The Religion of Cosmos

I finally figured out what bothers me so much about the new Cosmos series on Fox.

I had a conversation today about it because I mentioned I hated it. I went on for a while about the little things I disliked—the overfond and inaccurate cartoon about Bruno; the simplistic and outdated inaccuracies in describing the outer solar system; or discarding non-Eurocentric contributions to the development of heliocentrism.

That sounds like nitpicking. As long as more people get interested in science, right? That’s the point, after all, isn’t it?

I then mentioned that Seth MacFarlane produced the whole thing. He’s a pretty disgusting human being in general, and that was enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth about the show. I muscled through, though, and watched the whole first episode. I think it was the long Bruno fable which turned me off the most. MacFarlane comes down pretty anti-religion in his various previous cartoons, and it shone through most nakedly during the Bruno segment. I’m speculating here in supposing that MacFarlane’s attested bias against religion in general influenced Cosmos, but I don’t feel like I’m that far out on a limb, especially given the degree to which facts were twisted to support their narrative—one of an iconoclast setting science against the Church. As a fable, it smacked of a moral which I found hypocritical.

It’s that overall narrative, which the fable embodies, that gives me the most pause. To hear Cosmos tell it, you’d think that science were some sort of higher truth which simply reveals itself to its earthly avatars: like Copernicus being the first to dream of heliocentrism—which pit him in opposition to a false religion motivated by delusion at best or avarice for power at worst. It gives no clue into the story of how Copernicus came to his conclusions or how they were accepted.1 Heliocentrism simply becomes a new truth, and woe betide those who deny it.

In other words, this new version of Cosmos robs science of its human element and simply establishes its own divinity in place of the Catholic Church, which it rejects. It leaves little place for human inquiry and human ability, by simply presenting another truth, whole cloth, with no room for the story of debate, mistakes, dead-ends, or discovery. We’re asked to trade one authority for another. That message isn’t empowering or inspiring. It isn’t even a message; it’s indoctrination.

That appeal to authority bugged me the most about the episode. For that reason, I felt harshly critical about every other little detail out of place because viewers would feel little room to question what they saw. For example, mentioning the Oort Cloud as a proven fact, without mentioning it’s still hypothetical and unproven, really bugged me—and this with no mention of the Kuiper belt at all!

When Giordano Bruno, a non-scientific mystic, forms a core part of the parable, what’s the lesson? When we come away from Cosmos that only a few may be initiated into the secrets of science through methods wholly unknown to us, how can Cosmos inspire new scientists?

(Clarifying edits were made on 7 May 2018.)