Last night I watched Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Captain of FOX TV’s Cosmos “Ship of the Imagination,” pilot that electric-razor-like craft on a Fantastic Voyage down into a Pleistocene Era polar bear’s blood vessels, through its heart, then, with a Samantha-esque twitch of his magical nose, zoom to molecular scale, to show me the bear’s Crayola-colored strands of DNA. The Captain went on to show and tell how from that Ice Age Irish bear’s mutant genes came generation after generation of offspring, perfectly suited by their white coats to the snow-covered landscape. Their brethren brown-coated bears, the Captain’s cartoon amanuensis declared, went down to extinction.
Like his mentor, Cosmos-explicating astrophysicist Carl Sagan, Captain Tyson could have used a historian of science as co-pilot. (I would nominate Charles Fort over Thomas Kuhn, to keep the tone light-hearted and “accessible”) Accompanied by the most spectacular visual imagery, Tyson told a series of ‘just-so’ stories to illustrate what Cosmos foregrounds as the ‘mechanism’ of creation – natural selection. “The theory of evolution – like the theory of gravity –” Tyson intones, “is scientific fact.” Would that sci-fi fan producer Seth MacFarlane had taken a page out of the old “Mystery Science Theater,” and included running commentary from shadowrama puppets: “HA! There goes another howler! That Tyson is the King of Incommensurables! But he walks and talks with such authority!” This Intelligent Design proponent does an excellent job of highlighting Cosmos‘s howlers.
Cosmos is a spectacular example of the boldfaced hubris of modern science – and science ‘infotainment.’ If you should tune in to the next episode, keep a scorecard handy. Every time the Captain tells a story, keep track of the accompanying visual imagery. Is it a computer animation of an extinct creature? A cartoon of some historical event or an imagined evolutionary progression? Keep asking yourself: how does he know this? Bit-by-bit, one can extricate oneself from the seductive narrative conjuring of the all-knowing Captain. You can even begin to see Neil DeGrasse Tyson as the Wizard of Oz, or a garden variety stage magician, practicing digital legerdemain. “Imagination” and “magic” share the same root, and Cosmos practices a dishonest grey magic of dazzling the viewer with a cascade of slick CGI images; a handsome, honey-voiced guide; and swelling soundtrack.
In the first episode of the Cosmos reboot, Tyson revealed the real destination of its “Ship of the Imagination” – a future where the notion of God has joined the denizens of the Halls of Extinction, its selective maladaptiveness finally having put it where it belongs, with trilobites, mastodons, and saber-toothed cats. Tyson in that segment enlarged on a historical error he has repeated in at least three of his bestselling books – that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for embracing a vision of a multiplicity of suns in the Universe. For a brief discussion of Tyson’s error, see this Slate article.
After two episodes of Cosmos, Tyson has hardly said anything about the stars! So far this epic fantasy has largely consisted of a sustained attack on religion. There are 11 more episodes to come; stay tuned, and keep that scorecard handy!