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.

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Manly Must-Reads

I’m not sure where I found the link, probably on Twitter, but I ran across this list of must-read popular science books. It’s definitely not the list I would have compiled (though I admit that my pop-sci reading history is somewhat paltry). I count only two books on the list that I’ve read completely (John Allen Paulos’s Innumeracy and The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, though his follow-up is on there, and I expect to devour that when it’s in paperback), four other books that I’ve started and not finished (Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics, Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, and Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality, which I’m going to go back to when I finish Richard III), and four more that I either own or wanted to read before seeing the list (The Selfish Gene, Mistakes Were Made, Supersense, and Nonsense on Stilts).

Many of the authors are recognizable, though the choices seem a little odd. Take Dawkins, for instance: I typically see Climbing Mount Improbable and Unweaving the Rainbow on lists like these before River Out of Eden. I would think The Panda’s Thumb or Full House would top Stephen Jay Gould’s list before Wonderful Life.

Then there are the glaring omissions. Not one Carl Sagan book? No Death from the Skies? No Neil deGrasse Tyson or Lawrence Krauss or Michio Kaku? No A Brief History of Time? No women?

Okay, that last one isn’t fair. There are indeed women on the list. Two of them: Carol Tavris and Mary Roach, out of 34 different authors, by my quick count (some books had multiple authors; some authors were on the list multiple times, including Marcus Chown, a name that was previously unknown to me). Somehow, when compiling “must-read” popular science books, three books by Marcus Chown and two “very short introduction” books merit inclusion when books like Silent Spring and Gorillas in the Mist don’t.

Off the top of my head and Amazon wish-list, I came up with this list based on books I’ve read, bought, seen elsewhere on “must-read” lists or in prominent bookstore shelves, or known because of their huge impact on science and society:

  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
  • My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics by Jennifer Ouellette
  • Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox
  • Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World by Lisa Randall
  • Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart
  • The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

That’s really not much, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that a world-altering book like Silent Spring doesn’t merit mention over, say, The Violinist’s Thumb, which has been out for less than a year. It isn’t a matter of intentional sexism, but it’s this sort of casual blindness to gender imbalances that helps to create and perpetuate the myth that science is “more of a guy thing.” Correcting that image is going to take a good long time and a lot of work, but little steps–like making sure that your “must-read” popular science book list isn’t a giant sausage fest–are not that difficult, and do add up just as the little omissions and microaggressions add up on the other side of things.

How Dare You?!

This is kind of a follow-up to my post on friendship, and is likely to hit some of the same notes and indict some of the same people.

I’ve noticed recently, though I’m sure the trend has been around for some time, this tendency in skeptic/atheist circles to suggest, explicitly or implicitly, that a person has done so much for the atheist/skeptic community that it is somehow out of line to criticize them. Here’s an example I saw today, in PZ’s post about Sam Harris:

The Harris bashing going on here is just ridiculous. The man is a hero of the skepticism movement. All you people rushing to judgement should be embarrassed.

Hes admitted countless times he phrased his ideas poorly on the profiling issue (even publicly apologized on TV).

PZ, you need to take note on how well Harris defends himself against this character assassination you’ve exacerbated once again. Compare that with how you usually respond to criticism.

Remember that next time you’re getting all upset over a comedian’s joke and crying all over your keyboard and empty donut cases.

I know that I’ve seen this same kind of sentiment expressed about DJ Grothe of late (there’s one buried in this comment), and I’m pretty sure it came up a bunch about Dawkins in the whole “Dear Muslima” flap.

To put it bluntly, this kind of thinking is wrong-headed, fallacious, dangerous, and dare I say it, religious.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have role models. That would be absurd. There are always people who are better than us or more informed than us at certain things. It’s fine to look up to people; the problem comes when you begin thinking those people are somehow above you.

A further problem comes if they begin thinking the same.

Must we, scientific skeptics and rational atheists, keep learning this lesson? This is the lesson of Linus Pauling, the lesson of Ayn Rand, the lesson of Edgar Mitchell, the lesson of Bill Maher, and so on. Being brilliant, well-informed, or just right about one area or subject does not make one brilliant, well-informed, or right about everything. Expertise does not transfer.

We as skeptics and atheists spend a lot of our time arguing with people because they’re wrong about something. We argue with strangers, we argue with anonymous idiots, we argue with professional pseudoscientists and preachers who hate us, we even argue with acquaintances and coworkers.

Why would we avoid arguing with the people we care about?

Granted, James Randi and Richard Dawkins and the like are basically strangers to me. The same is true for most people and the famous role models they look up to. We feel a kinship with these people because they’ve said or written or done things that resonate with us, that we wish to live up to or emulate. That forges an emotional connection, even if it’s one-way, which boils down to (at the very least) the point that we care what they have to say. We value their thoughts and opinions enough to spend our money buying books filled with just that, or spend our time watching their videos or reading their words online.

And so when they, our heroes, say or do something that is clearly wrong, I think we have a responsibility to speak up about it. In part, it’s because there’s a cognitive dissonance in saying “I value what you have to say” and “what you have to say with regard to X is wrong/reprehensible.” In part, it’s because we recognize that there are other people who value what they have to say, but may not be informed enough to see that, on this topic, they’re dead wrong. In part, it’s because we hope that our heroes are reasonable and, when presented with evidence that contradicts their position, would change it, making them even more admirable for following the evidence. In part, it’s because we just don’t like people being wrong. In part, I think we realize that leaving the wrongness unchallenged could eventually lead to worse problems (like the ubiquity of vitamin megadosing or libertarians). And in part, I think, it’s our responsibility.

That responsibility has different degrees of strength. If it’s, say, an author you like who has said something stupid, then your purchase of his book, your recommending it to your friends, etc., means that you have contributed to his popularity. But if it’s, say, someone who is often chosen by the media to speak for a group that you’re part of, then they’re sometimes (de facto) speaking on your behalf. And you don’t want the general public to think that this thing they’re wrong about is generally representative of the group’s beliefs.

Because, one way or another, their wrongness makes you look wrong. You’re wrong by proxy.

And so we call out our heroes when they’re wrong because we care about them and their opinions, because we want to give them the opportunity to realize their mistake and correct it, and because we want to show clearly that we don’t share their wrongness. Phil Plait called out Carl Sagan in his first book, because Sagan was wrong about Velikovski. Phil was also involved in correcting Randi when Randi spouted off about climate change. PZ called out Sam Harris about his unfounded views regarding racial profiling, and promoted the opinions of actual experts in response. Many spoke up when anti-medicine Bill Maher was nominated for a science award. And so on and so forth. Maybe if more people had spoken more loudly and forcefully at Linus Pauling, it wouldn’t be a generally-accepted belief that Vitamin C cures colds.

What we don’t do, what we shouldn’t do, what we must not do, is say “well, these people have done so much good that we can overlook this little bit of bad.” We don’t accept that from religious believers about the role of religion in history. We don’t accept that from the Catholic Church regarding its predator priests. We don’t accept that from science, dammit. We don’t say “well, these guys have published a bunch of good papers before, let’s just let this paper slide without peer review.” We don’t say “gee, Dr. Pauling’s been right about so many things, what’s the harm in just assuming he’s right about vitamin megadosing?” We don’t say “NASA’s got a pretty good track record, so we’re just going to overlook this error in the rover program. We wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

No, dammit, we’re skeptics, we’re scientists and science enthusiasts. We pride ourselves on seeking the truth and fighting ignorance. When prominent scientists and skeptics go wrong, they’re the ones we should argue with most strongly, most fervently–because either they, prizing truth and knowledge as we do, will change their position, or we–prizing truth and knowledge–will realize that it was our own that was in error.

Or they’ll go on believing and spouting wrong things. And then we’re free to question whether they really are committed to truth and knowledge, or if they are committed to their own sense of infallible rightness. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, to realize that even your heroes (maybe even especially your heroes) can be blinded by ego, but it’s a necessary lesson to learn. It’s necessary because no one is perfectly right or perfectly insightful or perfectly skeptical or perfectly reasonable. Pobody’s nerfect, as the hat says. And sometimes we become complacent in accepting a person’s thoughts or ideas as pure unvarnished truth, and need to be shaken out of it with a glimpse of their clay feet.

Being a luminary, being a role model, being a tireless advocate, being a hero, shouldn’t shield a person from criticism. It may mean that we give them a little more benefit of the doubt to explain or clarify, but even that isn’t inexhaustible.

What it does (and should) grant them is a group of people who care what they have to say enough to explain to them why they’re wrong.

On Labeling

Mmm...babycakes.I keep running into an issue with labels. It wasn’t long ago that I revised my own from “agnostic” to the more accurate and more useful “agnostic atheist” (in a nutshell, anyway–but this is a topic for a future post). The problem I have is that the relevant parts of my beliefs didn’t change, only what I called myself did. I didn’t have a belief in any gods when I called myself an agnostic, and I don’t have any belief in any gods now that I call myself an atheist. From any objective standpoint, I was an atheist the whole time.

And this is the substance of the problem: the dissonance between what a person calls himself or herself, and what categories a person objectively falls into. These labels are frequently different, and frequently result in various confusions and complications.

On one hand, I think we’re inclined to take people at their word with regard to what their personal labels are. It’s a consequence of having so many labels that center around traits that can only be assessed subjectively. I can’t look into another person’s mind to know what they believe or who they’re attracted to or what their political beliefs really are, or even how they define the labels that relate to those arenas. We can only rely on their self-reporting. So, we have little choice but to accept their terminology for themselves.

But…there are objective definitions for some of these terms, and we can, based on a person’s self-reporting of their beliefs, see that an objectively-defined label–which may or may not be the one they apply to themselves–applies to them.

I fear I’m being obtuse in my generality, so here’s an example: Carl Sagan described himself as an agnostic. He resisted the term “atheist,” and clearly gave quite a bit of thought to the problem of how you define “god”–obviously, the “god” of Spinoza and Einstein, which is simply a term applied to the laws of the universe, exists, but the interventionist god of the creationists is far less likely. So Sagan professed agnosticism apparently in order to underscore the point that he assessed the question of each god’s existence individually.

On the other hand, he also seemed to define “atheist” and “agnostic” in unconventional ways–or perhaps in those days before a decent atheist movement, the terms just had different connotations or less specific definitions. Sagan said “An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I’m agnostic,” and “An atheist is someone who knows there is no God.”

Now, I love Carl, but it seems to me that he’s got the definitions of these terms inside-out. “Agnostic,” as the root implies, has to do with what one claims to know–specifically, it’s used to describe people who claim not to know if there are gods. Atheist, on the other hand, is a stance on belief–specifically the lack of belief in gods.

So, if we’re to go with the definitions of terms as generally agreed upon, as well as Carl’s own self-reported lack of belief in gods and adherence to the null hypothesis with regard to supernatural god claims, then it’s clear that Carl is an atheist. Certainly an agnostic atheist–one who lacks belief in gods but does not claim to know that there are no gods–but an atheist nonetheless.

The dilemma with regard to Sagan is relatively easy to resolve; “agnostic” and “atheist” are not mutually exclusive terms, and the term one chooses to emphasize is certainly a matter of personal discretion. In the case of any self-chosen label, the pigeon-holes we voluntarily enter into are almost certainly not all of the pigeon-holes into which we could be placed. I describe myself as an atheist and a skeptic, but it would not be incorrect to call me an agnostic, a pearlist, a secularist, an empiricist, and so forth. What I choose to call myself reflects my priorities and my understanding of the relevant terminology, but it doesn’t necessarily exclude other terms.

The more difficult problems come when people adopt labels that, by any objective measure, do not fit them, or exclude labels that do. We see Sagan doing the latter in the quote above, eschewing the term “atheist” based on what we’d recognize now as a mistaken definition. The former is perhaps even more common–consider how 9/11 Truthers, Global Warming and AIDS denialists, and Creationists have all attempted to usurp the word “skeptic,” even though none of their methods even approach skepticism.

The danger with the former is when groups try to co-opt people into their groups who, due to lack of consistent or unambiguous self-reporting (or unambiguous reporting from reliable outside sources), can’t objectively be said to fit into them. We see this when Christians try to claim that the founding fathers were all devout Christian men, ignoring the reams of evidence that many of them were deists or otherwise unorthodox. It’s not just the fundies who do this, though; there was a poster at my college which cited Eleanor Roosevelt and Errol Flynn among its list of famous homosexual and bisexual people, despite there being inconsistent and inconclusive evidence to determine either of their sexualities. The same is true when my fellow atheists attempt to claim Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Paine (among others), despite ambiguity in their self-described beliefs. I think, especially those of us who pride ourselves on reason and evidence, that we must be careful with these labels, lest we become hypocrites or appear sloppy in our application and definition of terms. These terms have value only inasmuch as we use them consistently.

The matter of people adopting terms which clearly do not apply to them, however, presents a more familiar problem. It seems easy and safe enough to say something like “you call yourself an atheist, yet you say you believe in God. Those can’t both be true,” but situations rarely seem to be so cut-and-dry. Instead, what we end up with are ambiguities and apparent contradictions, and a need to be very accurate and very precise (and very conservative) in our definition of terms. Otherwise, it’s a very short slippery slope to No True Scotsman territory.

Case in point, the word “Christian.” It’s a term with an ambiguous definition, which (as far as I can tell) cannot be resolved without delving into doctrinal disputes. Even a definition as simple as “a Christian is someone who believes Jesus was the son of God” runs afoul of Trinitarian semantics, where Jesus is not the son, but God himself. A broader definition like, “One who follows the teachings of Jesus” ends up including people who don’t consider themselves Christians (for instance, Ben Franklin, who enumerated Jesus among other historical philosophers) and potentially excluding people who don’t meet the unclear standard of what constitutes “following,” and so forth.

Which is why there are so many denominations of Christianity who claim that none of the other denominations are “True Christians.” For many Protestants, the definition of “True Christian” excludes all Catholics, and vice versa; and for quite a lot of Christians, the definition of the term excludes Mormons, who are also Bible-believers that accept Jesus’s divinity.

When we start down the path of denying people the terms that they adopt for themselves, we must be very careful that we do not overstep the bounds of objectivity and strict definitions. Clear contradictions are easy enough to spot and call out; where terms are clearly defined and beliefs or traits are clearly expressed, we may indeed be able to say “you call yourself be bisexual, but you say you’re only attracted to the opposite sex. Those can’t both be true.” But where definitions are less clear, or where the apparent contradictions are more circumstantially represented, objectivity can quickly be thrown out the window.

I don’t really have a solution for this problem, except that we should recognize that our ability to objectively label people is severely limited by the definitions we ascribe to our labels and the information that our subjects report themselves. So long as we are careful about respecting those boundaries, we should remain well within the guidelines determined by reason and evidence. Any judgments we make and labels we apply should be done as carefully and conservatively as possible.

My reasons for laying all this out should become clear with my next big post. In the meantime, feel free to add to this discussion in the comments.

The Shorter Giants

Okay, here’s a geeky question for you: who’s your favorite lesser-known scientist? There are some luminaries in the field that everyone knows: your Einsteins and Newtons, your Galileos and Darwins, the people that the general public has heard of, even if they aren’t quite sure what they did. Then there are the folks you learn about in the average high school science class, the guys with laws and units and models named after them, like Curie or Tesla or Mendel or Rutherford.

And then there are the really obscure ones, the people that you only get to know once you’ve taken the scientific plunge, the people whose names you never memorize from a textbook. I’m talking about your Tycho Brahes and Sadi Carnots, your Aristarchuses and whatnot. Who do you hold a special candle for?

For me, it’s Eratosthenes. I’ve come to know this particular Alexandrian pretty well over the last several years, with the number of times in arguments where I’ve had to correct people who think Columbus set sail with a cube-shaped globe. No, he wasn’t the first person to posit a spherical Earth, but he was (one of) the first to accurately calculate its circumference. Depending on the exact measurement of his unit of distance, he got within 16% of the actual figure using only sticks and shadows and measured footsteps.

I just watched the first episode of “Cosmos” tonight (thanks, Netflix!), and it was just fantastic to hear Sagan talking about my favorite forgotten Egyptian. Of course, the whole show was fantastic, and it’s a shame that it’s taken me so long to start watching it.

So, who’s your favorite low-profile scientist? Just to limit things a bit, it can’t be anyone still living; otherwise I would have had to say Norman Borlaug.

Closing the book

I just finished Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark about a minute ago. I’ve been working through it for months, reading bits and pieces of it whenever I had free time, and upon seeing how gorgeous it was outside and that there were only about 35 pages left, I resolved to finish it today. I ended up coming inside for the last bits, due to rising breezes and diminishing sunlight.

Anyway, especially for the last couple of months, I’ve been experiencing a weird phenomenon with the book. I’ll be discussing some issue one day, and then while reading the next day, I’ll find that Sagan has addressed the same issue. A couple of weeks ago, it was the matter of scientists’ ethical obligations and whether or not to mark some fields as “off-limits.” Then it was SETI and astrobiology, and the matter of teaching science and critical thinking in school, or about a dozen other topics. I’ve had a little chuckle to myself when I’ve recently thought “he must have been psychic.”

The other phenomenon I’ve experienced is the sheer wealth of information contained within that orange-black-and-white tome. I’ve found myself craving a highlighter, that I might go over the passages that really stand out and speak to me, but I’d have a book positively dripping with yellow. I’ve been honestly and without hyperbole describing it as “the best book ever written on the subject of everything.” I lament the fact that I won’t be able to keep all this in my head for the rest of my life. The passages throughout this book are so perfect, so useful, so relevant, that I’d like to have them at my fingertips for quoting and showing off in various arguments and other writings.

So, as I finished the acknowledgments, these two phenomena collided. Dr. Sagan had anticipated this, too. I nearly cried.

The book is indexed.

Thanks, Carl. You’re the best.