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

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

Science is cool. Should we care if it's accurate?
Hank Campbell
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If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. – Dr. Carl Sagan

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, is a sequel to the PBS program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted by Dr. Carl Sagan in 1980. Unlike the PBS version, this has big names behind it: Seth MacFarlane, creator of successful comedy programs like “The Family Guy”, Brannon Braga, producer and writer for “Star Trek”, and astronomer Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is far more famous as a science personality than Sagan was when he hosted the original Cosmos. They are all backed by a Fox network budget rather than a PBS one, and that network is giving it a primetime slot and an aggressive marketing campaign.

The stage is set to put television science – not that Ghost Labs pseudoscience  stuff – back on the cultural map. You don’t get the host of a science show in a GQ photoshoot unless expectations are high.

But how accurate is the science? Does it matter? Isn’t science, like pizza, still pretty good even if it’s bad, in a way that companies feel all publicity is good publicity?

No, flawed science is flawed science and Sagan wanted to hear valid criticism, just as Tyson does now. Tyson knows valid criticism either forces him to hone his argument or it reaffirms his position. “Other things being equal, it is better to be smart than to be stupid,” Sagan wrote in his famous Cosmos book, and Tyson will happily concede if you show him to be wrong about something.

Tyson, like Sagan, believes that the mindset needed for a healthy science understanding is the same mindset needed for a healthy democracy – don’t just accept what authority tells you, as intellectual and moral docility is suicidal. So we won’t. They had three years to write this, after all.

In the spirit of Sagan, here are four things the new Cosmos gets wrong, plus one more thing that is a bit of a style problem.

1. Venus Was Not Caused By Global Warming

Tyson assures us right away that we are to “question everything” so we have to ask why he thinks Venus is the way it is due to the greenhouse effect — which is another way of saying global warming. Venus is almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit and the clouds are sulfuric acid. Even the most aggressive climate change models and their 20-foot ocean rises don’t predict that for Earth, no matter how many Chevy Volts we don’t buy.

We can allow that catchy buzzwords make something timely and that they are a snapshot of the culture of the period. James Cameron used the term “shock and awe” in the futuristic “Avatar” film not because he actually believes solders will be using that term when we invade other planets, but because he was selling an anti-military message to viewers at a time when George Bush was president. If this sequel to Cosmos had been made in 1989 the screenwriters of Cosmos would have invoked acid rain on Venus instead of global warming. Regardless, CO2 did not cause the poisonous conditions on Venus; instead, CO2 is an effect of the poisonous conditions on Venus. Invoking the greenhouse effect when talking about Venus is like blaming ocean liners for inventing barnacles.

If you watch the original program now you have to wonder what ever happened to that nuclear winter, too.

2. The Multiverse Is Not Science

Any time a scientist begins a sentence with “Many of us suspect,” it is codespeak for “we sit around and discuss it at the bar.”

There’s nothing wrong with that. Should you get the chance to join them at that bar, please avail yourself of the opportunity, because there are few occupations where the participants are as funny and engaging as scientists. But “many of us suspect” is a logical fallacy, an appeal to authority, and that makes for terrible science, as Sagan noted often.

Why not just let that go as artistic license? When Carl Sagan was filming the original Cosmos program, physicists Alan Guth and Andrei Linde had not even come up with “inflation” for the Big Bang that Tyson mentions casually. Thus, it would not have made it into the original Cosmos as fact. Too much speculation makes the audience wonder if scientists are going to be trusted guides or another version of Dr. Oz and his Miracle Vegetable of the week. Science doesn’t need to toss in speculation to be interesting, because what we know and therefore don’t know is fascinating enough. The audience does not need talk about 5, 6 or 11 dimensions, or a multiverse, to find science intriguing. There are trillions of stars all sending stuff toward us at the speed of light and yet the sky is not a solid sheet of white. Some people believe that advanced alien civilizations travel all of this way just to leave crop circles while others believe we are alone. Those are all great topics. Sagan indulged in plenty of personal philosophy, of course, but he was making A Personal Voyage. For Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey we should expect physics.

The multiverse is not science. It is more like an anthropic secular alternative to a divine origin. It’s not science because it can’t be proved or disproved — it’s just postmodernism with some math. And it’s invoked shortly after the introduction where Tyson tells us to test everything.

An anthropic focus for the laws of nature is not new, and it was not even new in 1973 when Cambridge physicist Brandon Carter postulated it at a conference to celebrate the Polish astronomer Copernicus, who said the Earth was not the center of the universe in the 16th century. In fact, anthropic beliefs are quite old, and it was Copernicus who really began to undo them, though he did not realize it at the time. Ironically, by invoking the multiverse Tyson harkens us back to a time when the anthropic principle was rampant and disputing it was heresy, just before the telescope changed everything. Tyson believes in the multiverse with the same lack of evidence religious authorities had in favor of an Earth-centric universe in 17th-century Italy.

3. There Is No Sound In Space

To go on this journey, we need to be “free from the shackles of space and time”, Tyson tells us. And apparently all of the other laws of physics. Why can we hear his spaceship when he is exploring the cosmos? Yes, it is a “spaceship of the imagination,” but I would hope Tyson’s imagination is more scientifically accurate than that of a teenager playing “Mass Effect.” If it’s instead my imaginary spaceship, there is no sound in space and (sorry Neil) the captain is Alessandra Ambrosia. Perhaps the “Star Trek” producer convinced them to put the sound in. If I am watching the original “Star Trek” episodes and the song and that spaceship whooshing sound are not in the opening credits, you can be certain I am writing a letter to Congress, but in a 2014 program it stands out as an error.

And that brings us to the fourth, and largest, error in Cosmos.

4. Giordano Bruno Was Not More Important To Science Than Kepler And Galileo

According to Cosmos, at the dawn of the age of astronomy there was “only one man on the whole planet who envisioned an infinitely grander cosmos, and how was he spending New Years Eve of the year 1600? Why, in prison, of course.”

Now we are getting away from the cosmic stuff and into the juicy personal side of science, with its anarchy and back-stabbing, and insurrection — a much different reality than the cold, logical, evidence-based perception of scientists. What science giant are they talking about? Galileo? Kepler? Brahe? No, Tyson is instead talking about Giordano Bruno, who, we are told, “couldn’t keep his soaring vision of the cosmos to himself” at a time when “there was no freedom of thought.”

And we are to believe science is the reason why he was in jail, because Copernicus “did not go far enough” and supposedly Bruno did.

First, let’s examine this freedom of thought concept. Yes, this was the time of The Inquisition — no one is defending that — but most people brought up on charges of “heresy” (a moving target, to be sure) apologized for whatever they did and went on their way. So in some cases The Inquisition suppressed freedom of expression, not freedom of thought. Bruno was excommunicated from three different religions, which means two of them accepted him after he had already been excommunicated from others. If freedom of thought was really suppressed, they wouldn’t have taken him at all.

The cartoon we get about Bruno shows him getting run out of Oxford also, but the audience must realize he got invited to talk at Oxford even though they knew what he was about, so clearly they were not suppressing freedom of thought. He lived in England for two years. What is left out of this very long cartoon — 10 minutes of a 41-minute program is devoted to this revisionist history of Bruno – is that Bruno only agreed with Copernicus because he worshiped the Egyptian God Thoth and believed in Hermetism and its adoration of the sun as the center of the universe. Both Hermes and Thoth were gods of…magic.

The church and science did not agree with Bruno that pygmies came from a “second Adam” or that native Americans had no souls, but they were also not going to kill him over it. There is no evidence his “science” came up at any time. He was imprisoned for a decade because the church wanted him to just recant his claims that Hermetism was the one true religion and then they could send him on his way. When he spent a decade insisting it was fact, he was convicted of Arianism and occult practices, not advocating science. It was discovered shortly after his execution that the “ancient texts” he believed had predicted, among other things, the birth of Jesus Christ, had only been created a century earlier, not at the time of Moses.

After the cartoon about Bruno, Tyson immediately concedes that Bruno was not a scientist.

This leads to an obvious question: Why would a science program devote 25 percent of its first episode to the persecution of someone who was not a scientist, was not accepted by scientists, and published no science, but was instead a martyr for magic?

That is a mystery only the producers can answer, but science historians can’t be happy that Galileo’s primary credit to the science of astronomy in Cosmos becomes that he “looked through a telescope, realizing that Bruno had been right all along.”

We can’t know exactly what Galileo thought when he looked through that telescope, but we can be certain that a sun-worshiping philosopher was not on his mind. Instead of being a champion for science and a martyr for freedom of thought, as Cosmos tries to portray him, Bruno undermined science — religious authorities, including the Pope, who had been interested in a good argument for Copernicus, began to wonder if it was all a cult. Yet they didn’t kill to protect religion from science, no matter how the story of Bruno is framed. Both Copernicus and Galileo, actual scientists who shook the pillars of heaven, died peacefully in their sleep.

There is one good thing about believing in the multiverse, though: if there are infinite universes, in one of them the story of Giordano Bruno happened exactly as the Cosmos show says it did.

Unfortunately, in the actual universe, it did not.

Finally, at number five, we have something that might be a style issue, but it is relevant because of MacFarlane’s avowed atheism and Tyson’s unspoken yet obvious sympathy for it.

5. The Universe Was Also Not Created In One Year

On January 1st, we had the Big Bang and on December 31st, I am alive, less than a tiny fraction of a millisecond before midnight. That can’t be right — it took me a whole day just to write this article.

Oh, Cosmos is not being literal? Oddly, a number of religious critics, Tyson included, insist that too many religious people believe the Book of Genesis is taken literally by people who read the Bible. Unless we accept that figurative comparisons help make large ideas manageable, a year is no more accurate than six days — it is instead a completely arbitrary metric invented to show some context for how things evolved.

It seems odd to be critical when religion does it and then invent a new timescale for how the universe came to be. It’s almost like we are to believe that short timescales are opiates for the masses.

While I have never met any, I know there are people who truly believe the universe was created in just six days, just like there are people who believe in the multiverse or that Bruno was a champion of science and free thought. But extrapolating the behaviors of individuals out to an entire culture is a mistake Sagan said we should be immune from making.

Rather than seeking to take jabs at religion, science should be embracing it. From a science perspective, religious people are involved in the largest ongoing experiment of all time. The major religions all disagree with each other in ways large and small and yet people are turning knobs in their lives and making adjustments to try and solve a grand mystery. What, if anything, comes next?

And they are persisting despite all obstacles. Fans of free thought should be inspired by that.

MacFarlane says he was inspired to reboot Cosmos for the 21st century because he feels like we are going backwards. Does the evidence bear that out? No, America leads the world in adult science literacy, America leads the world in science output, with 5 percent of the global population producing over 30 percent of global science, and America leads the world in science Nobel prizes. Hardly the trademarks of a backward nation being overrun by superstition.

And if the goal is to reach religious people who he believes need science the most, insulting them in the first episode is the wrong approach. Carl Sagan got the history of Hypatia and Christians and the Library of Alexandria wrong in the original Cosmos, but he was wise enough to do it at the end.

“Other things being equal, it is better to be smart than to be stupid”, Sagan wrote, and that holds true today. We want Cosmos to make us a little smarter, not to advance a particular worldview.

Hank Campbell is the creator of Science 2.0 and the co-author of Science Left Behind.

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