4.5 Things Cosmos Gets Wrong
    By Hank Campbell | March 13th 2014 02:13 PM | 21 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    In The Federalist Today, I have a piece titled Five Things Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” Gets Wrong

    So why do I say 4.5 in my title here? One of them is more of a style issue than an error. I could have made it a solid 5, by talking about the gaffe wherein space travel is portrayed as zipping around a minefield of asteroids - in reality you are even less likely to get hit by an asteroid in space than you are on Earth, space is that big - but if the asteroid error is of interest, Brian Koberlein at Universe Today devotes a whole article to it.

    I had already wondered why we were hearing sound in space and didn't want to carp on the space thing twice. I get that it's a spaceship of the imagination but if it's Neil's imagination, why isn't it more accurate? If it's my imagination, as I said, there will be no sound and Alessandra Ambrosio will be the captain. Sorry Neil.

    If you are willing to buy a multiverse, it is entirely plausible Alessandra Ambrosio is the captain of the ship traversing infinite worlds. Credit: Gossip Journal

    However, in the interest of gender equality, if you want Neil to be your imaginary captain and just want to have him as young as Alessandra Ambrosio when you both wonder how sound travels through space, here you go: 

    Brilliant, a terrific communicator and totally badass.  Link: Neogaf, which also has a pic of him looking like he could star in "Luke Cage: Hero For Hire."

    I have gotten some chiding for stating that global warming did not create the atmosphere on Venus. Well, that is accurate. CO2 did not cause the Greenhouse Effect, the proximity to the sun and weak gravity did. When water vapor rose and was exposed to radiation, the molecules got broken and their light hydrogen atoms had no gravity to keep them in the atmosphere so they left, meaning water could never form. Without liquid water to dissolve the CO2 from things like volcanoes - as it does on Earth - CO2 went crazy and boosted the heat even more. But the CO2 was the effect, not the cause.

    Five Things Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” Gets Wrong - The Federalist


    Linked to it on my Facebook. Already got comments. By all means, feel free to respond to the comments.
    "This page intentionally left blank." --Gödel
    The comments won't be kind. I am making fun of cartoony science-fiction and militant atheist historical revisionism. If I don't get death threats, that will be a victory. :)

    Thanks for linking to it!
    Will check my facebook on my way home for any new comments. won't be able to respond to any until tomorrow.
    "This page intentionally left blank." --Gödel
    I thought the first comment was accurate - nitpicky. In talking with the editor, I said there is no way to do a serious article with more than one item because it feels nitpicky. They wanted something on the show so they agreed instead to let me be funny when I wanted. I want more people to think about science and read here too. I gree most of those things did not really bother me, I get that it's a TV show. The Bruno thing was rubbish, that was the only real disconnect I had.
    If I had to go out of my way to find something nitpicky, it would be no sound in space. Most show/films use sound in space to carry the action, but Firefly managed to pull off no sound in space pretty well.
    "This page intentionally left blank." --Gödel
    Hank, have you been called a creationist yet for being so anti-science? :)

    I want to thank you for some soberness in your review, What these multiverse disciples seem to miss, is this; if an infinite multiverse exist then every conceivable god, from TFSM right to Jesus exist with absolute certainty. Multiverse theory makes ALL gods an absolute guarantee.....

    Yes, that is why I referred to it as a secular origin myth - it's myth, because there is nothing in the way of scientific evidence to support it, and it's secular because it sets out to sound science-y and non-theological but ends up being the exact same thing, without the Western-European-Looking-Renaissance-Jesus.
    I actually just started to read your article on the 5 things, but I didn't get past the first. You seem to be under some illusion that "the greenhouse effect' refers only to carbon dioxide. It doesn't. Any gas or atmospheric substance that retards the diffusion of heat back into space is manifesting the greenhouse effect.

    So yes, Venus is an example of a runaway greenhouse effect. Tyson is right. You are wrong.

    Is the rest of the article going to be this bad?

    Oh dear,,,,yes it was.
    You owe me ten minutes of my life...

    If you want to believe that a lack of gravity, proximity to the sun and solar radiation are the 'greenhouse effect' then anything is the greenhouse effect. You might as well call the greenhouse effect 'Smurf' and be done with it. 

    Obviously the piece is tongue-in-cheek and I certainly get that advocates are going to be enraged when their pet cause is included - the complaints about Venus and global warming are nothing compared to militant atheist rage that anyone dared to list the history of Bruno - but the way they used greenhouse effect for Venus was clearly meant to be a global warming warning shot.

    But that is a real problem if we want science acceptance. If everyone makes everything an implication for global warming, the public will start to believe none of it. And that is very bad for both science acceptance and policy.
    If "lack of gravity" and "proximity to the sun" Are the causes of Venus' high temperatures, then why is Venus hotter than Mercury? See, this is how it works: Mercury is closer to the sun AND has weaker gravity.

    Do you still not understand their use of "1 year" as a way of demonstrating the scale of time, or will you be writing a "3.5" article shortly? And when you figure out you're just being pedantic, will you retract the thing entirely?

    I understand it completely. To most people there is very little unclear about what the article both said and the point it was meant to make. I can probably explain it again but my assumption is the broad audience is like a science one, and they aren't so myopic as to need a lot of hand-holding about why confusing literal and figurative when it is convenient for a culture war is terrible for science and science outreach.
    Just read the comments section on The Federalist! Wow! And the crazy thing was, it wasn't the religious people who were raking you over the coals. Or rather, it was, but their religion wasn't Christianity, it was Global Warming. "How dare you suggest that GW wasn't the cause of Venus's atmosphere!"
    I stuck in a comment supporting you and plugging Science 2.0, but I'm sure it was lost in the noise. My theory is that many people only go to the Federalist because it leans conservative, politically, and that they didn't really read the article, but came prepared to heap disdain on anything posted on a conservative site.

    You may be onto something. I thought I hadn't read it before (it turns out I had, a month or two ago they had an article criticizing the willingness to embrace Bill Nye) so I didn't note any political skew then - and don't much care, if they want to read about science, more power to them, I want to write it.  

    Cosmos is on Fox so I am sure if the things you list had not been in the program people would have claimed Rubert Murdoch personally forced MacFarlane to remove it - it is the nature of humans to look for conspiracies.

    And it is the nature of people on the left and the right to auto-disdain and auto-embrace things they agree with - that is why Bill Nye gets a pass from the left. If Bill Nye were not saying the things they like, he would be vilified for his lack of credentials. One militant atheist site has declared repeatedly that I am unqualified to talk about Bruno because I lack a PhD in...what? Religious history? Atheist history? I have no idea, but I am sure I lack it unless I repent for my sin of undermining their poster child.
    I see that the social news site Fark picked up The Federalist article. If Futurama screen caps and rebuttals of 'Bro, do you even science?' were actual valid responses, it would be more interesting, but the only comment that merits mention is Venus once again. They say Tyson did not mean to imply a warning for Earth in his commentary on Venus - the planet he spends the most words on.

    Ummm, then why did his spaceship of the imagination do just that?  Mercury gets barely a mention but then we are told runaway greenhouse gases on Venus have turned it into "a kind of Hell" - what? More of a Hell than Mercury? Venus is the only one where the atmosphere is detailed at all, unless a hurricane on Jupiter is being blamed on the greenhouse effect. Advocacy is fine, but at least have accurate advocacy, otherwise people trust in science less.

    I liked his cosmic address bit overall, I think it was good for kids and, as I said, only the Bruno nonsense brings the show to a halt.  Yet the 'thought police' Tyson criticizes in the Bruno segment are out in force defending the show, and I bet he has no problem with that at all.
    Venus DOES have a greenhouse effect, though. If it weren't for the CO2, SO2, and H2O, it's surface temperature would be significantly lower. That is the definition of the greenhouse effect, not saying that it's equivalent to global warming. You seem to kind of realize that too by saying that then the "CO2 went crazy and boosted the heat even more". So yeah, the current CO2 concentration is the result of a prior atmospheric process, but it is definitely a contemporary greenhouse gas in Venus' atmosphere.

    Also, is the lower gravity really a major issue with Venus being stripped of its hypothesized original water? It's gravity shouldn't be that much weaker than Earth's, although maybe I'm neglecting how thick Venus' atmosphere is. It seems like the dissociation of water and the escape of the H2. molecules is the bigger issue, since Venus gets about twice the intensity of solar radiation compared to Earth and because it's water tended to remain in the atmosphere longer than water on Earth.

    I kind of cringed too when Tyson mentioned the multiverse (and it was visualized), but it seems like the show did deliberately try to avoid calling it a theory by having him say "many of us suspect".

    I actually watched a clip with the spaceship of the imagination again because I didn't notice the sound in space when I watched the episode last week, and was surprised by how much it stuck out to me now. I can't believe he let them get away with that.

    The episode last night was terrific. It's hard to believe Ann Druyan wrote them both, they were that far apart. 

    She is clearly best suited for proving contextual explanations and should avoid advocacy. I don't see how there could be a controversy about episode 2, it is the Cosmos we expect. 

    On Venus gravity, hydrogen is already light so a lack of gravity causes the water problem to go nuts. No water, CO2 goes crazy - but CO2 did not cause the atmosphere of Venus, Tyson knows it, anyone who knows high school atmospheric science knows it, Ann Druyan knows it. Others have said he was not using greenhouse effect as a metaphor for Earth global warming but I don't see how anyone can watch the cloying, ill-researched parts of episode 1 and not see what they were trying to do.

    But episode 2 is another animal. I think someone could just ignore episode 1 completely and miss nothing
    I don't think the hydrogen escape is that much related to Venus' lower gravity, though, compared to the more constant solar dissociation of the water and water vapor's long residence time in the atmosphere. Venus' surface gravity is about 90% of Earth's, and I realize that could compound over the course of 4.5 billion years, but I don't hear that as the main factor. Hydrogen is just super light and can easily escape from any celestial body. It escapes from Earth all the time too, and we're predicted to lose the rest of our water over the next billion years.

    All Tyson says is that Venus is "where a runaway greenhouse effect has created a sort of hell". You do seem to be describing a runaway greenhouse effect even if you recoil from that term being too close to global warming. I think if Tyson and Druyan wanted to say global warming, they would have. But even planetary scientists use "runaway greenhouse effect" to describe Venus' history. Once most of Venus' water was in the atmosphere, it stayed that way because water vapor is also a greenhouse gas (CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas, and Tyson didn't even specify the CO2 composition) and raised the temperature enough to prevent condensation into massive oceans that could have held on to the water longer.

    One thing I haven't seen much complaint on is the asteroid belt. Tyson seemed to be flying through that scene from Star Wars, not something in our Solar System. You would barely see other asteroids if you were already by one.

    I didn't like episode 2 as much. The description of the evolution of the eye seemed a bit like a just so story at times (the step showing the evolution of the lens seemed HUGE and it wasn't associated with an organism like most of the other steps were), until they talked about the variety of eyes among animals. But it seems like it would have been more straightforward to show the variety of eyes in the context of the tree of life. Maybe this is because I'm not as familiar with evolutionary biology. The visualization of DNA seemed a bit too "busy" at times, and like they kept changing schematic representations without explaining it. I get that DNA doesn't really look as pretty as it does in my old bio textbooks, but I was unsure of what was being represented at times. And the comparison of DNA sequences seemed a bit odd without a description of what base pairs are.

    I liked the description of Titan, but didn't like the idea of the ship of the imagination visiting a hydrothermal vent (or its analogue) there. To me it seemed like the show was saying the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan are as deep as Earth's oceans, and unless I'm really behind the times, I don't think we know the depth that much. And we definitely don't know if there are hydrothermal vents on Titan, and that visualization wasn't accompanied by Tyson saying we "suspect" or some other phrase that would give it less of a weight than a theory/fact like the multiverse visualization was.

    I fell asleep during the second Cosmos. I noticed that Dr. Tyson referred to the color of the Polar Bear fur (white) as being a product of natural selection. I thought that it had been established that their fur is actually transparent and hollow.


    Had I written another article criticizing the specifics of a Cosmos episode, I would certainly have been lynched. Despite his statement in the beginning of episode 1 that we are to question everything and that facts and evidence are paramount, his more ardent fans don't really agree with him on that one.

    The hollow core of their hair does make visible light scatter and thus look white. We should just be happy there was no cartoon of Einstein pants'ing Georges Lemaître and calling it science history.