “You don’t go from terrible to the World Series in one season.” Unless you are the Mets! But I’ve written about this stupid idea that people have (especially in sports) that they can will themselves to win. It just isn’t true. And you are right to relate it to religious belief. It is the same kind of stupidity.

      I think there is a distinction between bombing people and not allowing their beliefs to poison public discussions. We allow Nazis to march in the street — as we should! But no mainstream broadcaster treats Nazism with anything but contempt. Wolf Blitzer asked a tornado survivor if she thanked God for her survival. The woman politely told him that she was an atheist. But Blitzer would never say, “You gotta thank your belief in Hitler for your survival, right?”

      But again, my problem with Cosmos is not that it doesn’t poke at the religious — I think it does that very well. It’s poking at the power elite where it falls down.

      • I over-defended this show; it appealed to my childhood love of science. (A love squashed out by a hyper-competitive prep-school education.) It made me read some new science books, visit science labs. I love going back to stuff you enjoyed in childhood and re-remembering why you enjoyed it.

        You’re right on all of the show’s faults, which are probably due to the funding. I won’t blame Tyson or the writers who wrote the original until I have to. I want to like them. I’m easily snookered.

        Side note; the whole “God saved me from the tornado” thing has always bugged me to no end. So what about the people God didn’t save? Does God hate them? “I had a feeling I shouldn’t get on the plane that day.” I have a feeling I shouldn’t do anything on every day. (And then sometimes I stay at home and type too much.)

        No doubt people who say these things are trying to be humble and attribute their survival to forces beyond their control instead of their innate calamity-reaction skills. It does bug me how those statements come off to people whose loved ones didn’t survive. “God saved our family from the bridge collapse” is actually a horribly cruel thing to say, even though the people saying it don’t mean it that way . . .

        • We might be going in different directions now! I showed the global warming episode to my father last night and I was surprised at how affected he was by it. And I will admit that Tyson doesn’t pull any punches. He is as forthright about global warming as he is about evolution.

          I think you’ve got the “God saved me!” thing right. It isn’t as vile as the Christian prosperity cults (Believe and God will make you rich!) but it is the same thing. I think religion can appeal to the rich in the same way that libertarianism does: it tells them that they are better than others and more deserving. The fact that people get this from a reading of the Gospels is truly amazing.

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