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.

Meme Debunking #2: Publicity

I liked my post on the toxic immigration meme that I think I’m going to turn it into a series. I won’t say “regular series,” but when I come across phrases and memes that deserve a little skeptical examination, I’ll spend a little time debunking them. Consider it a paltry companion to Bronze Dog’s Doggerel series.

You know that saying “any publicity is good publicity”? People actually believe that. I see it a lot in discussions about bad comics especially: “it may be bad, but at least it has people talking.” And that sort of thing.

And yet, it’s obviously false. Painfully obviously.

Think about it this way: if there’s no such thing as bad publicity, why are there PR firms? Why does the term “damage control” exist? Why is there such a thing as spin?

When oil started pumping into the Gulf of Mexico, BP started running frequent ads championing their efforts to clean it up. When Toyota had to recall a bunch of their cars because of gas pedal problems, they released ads championing their responsibility and safety record. When GM was just coming out of a bankruptcy scare, they released ads about their stability and commitment to innovation.

If any publicity really were good publicity, would any of these companies spent so much money to contain the potential damage to their images?

It’s true that bad publicity gets people talking, and in some cases, to some degree, it might get people checking out the subject out of morbid curiosity. Hell, it’s why I saw “The Last Airbender.” But there’s a point where people aren’t just talking, they’re talking about how bad the subject is, and that has a major negative effect.

We’ve seen how bad PR has directly negatively affected vaccination rates, GMOs, High Fructose Corn Syrup, nuclear power, and various other topics under the typical skeptical purview. There’s no reason for anyone with the capacity for critical thought to believe that it’s true. So I think it’s high time we put this meme to bed–or at least subjected it to some bad publicity.