Cosmos series lies

With 11 of 13 total episodes of Cosmos now having aired, the over-riding intent of the series is becoming more and more clear. The first few episodes bashed religion and promoted materialism, while of course advocating that life developed by a process of “unguided” or “mindless” evolution. (See https://larryemarshall.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/defining-intelligent-design/ ). Then, for a few episodes, the anti-religious rhetoric was toned down a little, and Cosmos focused more on simply presenting good, uncontroversial science. But that will obviously change as the series goes into its last episodes.

This past Sunday night’s episode pushed a naturalistic origin of life and the Copernican principle (the idea that Earth is insignificant in the cosmic scheme) — which is perhaps to be expected. But the episode got surprisingly ideological as well, promoting panspermia[i], the Gaia hypothesis[ii], and a propagandistic, Star Trek-like picture of the future. According to Cosmos, this last can only be achieved if we embrace an alarmist environmental vision. Our host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, compares skeptics of the current “consensus” on climate change to Nazis.

In the second episode of Cosmos, Tyson admitted, “Nobody knows how life got started.” In this episode he re-tackled this topic. Tyson again says “nobody knows” how life arose, yet all of the ideas he is willing to entertain are entirely naturalistic. Tyson states with authority: ‘Somehow, carbon-rich molecules began using energy to make copies of themselves.’ That’s right: the explanation is “somehow.”

After some passing references to Earth-based models of the origin of life (which of course omit any mention of intelligent design as a possibility), Tyson devotes two lengthy segments of the episode to panspermia — the idea that life arrived on Earth from space — and the existence of alien life.

There are a few people out there in the scientific community who agree with Tyson’s viewpoint. In his view, life arose somewhere in the galaxy, and then was passed from solar system to solar system via supernova explosions which eject microbe-carrying meteorites through vast regions of interstellar space. Eventually, he explains, due to the orbit of star systems around the galaxy, some of these chunks of life-bearing matter land on a planet, and life gets started in a new location.

But even in the questions that panspermia purports to answer — like how life spread from planet to planet, or star system to star system — the model has major problems. Panspermia must address (at least) the following three problems: (1) How could life survive ejection events, and impact events?, (2) How could life survive in the harsh environment of space?, and (3) What vehicle could successfully transport life to new planets or star systems?

Though Tyson heavily promotes panspermia, he acknowledges none of these objections. Instead, he triumphantly touts en experiment where bacteria that lived on a satellite that orbited the Earth for a few years were “still alive and kicking when they were brought back to Earth.” That’s interesting, but it’s a far cry from spending millions of years in interstellar space, unprotected from the harsh radiation outside our solar system.

After finishing his discussion of panspermia, Tyson then ramps up the ideology big time. He proposes that there are “thousands of planets of other stars” gifted with life, and due to our radio signals sent into space, “they could already know that we’re here.” In what comes next, he:

  • Shows factories spewing pollutants into the atmosphere, disaster zones, oil rigs apparently exploding in the ocean, and dead oil-covered birds.
  • Promotes a pseudo-socialistic view, claiming (wrongly) of our economic system that it assumes resources are “infinite,” and lamenting that it is “profit driven” and thus only focused on “short term gain.”
  • Alludes to the Gaia hypothesis, calling Earth a “tiny organism,” and later stating, “The planet is now a self-sustaining intercommunicating organism.”
  • Promotes the Copernican principle, envisioning a future where “we take the vision of the ‘pale blue dot’ to heart and learn how to share this tiny world with each other,” and naïvely assuming that wide acceptance of the notion would unite humanity, meanwhile ignoring the fact that in truth we live on a privileged planet.
  • Strongly promotes a form of environmental alarmism, pointing to the “scientific consensus that we’re destabilizing our climate,” and claiming that those who disagree with him are “in the grip of denial” and in a “kind of paralysis.”

Notice the irony. Tyson rejects the consensus on panspermia (while failing to disclose that fact). Yet he uses the “consensus” on global warming as a club to bully dissenters. After claiming that climate dissenters are “in the grip of denial,” Tyson says: “Being able to adapt our behavior to challenges is as good a definition of intelligence as I know.” So if you don’t agree with Tyson’s views about global warming and the policies that are necessary to fix it, then you’re either not intelligent, or you’re not using your intelligence. Instead, you’re in “denial.”

What happens next in Cosmos is thus both sickening and immensely hypocritical. Tyson shows scenes of crowds cheering for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. He says, “Human intelligence is imperfect, surely, and newly arisen. The ease with which it can be sweet-talked, overwhelmed, or subverted by other hard-wired tendencies sometimes themselves disguised as the light of reason is worrisome.” Again, the not-so-subtle message is that if you are a skeptic of what he calls the “scientific consensus that we’re destabilizing our climate,” then you are like a Nazi-follower, or perhaps a Holocaust denier.

There shouldn’t even be a debate over whether, in defending truth, it’s ever justified to lie. Yet over at H-Net, an international consortium of scholars and teachers interested in the humanities and social sciences, Darwin-defending historians of science are mulling whether it’s acceptable for the new Cosmos series “to lie” for a good cause — in this case, defending the authority of science.

In a post titled “We need to talk about Cosmos…,” historian of science Joseph Martin, who teaches at Colby College, refers to the falsehoods promoted by Cosmos about the history of science. Martin writes: “I’ve been watching with interest as the history of science community, particularly on Twitter, has reacted with consternation to the historical components of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot. To a large extent I agree with these criticisms. It is troubling that the forums in which the public gets the most exposure to history of science also tend to be those in which it is the least responsibly represented.

But part of me also wants to play devil’s advocate. First, Cosmos is a fantastic artifact of scientific myth making and as such provides a superb teaching tool when paired with more responsible historical presentations and perhaps some anthropological treatments of similar issues like Sharon Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes.

Second, I don’t know that we, as a community, have adequately made the case that the scholarly view of history we advance is, in fact, more useful for current cultural and political discourse than the naïve view scientists advance. One thing we often see in our research, and parallel work in philosophy of science, is that “right” is often not the same thing as “useful.” I’m interested in generating some discussion in why and how, if at all, we can make the case that “useful” and “right” are and should be the same thing in this case for reasons other than internal professional ones.”

Translation: First, he acknowledges that Cosmos has been legitimately criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of the history of science. But he wants to defend Cosmos, playing the “devil’s advocate.” Why? Because the “naïve view scientists advance” — that science is always good, and religion is always getting in the way — might be more “useful” when talking to the public, even if it isn’t “right.” But what does he mean by “useful”? And is he really suggesting it might be OK to lie in the service of defending the prestige of science?

In his next comment he writes: “I myself am still very much on the fence about this issue, but if I were tasked with mounting a defense of Cosmos as it stands, one of the things I’d say is that the stakes of scientific authority are very high right now, especially in the United States. Perhaps the greater truth here is that we do need to promote greater public trust in science if we are going to tackle some of the frankly quite terrifying challenges ahead and maybe a touch of taradiddle in that direction isn’t the worst thing.”

A “taradiddle” is a lie (“a statement known by its maker to be untrue and made in order to deceive”). So basically he’s saying it’s possibly OK for Cosmos “to lie” about the history of science if that helps “promote greater public trust in science.”

It’s a sickening idea that lies may be necessary to get people to trust an institution like science. How can we know “it” (i.e., the community that Tyson is purporting to speak for, and using falsehoods to do so, in Cosmos) deserves any of our trust in anything they say or write?


[i] The panspermia hypothesis states that the “seeds” of life exist all over the Universe and can be propagated through space from one location to another. Some believe that life on Earth may have originated through these “seeds”. Panspermia does not provide an explanation for evolution or attempt pinpoint the origin of life in the Universe, but it does attempt to solve the mysteries of the origin of life on Earth and the transfer of life throughout the Universe.

[ii] The Gaia hypothesis, proposes that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. Topics of interest include how the biosphere and the evolution of life forms affect the stability of global temperature, ocean salinity, oxygen in the atmosphere and other environmental variables that affect the habitability of Earth.