I missed the big Carl Sagan thing when it happened. I was in high school when Cosmos came out, we lived in the country and if you wanted to watch a different television network, you had to go up into the attic and turn a giant antenna with a pipe wrench. Sports and girls and D&D were more of a priority than television.
Yet even though I didn't watch it when it came out, shortly afterward I could still tell you who said "billions and billions" with that special emphasis. That and riffs on "Who Shot J.R.?" were big that year.
The 1980s became something of a golden age for popular scientific literacy and I credit Cosmos for a lot of it. Science was cool. Nova was a hit, Cosmos was a hit, Stephen Hawking had a bestseller and seemingly all you had to do to launch a successful science magazine was gather the money to do a first printing. Science had the perception of being non-partisan and for the public good - President Ronald Reagan gushed about basic research, it was one of few things he believed taxpayer money should be spent on. Today, American adults lead the world in science literacy and Cosmos has to get credit for a lot of that foundation.
Yet since then a whole lot of 'science' programming has lost its way; it's a lot of Shroud of Turin and shark tales or 'isn't this weird' stuff.
So I was as excited as anyone when it was announced that Dr. Neil Tyson was doing an updated version of Cosmos, called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. It needed an update and modern culture needs a new Carl Sagan. If you have ever seen him do a presentation at Hayden Planetarium, you know Tyson is magical in his element. With apologies to Sagan fans, Tyson is just plain better when it comes to talking about space, an assertion that even Tyson will dispute given his obvious affection for Sagan.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, March 9th, 2014.
Yet outsiders who judge him on the episode of Cosmos I got may not feel that way. Let me explain.
I did not get the whole series, they sent me a screener with one episode, "Standing Up In The Milky Way", but these are smart companies and we have to expect they are putting their best foot forward and sending out what they think will appeal to the broad audience.
If that is so, they think the audience likes scary, factually incorrect cartoons about religion burning scientists alive. I was excited to watch the show with my kids - the kids and I watch all the programming people send me unless it is clearly goofy, like one of those UFO things - but we ended up not finishing it together.
It starts out well. Tyson tells us we are going to explore the very large and the very small and then he flies us through space, a lot like he does in his brilliant Hayden Planetarium show. We get rogue planets, distant suns and 100,000 light years of context in just a few minutes.
Then suddenly we get a claim that Giordano Bruno is responsible for the concept of the universe - because he read 'banned' books. Lucretious wasn't science - there was no scientific evidence for his claim that wind caused earthquakes or worms spontaneously generated - it was philosophy, and his book was not rare in 1600 AD, people were also not martyred for reading it, and yet we get told a philosophical belief in infinity was what got Bruno into trouble.
It's an immediate disconnect for people who know science history because it smacks of an agenda. I instead object because it is flat-out incorrect. To claim that Bruno promoted the concept of the universe, a "soaring vision", despite persecution, while simultaneously being hired over and over by the institutions we are told were oppressing him, makes no sense. That segment of the show makes it sound like he was a devout Christian tormented by reason rather than what he was - a cultist who engaged in confirmation bias to pick and choose anything that matched his beliefs.(1)
Bruno's "science" was never mentioned during his trial, he was on trial for being a cult worshiper. He only took up the cause of Copernicus because he believed in the Egyptian god Thoth and Hermetism and their belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not because he had perceived anything radical. Galileo rightly dismissed most of Bruno's teachings as philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Bruno was only revived as a 'scientist' and a martyr for science by anti-religious humanists in the 19th century.The church didn't even bother to ban his writing until well after he was dead.
Bruno was not a martyr for science, the way the cartoon in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey alleges, he was a martyr for magic. He actually was a heretic. Sorry, but 400 years ago when you repeatedly lecture about what was regarded as a cult and insist Catholics and Protestants need to accept Hermetism as fact, you are getting into trouble. He also taught that demons caused diseases. No matter how little you may know about the 16th century, you know they were not teaching that demons cause diseases.
Martyr for science? Hardly. Yet the same skeptics who deride psychics have painted a history where he did not believe in magic more than science. Credit and link: Philosopedia.org
Roman Catholics gave him 10 years to back off from his claim that his alternate religion was empirical fact they needed to accept. Hardly a sign of rushing to judgment or pop culture beliefs about religion of the time. He instead wanted to be a poster child for the Inquisition. He was clearly mentally ill.
It sets an unfortunate tone that they slipped revisionist history in with science - it is the story of Bruno as if it were written by a blogger on some "free thought" site. Are humanists and atheists the key market for this program? That wasn't the case for Sagan.
And I know that isn't the case for Tyson either. Walk up to Tyson and call him a Skeptic and he will quickly assure you he is not part of any organized skeptic movement. He goes where reason takes him and, like Sagan, he can probably defend the value of a liturgical society and then he will be critical when religion deserves to be criticized.
Sagan succeeded because he communicated science without tearing other people down. Tyson does also but in the episode provided to me, the Bruno story came across as more of a program Richard Dawkins would have hosted than Carl Sagan. And that's too bad, because Tyson is not divisive like that.
Maybe we can blame producer Seth MacFarlane. "Family Guy" is a hilarious show but it isn't for everyone. When the religious cartoon with the demonic faces came on persecuting Bruno I just shut it off and watched the rest by myself later. It's bad to give my kids flawed history of science, it's even worse to traumatize them.
But if lots of people do that, young people may be missing out on some of the wonder that Tyson can bring them.
(1) In fairness, Tyson had a precedent in getting history wrong to tell a better story. Carl Sagan did the same thing with Hypatia of Alexandria in the original Cosmos. He claimed Hypatia was a martyr for science and that superstitious religious people burned down the Library of Alexandria due to her. There was almost nothing correct in that claim; the library had been gone for hundreds of years, it was a 'pagan' temple at the time. And his narrative ignored the political reality of the day; the pagans had also desecrated Christian buildings and there was a cold war happening between the government and the bishop. Hypatia was a neo-Platonic philosopher, not a scientist, and her classes were made up of Christians so they clearly did not dislike her en masse.