I finally got around to watching the new Cosmos tonight. Gotta say, I was fully prepared to hate it. Ever since I started seeing this Neil Tyson guy popping up on the Internets I’ve been pretty skeptical about him. Usually, I’d see his face attached to some meme-y blurb on a pimply atheist’s Facebook wall, passive aggressively mocking religious people, the denizens of the flyover states, all the semi-educated unwashed masses who either legitimately don’t understand science or else willfully reject it. You know, the same kind of meme swarms that often feature Bill Nye and seem to be peripherally attached to George Takei’s Facebook empire. Usually the messages are really snarky and one suspects they either a) weren’t actually said by the people to whom they’re being attributed or b) have been taken grossly out of context for the purpose of gratuitous Dawkins-esque trolling.
I find all these aggressively atheistic Facebook trolls really objectionable, if for no other reason than they make me want to defend the gods-damned Christers. And, perhaps through no fault of their own, Neil Tyson and Bill Nye have gotten turgled into the part of my brain reserved for these kind of guys.
Now, I absolutely adored Carl Sagan when I was a kid. Who amongst us over 30 can say the word “billions” without aping Dr. Sagan’s instantly recognizable voice? Lots of things contributed to my decision to be a scientist, but Sagan’s PBS specials, his books, and just knowing that guys like him were out there figuring things out had a lot to do it. (Full disclosure, so did giant Japanese robots and time-traveling dinosaurs.)
So it should come as no surprise that I was gritting my teeth about watching a remake of Sagan’s most famous product hosted by what I had come to think of as a deity worshipped by slithering hordes of Facebook Grid Bugs. I mean, don’t even get me started on remakes. You’re starting with one foot in the grave already these days when you use a loved title from my childhood and try to spiff it up for 21st century sensibilities. But Cosmos? You’re seriously treading on sacred ground there.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. First, prior to watching, I finally got around to Googling Tyson. Unlike Bill Nye, Tyson is a bonafide scientist, who apparently continues to contribute to original research. His most recent paper, “The faint-end slopes of galaxy luminosity functions in the cosmos field”, was published in 2008. While not stellar, his publication record is respectable, especially considering the huge amount of outreach and popular press writing he’s done.
That settled some of my concerns about “Who anointed this guy the new Carl Sagan?” At least he’s a real scientist and not just some dude people recognize from TV.
The show, then: it was good. Certainly managed to convey the scope and grandeur of the Universe, and of the Great Work of the scientist. The special effects were a lot better than they were in the 80’s. The addition of animated sequences was really fun, and is certain to catch the attention of younger kids (who really ought to be the target audience). There was one great animated bit where the persecuted thinker Giordano Bruno is set free from his prison cell into the infinite universe of his imagination; unfortunately just before he’s tortured and killed by a gang of Christian death-dealers that make Mel Gibson’s Pharisees look like an even-handed depiction of Jewish politics in Roman Palestine.
And I have to keep on about the depiction of religion. I’m all about Christian-bashing. Hell, I pray to Odin and listen to music by loony astro-Nazis who burn churches. But Cosmos, gods love ’em, got it wrong, and they got it wrong in a seriously bad way that is becoming too common amongst scientists. The case study of Bruno as a scientific martyr was just as historically cartoony as was Bruno’s depiction; here’s a good accounting of the real problem the Church had with Bruno, who was apparently a pretty recalcitrant firebrand and theological revisionist, sort of a medieval Alex Jones. Yeah, they burned his ass at the stake, but it wasn’t because they were suppressing the “truth,” it was because they were suppressing dissent. They also burned people for all sorts of things that the Dawkins crew would mock as absurd — for instance, “witches” were blamed and executed for the 14th-15th century cooling event known as the Little Ice Age.
Which brings me to my real problem with Cosmos’ depiction of religion. Like Dawkins and his trolls, it flattens religion and conflates gnostic experience with political appropriations of religious ideology, for instance as embodied in the Catholic Church. Religion arises in the confrontation of human consciousness in its most private moments with the ineffable — not the unknown, but the unknowable. It isn’t something that can be easily shared, or universalized. Despite the inherently personal nature of religion, cult symbols often have been used by political groups in their attempts to enforce dominion, and therefore many people have come to associate the symbols and trappings of particular religions with the hated tyrants who wielded them.
But for scientists to take this attitude about religion — extrapolating from the political persecution of dissidents by the hegemonic Church to the classification of religious experience as a reprobate anachronism — invites two great mistakes. First, by focusing mistrust on the religious boogeyman, it distracts from the real enemy — political ideology and the manipulation of belief to control people. There is no important difference between what the Church did to Bruno and what the atheist Soviets did to Solzhenitsyn. Second, by attacking the straw man of the political Church, scientists miss the fact that most of us are drawn to our work by desires almost, if not exactly, identical to the desires that drive the deeply religious. Briefly, if your study of science has never led you to gaze bleary-eyed and speechless into the sublime depths of the cosmos, then you aren’t doing it right (consider a career in engineering).
I can overlook this shortcoming. I’m sure I’ll keep watching the show, and it certainly was a lot better than I was expecting. But I long for the day when scientists realize that threats to our profession come from everywhere — all sorts of political ideology are, by their very nature, inimicable to the pursuit of truth. Leftist fantasies are just as much a problem as Christian dogma, and we shouldn’t let the fact that the leftist hand is more free with grant money cloud our judgment on this issue.