Cosmos and Priorities

While solo-parenting Sunday night, I still managed to get free of The Pip just barely in time to catch the start of Cosmos. This was a strange episode in a couple of ways, chiefly having to do with the selection of topics.

For one thing, there's no small irony in the fact that following a couple of weeks in which host Neil deGrasse Tyson has been raked over metaphorical coals for dismissing philosophy as pointless because it doesn't lead to testable predictions, a big chunk of the episode was given over to wildly impractical speculations about panspermia and related topics. I realize it's great for "Gee whiz" value, and I suppose that given wildly extrapolated future technology and time for us to sample a statistically significant fraction of the galaxy there might be some possibility of testing a real scientific models based on panspermic ideas. But it's kind of a tricky needle to thread to say that this is a worthwhile branch of science, while philosophical work on the nature of knowledge isn't.

There was also a fair bit of talk about, basically, the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation, though I didn't catch those actual words being used. I'm pretty sure Sagan used the actual Drake equation in the original series, so you can probably chalk this up as either a victory for general innumeracy or an improvement in science communication, depending on your view of catering to the tastes of the math-phobic. I find both of these a little dubious, too (as I said on Twitter, any civilization that can survive in space long enough to get here has no need to deal with us on our tiny little rocky planet, and the Drake equation has too many "terms" that are just wild guesses, even today). They are, however, very much in the spirit of the original.

But then, one of the things that has kind of bothered me about the whole run of the series is that the gap between what we know and what they're showing is so much greater than in the original series. Back in 1980, Sagan had to devote a lot of time to airy speculation about distant stars and planets and hypothetical scenarios about the origin of the universe, because there was a ton of stuff we didn't know. In the intervening three decades, we've amassed a truly astonishing amount of information on these topics, from robot probes of our own solar system, from redshift and transit detections of extrasolar planets, from measurements of the cosmic microwave background by COBE and WMAP and others, from Hubble images and new ground-based telescope technologies, and just thirty years of doing what we were already doing.

And the thing that bugs me is that I don't feel like the show is doing that justice. Too many topics are covered at about the same level of depth as back in 1980, just with spiffier graphics. And while that approach didn't leave too much of a gap back in the day, today there's a vast range of stuff they haven't even touched on-- there hasn't been more than a passing mention of dark matter, and I don't recall anything at all about dark energy.

So, I find the choice to prioritize wildly speculative but vaguely inspirational material like panspermia and the whole "future cosmic calendar" stuff kind of disappointing. There's so much that they haven't talked about yet that's based on good, solid evidence, but we're getting soaring vagueness. And it's becoming clear that we're just not going to get a good discussion of a lot of these things-- there are only two episodes left, and the end-of-show teaser makes it sound like the next one is going to be largely devoted to climate change-- a topic that has already gotten a significant chunk of airtime in at least three previous episodes-- which doesn't leave a lot of room for dark energy.

Which, you know, mostly boils down to "The people making this show have very different priorities than you do." Which is fine, and if anybody ever gives me vast resources to make a tv show, I'm sure lots of people will complain about what I choose to talk about. But that doesn't change the fact that I wish they were making this a different way than they actually are.

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Re. Tyson dismissing philosophy: I thought, "oops!, way to lose a chunk of your audience," that chunk being people who are studying or working in anything in the humanities, a decent fraction of whom are inclined to be sympathetic, but not if you write them off.

This is a specific case of a more general problem in the culture at-large: the hardening of boundaries. "If you're not us, you're not with us" is too close for comfort to "if you're not with us, you're against us." Instead what's needed is more of "if you're not against us, you're with us."

Picky, picky. Except for the constant breaks for commercials,which kinda breaks any thought thread, I'm enjoying the program. It is what it is, and a lot better than the alternative - nothing, Chad.

I felt talked down to when Neil omitted the phrases "Fermi paradox" and "Drake Equation". Don't dumb it down too much!

I think I can summarize many of your criticisms by saying that the program series lacks a coherent syllabus (linked series of objectives for each weekly meeting of the "class") and some class sessions seem to lack a lesson plan that loops back to reinforce learning of the main topics in that "class".

The reason you note the omission of philosophy is that the heavens served as a stimulus for human thought of all kinds.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 21 May 2014 #permalink

I think I can summarize many of your criticisms by saying that the program series lacks a coherent syllabus

I don't know that I would say that. I think they have a defined set of objectives; they're just not the objectives I would have chosen, or expected. They've been very consistent and systematic about pounding on the issue of climate change, for example-- it's been directly mentioned in at least four different episodes, now, and if it wasn't cited in the episode about lead pollution, it was at least there metaphorically.

And, you know, raising awareness about climate change is a valid and important goal. It's not the direction I would have chosen for this particular series, though-- as I said on Twitter, there's a vast universe of science that isn't phenomenally depressing, and I would've preferred that they spend more time celebrating that.

I would have figured that there would be plenty to cover since the 80s. The graphics gets boring. Having a look at the recent technology for telescopes is not !

By joel rice (not verified) on 21 May 2014 #permalink

I was expecting a lot more along the lines of what Chad did. But we have several recent or ongoing series that do that, through the wormhole... So I think the audience has already seen a few too many presentations on black holes, neutron stars, dark matter/energy inflation multiverses and so on. Tyson is trying to give at least some impression of how science works, and a bit of social boosting towards women and minorities while he is at it.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 21 May 2014 #permalink


Perhaps, but the fact that you have to say you "think" they have a defined set of objectives shows just how incoherent the series actually is. However, I am more concerned with the lack of an effective lesson plan for each program because that gets in the way of people learning the main concepts tied to each of their objectives.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 25 May 2014 #permalink