Educational television is back in prime time with Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey starring astrophysicist and media-darling Neil deGrasse Tyson. At a time when science education is under unprecedented levels of attack, this reboot is a breath of fresh air. Of course, there will be resistance, the science-phobia gripping the nation won't be easy to treat, even with a teacher as entertaining and engaging as Tyson.
As a documentary host, Tyson will be approaching all topics as an educator. This show is his lesson, it's not a debate and he will not be giving equal time to nonsensical alternative options. This show is for science and if there is a non-scientific argument to anything he says, it will simply not be acknowledged.
"Carl Sagan would debate people on all manner of issues," said Tyson. "And I don't have the time or the energy or the interest in doing so. As an educator, I'd rather just get people thinking straight in the first place, so I don't have to then debate them later on."
He acknowledges the resistance established beliefs have against new information, though, as he illustrates in an anecdotal story about Giordano Bruno. In an animated sequence he tells about Bruno's vision that an infinite god created an infinite universe with infinite worlds circling infinite suns, his struggles in trying to teach these controversial beliefs, and ultimately his death at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. This story illustrates that even things we all fully accept as common knowledge once faced resistance by established dogma.
This is the story that has been attacked by the religious right, showing their desperation to attack something. None of the arguments have passed the sniff test and most seem to indicate that the viewer either didn't understand the segment or didn't really watch it. Many of the "corrections" involve giving us the same information given in the segment, meaning no correction was actually made. The articles condemning the show for these "grievous errors" are writing for those who will never watch Cosmos.
The critical article There Was One Big Problem With Sunday's 'Cosmos' Episode has really made its rounds around the Internet. In it, Jennifer Welsh sums up Discover's Corey S. Powell's attempts to make some rational arguments that are unnecessary and not entirely rational. He's mostly upset that the heliocentric promoter of his choice wasn't touched on instead. Since Welsh put Powell's arguments into a simple bullet-point format, I will go through each point adding my own comments.
1) The idea of infinite space originated a century before Bruno, with the German philosopher Nicolas of Cusa.
It originated long before that. According to the Cosmos segment being "corrected" Bruno's views were inspired by the writings of Lucretius, a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from 99 BCE - 55 BCE.
2) Bruno wasn't a scientist. According to Powell, "his interests were theological, not physical, and his astronomical writings are considered amateurish and confused."
Bruno wasn't a scientist according to Tyson on Cosmos.
3) His writings were mostly theological in nature — and he was using them to push his own theology (set against the Catholic church). That simple fact was the real reason he was burnt at the stake.
As was all "science" of the time. Some people got lucky and made very real discoveries, but this was done by philosophers and poets. Math was an established science at the time, but it was also practiced mainly by poets and philosophers.
As for why he was burned at the stake? Politics. Don't disagree with those who rule. This is not an argument against anything that was claimed in the segment, unless you're trying to claim that the Church's actions were justified.
4) The church listed eight charges against Bruno during his trial, and only one of these was related to his astronomical guesses. According to Powell, "the others involved denying the divinity of Jesus, denying the virgin birth, denying transubstantiation, practicing magic, and believing that animals and objects (including the Earth) possessed souls."
More stuff that doesn't matter and isn't even the slightest bit related to science. What charges were brought against Bruno by the Church is not proof of anything. Only one was related to his views on astronomy? So what? Does that mean if someone is on trial for murder, but they also tacked on a bunch of other charges like resisting arrest, then that person is not really on trial for murder?
5) Unlike how he is portrayed in the "Cosmos" animation, Bruno didn't spend his life poor or alone. He was well-funded, and held positions as a professor.
It's called drama. This is a prime-time television show. I'm not excusing inaccurate information, I'm saying don't be so G*dd*mned nitpicky. This is a show about the ENTIRE UNIVERSE. Sorry they couldn't spend more time on your personal hero.
6) Bruno's wandering ways are more likely the result of his temperament than his cosmological ideas — he's described as "argumentative, sarcastic, and drawn to controversy."
Tyson says in the beginning of the Bruno sequence that he was "a natural born rebel." His wandering probably is the result of many contributing factors, from his habit of upsetting the status quo to his active mind and restless spirit. Again, though, this argument has nothing to do with science.
The biggest problem with this unreasonable line of reasoning is the anti-science crowd is pouncing on Powell's arguments without comprehending them and forwarding them furiously through the interwebs. The TRUTH (with a capital T) is that all of these arguments would only matter if they were criticizing a documentary about Giordano Bruno.
Instead all of these people are coming out of the woodwork to criticize a show about the whole and entire universe for not spending more time on one single human being who led to some of our current knowledge. This is utterly ridiculous.
Hopefully the detractors don't damage anyone's view of this wonderful show. Next episode airs this Sunday on Fox at 9pm Eastern/8pm Central.