Anyone else watching the new incarnation of Cosmos? We’re now roughly a quarter of the way through its 13 episodes, and yet the overall thread of the series remains somewhat elusive. The first episode felt like an introduction to cosmology, with an emphasis on the vast scope of space and time. The second episode jumped to evolutionary biology (albeit with DNA models more cosmic than chemical), while the third returned to space. That doesn’t feel like a natural sequence for a general science education; in fact, the only way I can make sense of it is to assume the show is aimed primarily at people who are uncomfortable with certain scientific topics on religious grounds. Then we see that the show is ticking off those sensitive subjects one by one — the age of the universe and centrality of Earth, evolution, and most recently superstition and messages from the gods.
Although not advertised that way, the writing of the show makes it clear that the conversation with religion is a primary and explicit concern of the show’s creators. The first episode prominently features an animated sequence dedicated to Giordano Bruno which has received a lot of coverage, both for its obvious religious themes and for its questionable emphasis on storytelling over historical accuracy (although personally, saying that Bruno was burned at the stake for theological heresies unrelated to alternative cosmology is hardly an improvement for the image of God’s people).
But I think the more significant elements were the more subtle ones, such as the opening quote “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” or the stated rules for participation:
- Test ideas by experiment and observation
- Build on those ideas that pass the test
- Reject the ones that fail
- Follow the evidence wherever it leads
- Question everything
While I’m perfectly content to sign off on those requirements as stated, I get the sense that the last one in particular is meant to rule out the possibility of considering religious answers.
The second episode, focusing on the topic of natural selection, continues this usage of carefully chosen and heavily coded phraseology. The nucleus of the cell is described as a sanctuary, and the genomic material contained within is its sacred scripture. Later, intelligent design is specifically mentioned by name, and “blind”, “undirected” natural selection is offered as a competing hypothesis.
The third episode chooses to frame scientific predictions in the language of prophecy. It also emphasizes our innate human capacity for pattern recognition, and its capacity to identify true and false patterns. True patterns are apparently ones that lead to accurate prophecies, while false patterns do not. We sometimes hear that religious beliefs are nothing but spurious superstitions born of our pattern recognition abilities; would Cosmos have us believe that as well?
Given all of the specifically religious language of the show, it seems to be inviting believers to “Come try science; you still get all the wonder and spirituality you like about religion, but with empirical verifiability!” And yet given the wide range of reactions to, and interpretations of, the show, I wonder if it is actually going to reinforce existing perspectives rather than changing minds.
In particular, I think the writing of the show underplays the role of empirical observation in forming the perspectives it would have us reject (or at least reconsider). The geocentric cosmology was a robust scientific model consistent with observation — unlike Bruno’s cosmology at the time he proposed it. The correlation between comets and calamities was observationally motivated. And when the show invites us to believe that the human eye is not efficient for seeing in air because it evolved from an eye adapted to seeing in water, it omits the nuance required to reconcile that assertion with the common empirical experience of anyone who has opened their eyes underwater in a swimming pool.
All of this only reminds us that science is more than just the facts; a scientific theory is an interpretive framework for understanding a set of facts. And the formation of such a framework is motivated at least in part by the questions one is asking, as well as what facts are available. It thinks this perspective also helps explain the recent study which tried to identify which educational method would improve acceptance of vaccination among skeptics. The observation in that paper was that no method actually achieved the desired result of increasing self-reported likelihood of vaccinating one’s child, and some of the educational materials had the opposite effect.
I think a common misstep made by the Cosmos creative team and public health officials promoting vaccines is failure to appreciate that they are presenting facts within an interpretative framework designed to answer certain questions which are not necessarily the questions their target audience is asking.
In the case of Cosmos, the question its target religious audience seeks to answer is who made the world; the how that Cosmos is interested in is a secondary concern at best and possibly informed by the who. The who question is one that Cosmos can only answer as either “we don’t know” or “no one”, neither of which is satisfactory.
In the case of vaccination, public health is answering the question of how to prevent measles, pertussis, and other infectious diseases. But for most Americans, those diseases are thankfully abstract notions, making their prevention seem automatic. Autism, however, is a tangible reality for a growing number of families; the questions they want answered are what causes autism and how to prevent autism. Answers like “it’s complicated” and “we don’t know” will never be as satisfying for those questions as the concrete answers of “vaccines” and “don’t get vaccinated.”
This suggests a general problem for communicating science to the wider public. It would seem that quantity of facts will not sufficient to be persuasive. For effective communication, we may need to take the time to listen to the questions that people are actually asking, and frame our responses in those terms. And where the answers we have to offer are to entirely different questions, we may have to consider what additional education and dialogue is necessary to understand why those questions aren’t being asked and what it might take to raise them.