March 11, 2014

Chaotic Cosmos

There is a crying need for good popular science programing on TV. PBS still manages to come up with it on a regular basis (Nova, Nature) and there are some excellent series out there (Blue Planet, Planet Earth). But much of the cable world -- and you know who I mean -- seems more interested in hot-ticket alien abductions or exoticism of the Mondo Cane sort. When I heard that Neil deGrasse Tyson was involved in a reboot of the old Carl Sagan series, Cosmos, I was optimistic.

Too optiimistic. Tyson has done some good work in the past, and he has an engaging personality and enthusiasm. However, on viewing, I found the first episode chaotic and misdirected, with too many different sub-segments in no apparent logical order. Even Tyson seemed to have lost some of his infectious enthusiasm. Sadly that is the least of its problems. At base, it lost focus on its primary theme as an introductory episode, by getting sidetracked into a polemical cul de sac.

This was in the form of an over-long section on Giordano Bruno, which was deeply flawed for several reasons, most importantly in that it did not present a case for the conflict between the scientific method — which Tyson laid out briefly at one point: observation, experiment, testing, rejection of disproved hypotheses — and religious dogma.

It failed in being a helpful contribution because — as Tyson also briefly and somewhat off-handedly acknowledged — Bruno was not a scientist. He came to his views about the universe on the basis of theological and philosophical reflection (on Lucretius) and an ecstatic vision. The fact that he got a couple of details sort of correct on this basis is of no more import to the history of science than that Hinduism, for example, has had a better sense of the age of the cosmos than the Judeo-Christian tradition does.

Moreover, Bruno was not persecuted primarily on account of his cosmology, but on account of his peculiar doctrinal positions on almost every article of the Creed. He denied the Incarnation, for example, a detail somewhat (though likely unintentionally) reflected in the animated account of his trials by his repulsed turning away from the cross at his execution, an accurate detail based on eye-witness evidence. His reliance on private revelation was also deeply problematical and, of course, he could offer no scientific evidence for his views, since they did not arise from science, but pure speculation.

This was a conflict within a religious context, not one between dogma and reason. Bruno was as much a dogmatic religious ideologue as those who persecuted him. This was not about the scientific method running into conflict with a dogmatic religious institution. So why Bruno was chosen to be highlighted in this first diffuse episode -- rather than the one of the real scientists who ran into conflict not only with the church but other scientists (who can also be very dogmatic) — escapes me. Unless, that is, it was just meant as a cheap and dramatic shot against "religion." In which case, it missed, since Bruno was as "religious" as the church.

Oh, and speaking of religious, he was a friar (Dominican) and not a monk.

I'll return to see the second episode, but I hope it is better than the first, on all counts. Focus, people, focus!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Paul Theerman said...

As to why Bruno: Tyson follows in a long nineteenth-century debate that firmly places Bruno, with Galileo, as opponents of authoritarianism. It's a fascianting episode, redolent of nineteenth-century liberalism/conservatism debates. It still has legs, though.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Paul. That comes across, but is, as you say, rather dated. I can recall an article from 1973 in Scientific American about Bruno that clarified the issue the church had with him wasn't about cosmology, but Christian doctrine.

I just don't think the authoritarianism debate is as relevant to our time as a clear exposition of the nature of science, vs the nature of fideism, would be. Conservatism is not isolated to religion, and science can be as resistant to change when pet theories get tumbled. The point is that they get tumbled by the scientific method winning out -- and it is that method that people don't seem to understand these days.

For instance, the uneducated don't seem to grasp the difference between a theory (such as Relativity or Evolution) and a hypothesis. They dismiss evolution as "just a theory." I hope time will be spent on dealing with these substantive issues rather than taking shots at "authority." On those issues Jacob Brownowski's old series Ascent of Man did a far better job, including some of the conflicts within the scientific community.

Tobias Haller said...

Sorry, should be Bronowski.

Paul Theerman said...

I agree, and also remember fondly the Bronowski series. It would have been good to look, in both contexts, at adherence to past ideas--that provides the context for engagement--as well as the process of making past ideas real in the present, which provides the opportunity for innovation and discovery. Without pushing the similarities too strongly, both science and theology are profoundly human enterprises.

I'm just amazed that Fox is taking on the series, with its unabashed endorsement of evolution. Friends of mine who watch Fox are certainly skeptical if not outright antagonistic to the idea of evolution. Although Fox and Fox News are two different things.

Tobias Haller said...

I imagine that Seth MacFarlane is the key element in the Fox connection -- though yes, not the "News" outlet. I look forward to seeing how they handle evolution when they get to the details.

Fr. Chip, SF said...

I just do not believe that Tyson has either the general knowledge, the inquisitive and open mindset, or the experience ro replace Carl Sagan on a program like Cosmos.

I don't even have TV now in our cabin, but from the comments of others, it was not much to miss!