Thoughts on “Cosmos”

I just finished watching the first episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s revival of the classic Carl Sagan series. Now, on one hand, I’m a fan of the classic “Cosmos.” I’ve liked everything I’ve seen from it. It has a unique way of blending together the big with the small, the old with the new, and the abstract with the concrete. On the other hand, I’ve never actually seen the whole series. While I’ve had it on DVD for years, I’ve only watched maybe half the episodes.

So I came into the new “Cosmos” as an interested party, a fan of the old series, but not an expert. I have a preexisting love for Sagan and Tyson, and less fond feelings for producer Seth MacFarlane and the Fox network in general. But I talked up the show before it aired and made sure to watch it right when it aired.

There was a lot to like about the show. The effects were gorgeous, light years beyond the simple animations and computer effects of the original series. Tyson made complex ideas accessible, and gave a lot of little tastes and hints about huge, mind-blowing ideas, which people could easily find out more about on their own. There’s a lot about the methodology of science, and how our knowledge builds up over time. The “cosmic calendar” metaphor works better than the 24-hour clock metaphor Tyson employed in “Origins.” There’s no sense of apology or embarrassment or uncertainty about basic (but nonetheless controversial) science, like evolution or anthropogenic climate change or the age of the universe or the big bang.

There was a lot to dislike, too. I worried a bit, given Seth MacFarlane’s involvement and the way he’s used “Family Guy” as an unsubtle way to beat viewers over the head with his personal atheism, that “Cosmos” would be similarly blunt on the topic of religion. There’s a time and a place for that sort of thing, but “Cosmos” shouldn’t be it. More time should be spent kindling that ‘religious’ awe for the natural world than explicitly attacking believers. The new “Cosmos” managed to disappoint me in both ways in this regard; on one hand, it had a lengthy (and at least somewhat ahistorical) animated digression on Giordano Bruno, characterizing him as a lone heliocentrist scientist against the oppressive church. I was skimming along with the Wikipedia article on Bruno during the segment, noting places where the storytelling glossed over or twisted facts for the sake of narrative. On one hand, it painted Bruno as a man whose religious ideas drove him toward scientific truth, and whose idea of God was more expansive and awesome than the contemporary orthodoxy; on the other, it made him into a scientific martyr, right down to showing him ascending into the heavens in multiple visions, arms outstretched and knees bent in a crucifixion pose. Later, as Tyson went through the history of human history, specific mention was made of the “births” of Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed, at least two of whom were likely never “born” at any point in history. Somehow the show managed both to bend over to accommodate religion, and to attack the church and give science its own Christ figure.

I realize that the show was limited in scope, and couldn’t go into detail on everything, but I really wish there were even a couple more lines to indicate why some scientists believe in a multiverse or what current research has shown about the origins of life. I hope the latter question will still be addressed in a future installment, but this episode’s brief treatment of it made it sound like it’s still a complete mystery.

To get to the nitpicks, I’ve always thought the Ship of the Imagination was the cheesiest part of the original “Cosmos,” and while the effects here are better, the idea still feels kind of out of place. Tyson has a history of picking at science mistakes in movies like “Titanic” and “Gravity,” so it’s weird to see him helming a show that depicts the asteroid belt and Kuiper belt as such densely-populated regions of space. The amount of commercial interruption was ludicrous, but more ludicrous was the commercial for “Noah” right in the middle, showing off similarly expensive and pretty special effects in service of a much less evidence-based story. The animated segment, in addition to its other flaws, looked like a cross between a five-year-old Flash animation and ten-year-old cel-shaded cartoons, very out of place in the otherwise space-age show.

Overall, I have high hopes that future episodes will have tighter foci and greater depth, but this first installment was a pretty mixed bag.

Flush the Movement

Natalie Reed’s most recent post is must reading. Please do.

I’m writing this here because it’d be derailing if I wrote it in the comments there. So, yeah.

You may recall that I’ve previously expressed some of my problems with movements, and even with the very notion of a “movement” inasmuch as it implies directed motion toward some single common goal. There are multiple goals within atheism and skepticism, and there are also multiple myopic people trying to claim that some of those goals are illegitimate.

But then, I look at the arguments I’ve had with asshats on Twitter, I look at my own beefs with the “movement,” I look at the concerns about being “outed” that led to my switch to WordPress and my attempt to build some kind of retroactive anonymity, and I read Natalie’s post and feel like a giant fucking idiot. I feel like the things I’ve seen as problems, the worries that have kept me up nights and sent me scrambling to lock down my blog or watch what I say in different venues, as problems that people without my tremendous level of privilege dream of having.

Being “outed” to me means worrying about the integrity and stability of my job for a whopping couple of years until increased job security sets in. It means worrying about discomfort in a close-knit community that I already have very little contact with outside of idle chit-chat. It means worrying about awkward conversations with some family members about matters that, ultimately, don’t affect anyone’s lives because they’re centered around entities that don’t exist. It doesn’t mean being attacked for my appearance, it doesn’t mean losing my house or possessions, it doesn’t mean being ostracized for an integral part of my identity.

I’m lucky. I’m incredibly lucky. I’m playing the game of life on Easy with the Konami Code.

And that’s a hard lesson to learn, that by virtue of luck, you have an easier time than others. It’s far easier to buy into the just-world fallacy and believe that, if people have it rough, then it’s because they deserve it, or because they’ve brought it on themselves, or because it’s just the way things are. It’s hard to realize that you’ve benefited from a system that inhibits others. It’s hard to realize that the world is more complicated than “people get what they earn/deserve.”

But it also seems like it’d be a basic lesson learned by anyone applying skepticism to reality. A lesson I’ve learned, time and time again, is that reality is generally more complicated than you think. Reality is fractal. Zoom out or in, and there’s always some new level of detail, some new perspective, some new complication, that you haven’t accounted for. It’s part of why a scientific understanding of the universe is so full of wonder. Anti-science types will criticize science for its “reductionist” stance, “reducing” everything to mere aggregations of particles. But that’s not it at all, because those aggregations of particles are anything but “mere.” At every level of magnification there is something new and amazing to be fascinated by, something grand and beautiful to admire. Whether examining the patterns of cells in a tissue sample or the patterns of whorls in a fingerprint or the pattern of mineral deposits on a continent or the pattern of stars in a galaxy, there is fascination to be had and wonder to be felt and beauty to be seen. By closing yourself off to those other perspectives, your worldview lacks detail and nuance, lacks those sources of beauty and awe and interest.

But it appears that not all skeptics, not all atheists, not all science enthusiasts learn this lesson. I’ve long suspected that some people arrive at atheism or skepticism out of some kind of contrarianism. They see the silly shit that some people believe and reject it. They reject religion and Bigfoot and UFOs because those are the beliefs of “The Man,” of the majority, of the establishment. Man, they reject the establishment. They’ve seen the light, man. Take that far enough, and they reject the “establishment” account of what happened on 9/11 or “the man”‘s opinion that you have to pay taxes, and you get the Zeitgeist crowd. Take that in a different direction, without the tempering influence of science enthusiasm, and they might reject the “establishment” notions of medicine like the germ theory, and become like Bill Maher. Sprinkle in a bit of that black-and-white overly-simplistic worldview, and you get libertarians, who reject the idea that the system might be unfair, that life and civilization might be more complex than what’s portrayed in an Ayn Rand novel. And focus that rejection of “the man” and the “establishment” on the notion of “political correctness,” and suddenly you have MRAs and every other bunch of “I’m so persecuted” bigots that roam these here Internets (and elsewhere).

And friend, I’m not sure that there’s anything that’s easier to believe than that you’re a brave hero fighting against a grand conspiracy that is behind all of your problems, and that everyone who disagrees is either in on the conspiracy, or duped by it. It’s the DeAngelis-Novella Postulates, the underlying egotist worldview behind all conspiracy theories. I am the enlightened hero, my enemies are powerful and legion, and everyone else is a dupe who just hasn’t seen the light like I have.

That’s what I don’t understand about the people ranting over how they’ve been “silenced” by the “FTBullies,” or that “feminists” are sowing “misandry,” or that the “atheist scientists” are “expelling” Christians, or that “the Illuminati” are doing whatever nefarious things they like to do. The worldview is ultimately so simplistic that it falls apart on comparison with the complexities of reality. And as skeptics, isn’t that precisely the sort of thing we train ourselves and pride ourselves on debunking?

I guess that’s one more privilege afforded the majority: the ability to believe a comforting, simplistic, ego-stroking version of reality, to perceive the world through the tinted glasses of a persecuted minority while being neither, and to claim heroism while tilting at nonexistent windmills.

I realize this is all armchair psychology, which I’m doing from an office chair without a background in psychology. It’s almost certainly true that the real situation isn’t nearly as simple as what I’ve laid out, and that the MRAs and libertarians and Zeitgeistians and so forth that infest the atheist and skeptical “movements” are the result of far more diverse factors.

But I realize that, because I realize that the world is more complicated than “us” and “them,” than “good” and “evil,” than “baboons” and “slimepitters,” than “FTBullies” and “the silenced,” than “the Conspiracy” and “the Army of Light” and “the Sheeple.”

I just wish that were a more generally-understood lesson.

Collision with Reality*

'Any crash you can walk away from is a good one'--Launchpad McQuackI’m not sure how solipsists do it. I mean, I can understand reducing the universe down to your existence, a la Descartes**. I can understand doubting your senses, because any rational person will tell you that they can be fooled. We know that we’re not infallible.

But there are times when you’ve really got to have trouble denying the existence of the external, material world. Times when you realize that you’re not something else that starts with “in-” and ends with “-ible” and has a fall in the middle: indestructible.

See, I bought a new bike recently, in hopes of cutting down both on my gas usage and my weight. And ever since I started riding this new bike, I’ve been somewhat afraid of the maneuver that has often led to cuts and scrapes in the past. If you’ve ridden in a moderately urban area before, chances are you’ve stupidly tried something similar, where you’ve managed to ride off the sidewalk or the road, and think “it’s not that much of a height difference between the ground and the paved path on which I wish to ride, I’ll just steer slightly to the right and get back onto the concrete.”

And get onto the concrete I did. I got fairly intimate with that concrete. I think I may have left a small piece of myself behind on that concrete, some epidermal cells from my elbow and my dignity, to be specific. I stood up, checked that my iPod wasn’t damaged, and realized that I was. The abrasion on my elbow hadn’t yet started hurting, but my left wrist and the heel of that hand ached more than when I’d broken the same wrist in 5th grade. I picked up my bike and the scattered pieces of my not-yet-used headlight and walked back toward my building.

Once there, I cleaned my elbow and wrapped my wrist in an Ace bandage, and noticed that my right knee kind of hurt as well. And why wouldn’t it? But, bravely I decided that I’d get right back on my bike and pedal my ass to the grocery store.

I made it about ten feet on the bike before my wrist said “oh no you don’t” and my left shoulder said “mmm-hmm.”

So I called my parents about insurance information, did a little research on local care providers (and found out to my dismay that my insurance company’s website includes “homeopathy” and “chiropractic medicine” among the “specialties” you can search by), and went to the hospital. By this point, the ominous black clouds had rolled in and the rain was starting to spit down, and I realized that if I hadn’t humbled all over myself, I’d probably be a couple of miles from home on a sidewalk next to a moderately busy road, cursing the cruel skies.

Now, you may be unaware, but when you’ve spent the preceding weekend watching over a dozen episodes of “Scrubs,” heading into an actual hospital is a little surreal. You may find yourself whistling a song about Superman and wondering if the attending doctor seeing you is wearing green scrubs because he’s a surgeon, or if that convention is specific to Sacred Heart.

But I had a nice little chat with the nurse in the front office and the paramedic who took down my symptoms. When I told her what the weather looked like as I came into the hospital, and mentioned that if I hadn’t crashed I’d just be heading back from my errands at this point, she chuckled “See? Everything happens for a reason.”

And she’s right, you know. I mean, I doubt that my meeting with the sidewalk was the universe’s way of saying “hey, you’ll thank me when you’re dry.” To be quite honest, I think I would have preferred the moisture to the pain. After all, I’ve come home from most of these rides soaking wet, thanks to the heat of late. But the crash did happen for a reason, namely “my absolute stupidity in failing to think, brake, and lift my bike onto the pavement, instead doing precisely what I’d been worried would end up with me receiving serious injury.” I think that’s sufficient cause.

She asked me, as part of the interview, if I had any religious beliefs or objections that would require consideration in my care, and I said “none.” It occurred to me, though, that I don’t know what the baseline is in that regard. Is the starting point “all treatment is acceptable,” and then you subtract things if the patient is a Jehovah’s Witness or a Christian Scientist or a kosher-keeping Jew or a Muslim? Why don’t they assume organ donation, in that case? I mean, I can see fine arguments for making organ donation a conscious decision, but why opt-in when every other medical treatment seems to be opt-out? Is there a common non-religious objection to organ donation? I’ve heard the “if you sign your license, the doctors will give you crappy care because they’d rather have your organs” quasi-conspiracy theory, but does anyone really believe that? Enough to justify making it an “opt-in” option?

So, I waited and did a bunch of different movements to try to describe my pain in clear and specific terms. A nurse asked if I needed a wheelchair, and I declined, since I’d walked into and around the hospital without much more than an exaggerated limp, but she insisted just to be on the safe side. At this point, I’m hoping they’ll give me a cane before I leave, so I can look like House. Or, more specifically, like Dr. Cox in the episode where he’s making fun of House. I figure, if I’m going to hobble, I ought to hobble in style.

Given how much my mind fixates on fictional physicians when I’m in medical situations, you’d never guess that I spent a large portion of my childhood nose-deep in the American Medical Association’s Family Medical Guide.

While in the doctor’s room, sitting on the bed with the butcher paper upholstery, I spent some time trying to recall various bones, initially to figure out what might be broken (I’d resolved myself to having a fracture in a medial carpal or metacarpal, a sprained or dislocated shoulder, and a sprained knee, in my own amateur diagnosis), but continuing on for my own practice. I hit a snag when I couldn’t remember what vertebrae lie between the cervical and the lumbar (turns out it’s thoracic).

The doctor talked to me and did a couple of tests for my pain, and then a nurse wheeled me into the X-ray room. I’ve had probably an inordinate amount of X-rays done in my life; I broke my left wrist on the last day of fifth grade, I slipped on ice my Junior year of college and burst a bursa in my left elbow, and checked that out for further damage, and I’m reasonably certain that I’ve had at least one more X-ray session done on that and one on my other hand, not to mention all the dental and orthodontic X-rays I’ve had. This time, though, was a real treat. I’ve never had multiple body parts scanned before. I got a barrage of pictures of my wrist in different positions, and then laid down on the table with a lead sheet over my abdomen, allowing the technicians to slide me around and pose me as they saw fit. I found myself examining the machine, and thinking about the logistics of the whole thing. How much lead was in that apron (it really didn’t feel all that heavy, and I’ve handled lead strips and bricks before, so I’m a little curious as to how thick the lead has to be)? What did they try before they figured out that lead blocked radiation? Since we know that bone appears to block the X-rays, would it be effective (if impractical) to have a sheet of bone instead of a sheet of lead?

Eventually they wheeled me back to the treatment room, and eventually one of the nurses came in to share the doctor’s notes with me. I assume he was busy with Dr. Turk and The Todd, and I can handle that (preoccupation five!). Apparently no serious injuries or fractures showed up on the X-rays, so I was prescribed icepacks and ibuprofen. No wraps, no cane, no crutches, just “don’t do anything you can’t handle, and if it still hurts in 3-4 days, and the pain is increasing, let us know.” They’re going to have a radiologist take a look at the X-rays and give me a call if they find anything, but given the subsiding pain in my wrist and the low level of pain in the other injured areas, I imagine they probably won’t.

On one hand, I’m glad, because I hate being in a cast, especially in the summer. On the other hand, I’m a little disappointed, because I’d kind of gotten used to the idea of walking with a cane for a few days. On the other hand***, I’m kind of embarrassed; if I’d just kept ice on the wounds and waited a day or two, I might have avoided a trip to the emergency room. But better safe than sorry, I suppose.

So, I came back home, dinked around, and went to my Bio 100 class, where we went over Mitosis and Meiosis. Somehow, I’ve managed to retain most of the details about IPMAT, so it wasn’t much more than review. During the break, I walked around a bit (the ibuprofen they gave me really seemed to take care of things) and found a table with apparently (but not explicitly) free books, presumably discarded from the science professors’ shelves. I snatched a copy of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, since it reminded me of my previous Bio class, in High School, where we read a little Ehrlich and learned about the Tragedy of the Commons. I also grabbed my second copy of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods. I figured, better that I get it than someone who will actually be convinced by the contents.

I picked up my first copy of that swill at the library book sale here earlier in the year. Later, I discovered a copy of one of his sequels (maybe Signs of the Gods?) in my parents’ bookshelf. I also found one of Hal Lindsey’s books of unfulfilled prophecy in that same bookcase. One of these days, I should start a series of posts on the books in my parents’ bookshelf, because there are some doozies in there, from space aliens to ESP to the Shroud of Turin. Crazy stuff.

So, all in all, it’s been a day full of collisions with reality and fantasy, both big and small. But as much as you may try to claim that alien astronauts visited ancient Peru, or that the Hippocratic Oath is “first, do no harm; second, ignore the first part if there’s organs to be had,” or that God will smite you for accepting antibiotics or blood transfusions, or that the entire world is an elaborate fabrication of your solitary mind, reality is always ready, willing, and able to smack some sense into you. Reality is hard, unyielding, rough, and mostly gray, and when you come into contact with it, you’d better be ready for some painful realizations.

When I picked myself and my bike up off the sidewalk, my iPod’s Song Shuffle shuffled out the next song: The Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.” Maybe everything does happen for a reason.

*And by “reality” I mean “the pavement.”
**Get it?
***I have three hands now, apparently.**** All those X-rays, no doubt.
****Or maybe that just moves it back to the first hand.