A couple weeks ago in class we briefly discussed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent pulpit-styled rhetoric and how science seems to be changing its tactics to gain more recruits. Initially, I didn’t find the approach very irritating, as I’m all for spreading the gospel of science. But after watching a couple episodes of the new Cosmos, I’m beginning to feel my hackles twitch.
Tyson wrote and produced an episode that spends a great deal of time focusing on the plight of Dominican friar Giordano Bruno. Friar Bruno was a forward-thinking stargazer of the 16th century who questioned the orthodox view of the universe and suffered the grand price for his heresy. He was, no doubt, a heroic figure who moved the conversation forward, but so were Galileo, Copernicus, and a slew of other great minds. His inclusion was conspicuous to say the least and hints at an agenda that wants to wiggle a finger at the religious establishment, which, in my opinion, has no place in serious scientific television. I find myself siding with the creationist Danny Faulkner who, in this article, basically says ‘if you’re going to go there, you’d better be prepared to take some guff.’
The Sagan era
While the new Cosmos is definitely a feast for the eyes and imagination, it lacks the rigorous focus of its predecessor. Sagan’s Cosmos was all about the business of science and nature. Of religion, Sagan seemed to have no opinion. His door was locked to the debate. At the same time, Sagan had a way of using the wonder and awe of nature to speak his philosophy for him. He seemed a man more fond of the questions than the answers, questions that produce new theists and scientists alike. From that standpoint Sagan could’ve been loosely defined as an evangelist, but that’s where the similarities ended.
I’m not sure what to make of Tyson’s, almost confrontational, approach, nor do I think it’s particularly suited for Cosmos. It is not the job of Science to invalidate religion for the masses. Nor should it be in the business of defending evolution against creationists or debating the merits of the fossil record with Young Earthers–the trilobites and triceratopses speak for themselves. Scientists like Tyson ought to keep their eyes on the sky, keep testing and re-testing their hypotheses, and politely opt out of the discussion.
At its core, science is unbiased observation. It’s an often dry and thankless job uncovering those kernels of discovery. The same sober handling of the data should accompany its delivery to the public, voiced by someone who sounds more like an astrophysicist and less like a televangelist.