In Five Things Neil deGrasseTyson’s “Cosmos” Gets Wrong at The Federalist and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey -The Review on Science 2.0, I gave the creators a bit of a pass on the personal philosophy and the science errors and primarily focused on one big intentional sleight of hand - transforming Bruno into an important figure in the history of cosmology.
The good news is, the second episode is much better, so much better you would miss nothing except some irritation if you skipped the first entirely. Episode 2 of Cosmos is the program we wanted all along, but in America of 2014 it may not be enough to satisfy everyone who wants it to be what the original was in 1980.
Maybe we need to give Cosmos a break and not expect it to solve all of our subjective science issues. It isn't going to get rid of religion for anyone, nor is it going to cure people who are against vaccines and GMOs and natural gas.
Because it's just a television show, just like it was in 1980. Not only did Carl Sagan's original Cosmos and its Cold War overtones not revolutionize America, that same year America threw out a sitting president and elected a man Democrats insisted was going to cause the nuclear winter Sagan worried about- Ronald Reagan.
That's not to criticize Sagan's concern, people had good reason to worry about nuclear weapons. Obviously the possibility of nuclear war was very real when Cosmos entered the cultural picture so criticizing Sagan for including nuclear winter in his program now is like criticizing banks for fixing all of the COBOL programs before the year 2000 "Y2K" scare. Both miss the point that those things never happened because everyone was worried about them.
Network executives knew they were taking a real chance on rebooting Cosmos.They recognize that, like science itself, the science programming marketplace is much different now than in 1980, when there were three major networks and PBS. Fox, the network that is giving Cosmos a prime time slot in 2014, did not even exist when the original aired.
1980 might as well be 15,000 years ago. Credit and link: Fox Network.
Because it was on PBS, expectations for the original were low. But the new Cosmos has to not only compete in a modern cultural landscape, it has to be compared to the old Cosmos, not as it was expected to be, but what it became. Sagan was primarily known only to astronomers prior to the show but afterward he was a cultural phenomenon. Like Humphrey Bogart with "Play it again, Sam" Sagan even became famous for something he never said during the show; every kid and a lot of adults would try to say "billions and billions" in reverent imitation of him.
Those are big shoes to fill.
And people are not being shy about what they need it to be, including some of the show's producers. Despite it being just a television show, today's Cosmos is being called on to cure all of our science woes. Family Guy creator and Cosmos producer Seth MacFarlane insists that America is becoming a backwater nation due to religion and he wants the show to cure that. Others in media hope Cosmos and its efforts to make science hip might save science from anti-science beliefs of all kinds. Yes, some religious people might not accept evolution but Gaea-worshiping types have their own head-scratcher notions about vaccines, GMOs and nuclear power too.
Prior to the first episode, President Obama even tasked the show with keeping America at the forefront of science and technology leadership.
Talk about pressure! Is it fair to expect so much from a TV show? The Cosmos premiere was number three in its time slot, they gave it a marketing blitz, 10 channels and a "Family Guy" lead-in. For a science show,which won't have naked people thrown without food or water into a jungle, that is a darn good audience. Yet there are complaints that it is a failure.
Maybe we need to stop telling Cosmos what it should be and just let it be what it is. Audra Wolfe in The Atlantic and others have an interesting hypothesis;it might be like "Schoolhouse Rock" or anything else that had its moment. The culture may have passed it by.
If it requires the same culture that elected Reagan to make Cosmos a hit, the show is in trouble. Those days are long gone.
Reagan was the biggest proponent of basic research in presidential history. Reagan saw the benefits of science more than its perils, as did most of the people who voted him into office. The government boost in, and gradual dominance over, academic science happened directly as a result of the Cold War and Reagan.
Today, far fewer people trust the government than in 1980 - along with the research it produces. Critics of medicine say the FDA approves drugs too slowly to keep old products profitable while other critics say they approve drugs too quickly and risk us all. Government scientists who found no environmental issues with Keystone XL have been vilified for being pawns of Big Oil while a giant swath of the public thinks climate science is a government-mandated Greenpeace conspiracy. Cui bono? means 'for whose benefit?' and it is the first line of attack against science today - "follow the money."
And that carries over into all culture. Can we trust the science of Cosmos because it's on Fox? Host Neil Tyson said he didn't trust Fox yet Fox viewers know it is silly to imply the entire network has no credibility just because someone didn't like a segment on Fox News. MSNBC viewers don't condemn Microsoft and NBC for every crazy thing Chris Matthews says and yet they are surprised that Fox would underwrite Cosmos at all. Those beliefs are not evidence-based, it's simply part of who we are today. We expect networks to be left or right, we expect everyone in science and outside it to be bought and paid for - if we don't agree with their science, anyway.
Maybe Reagan and Cosmos were both products of Cold War culture and we can never really go back. In episode 1, everything from mimicking the Monterey Beach scene to the massaged science history to the quasi-philosophical science beliefs made Cosmos seem more desperate to bring back the Reagan era than Republicans are. Episode two was meatier but it suffered a 10 percent drop in key adult viewers, likely due to backlash over the first week.
Science and culture are inescapably intertwined today, that is no secret. Why would a president cancel a space program (Constellation) simply because it had his predecessor's name on it? Why would anyone think pollution in huge quantities is good for plants while TIME magazine goes the other way and claims that pollution in Beijing is what nuclear winter would be like? Are we over-medicated or are we stalling life-saving drugs with needless paperwork and delays? Why does anyone protest natural gas when it has caused greenhouse gas emissions from energy production to plummet back to early 1990s levels?
Those are complex topics. Cosmos shouldn't be expected to have an answer for them or all of the other issues people want it to solve. It can't. It's just a television show.
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