The Neil deGrasse Tyson reboot of Cosmos premiered last Sunday. Audra Wolfe counters claims that the show will revolutionize popular support for science, writing dismissively of “Cold War-era fantasies that confuse the public understanding of science with its appreciation”:
It’s a wonderful sentiment, this idea that exposure to the wonders of science will allow people to transcend social, political, and cultural differences. But it’s also obviously wrong, given how much 20th-century warfare depended directly on the products of science. (Historian of technology Patrick McCray has compiled a helpful list of some of the ways that scientists have, in fact, “led armies into battle.”) …
Looking back on the 1980s, it’s hard to say how much public support for scientific research, including the planetary exploration missions so dear to Sagan’s heart, can be credited directly to programs like Cosmos, and how much depended on Congressional support for a space industry that might play some yet-to-be-determined role in World War III. Today, the federal government continues to invest in R&D, but those funds skew toward defense projects, health research, and technology-oriented innovation. Instead of space war, defense R&D focuses on cybersecurity, remote-sensing technologies, and neurowarfare. NASA, meanwhile, limps along. That seems unlikely to change, whether Cosmos scores 5 or 500 million viewers.
But Chris Mooney maintains that “scientific knowledge, and wanting to do something about the problems that science reveals, are inseparable”:
And as soon as you want to change something in the world because of science, you inevitably run up against interests, emotions, and denial. Global warming is the case in point: Just as Carl Sagan worried about nuclear holocaust because of science, so we today worry about the planet’s steady warming. Indeed, that kind of thinking is central to the Cosmos legacy. Asked … about the warming of the planet, Tyson explained the ultimate message of Cosmos: “You are equipped and empowered with this cosmic perspective, achieved by the methods and tools of science, applied to the universe. And are you going to be a good shepherd, or a bad shepherd? Are you going to use your wisdom to protect civilization, or will you go at it in a shortsighted enough way to either destroy it, or be complicit in its destruction? If you can’t bring your scientific knowledge to bear on those kinds of decisions, then why even waste your time?”
So in the end, we should all thank Tyson—as well as Fox, National Geographic, and the show’s many writers and producers—for making the new Cosmos happen. It will contribute immeasurably to the appreciation of science in America and beyond. It will make kids think harder about pursuing science careers by showing them that the cosmos is intensely awesome, and the act of understanding it is downright heroic.
(Video: The Verge interviews Tyson about the new Cosmos)