Ep 1 of Cosmos, “Waking Up in the Milky Way” aired 14 weeks ago. Those TV signals are now entering the Oort Cloud of comets.
-Neil deGrasse Tyson
After 14 weeks, “Cosmos” has finally aired all its original 13 episodes (with one week off on Memorial Day weekend). Now that it’s over, we can step back and assess it for its intrinsic value, and also for its possible effects on culture.
When Episode 1 first aired, there were a mix of reactions. Most of us were overwhelmingly positive about what we saw in the first episode, with the state-of-the art special effects as they tour the universe contrasted with the deliberately crude animations that portray historical figures and events. There were a lot of nitpickers who were horrified about the small scientific errors in the first episode. True, there should be no sound in the vacuum of space, and the asteroid belt or the Oort cloud are not as tightly packed with objects as the animation suggests. But most reviewers regarded those things as minor errors which don’t detract from the overall message, and are only noticeable to the relevant experts. The nitpickers missing the point: Modern lay audiences, conditioned by generations of sci-fi movies with dense clusters of objects and sound in space, wouldn’t even know how to comprehend something which was TOO accurate. Personally, I would have liked to have seen them be more careful about particular geological and paleontological details. I cringed when they put Early Permian Dimetrodon in the landscape of the Late Permian extinction, and other prehistoric anachronisms; I wish someone had coached them to pronounce Bruce Heezen’s name properly (HAY-zen, NOT HEE-zen); I wish they had presented a more pluralistic and accurate account of the Cretaceous extinctions, instead of the simplistic “asteroid did it—end of story” version so popular in the media, but not supported by the evidence.
But these are all trivial issues, noticeable to only a handful of scientific specialists. Some were deliberate choices to make it more audience-friendly; others were small goofs that a few more consultants in paleontology and geology could have fixed. Complaining about this misses the point: this show is intended for the high-percentage of Americans who are science illiterate, and still think humans roamed with dinosaurs, or that the Earth is the center of the universe. You’ve got to “Keep it Simple, Stupid”, to reach this audience, which no other science programming currently reaches. You’ve got to amp up the entertainment and “Wow” factor to pull their attention away from the crap on other channels. Most of all, you need to present it in a friendly, matter-of-fact, but awe-inspiring, gee-whiz fashion so that people will be caught up in the thrills of the wonders of science, and won’t have a chance to think twice about their superstitions and misconceptions. And that is what “Cosmos” did, in spades. Several times we were given the “Cosmic Calendar” to remind us how insignificant humans are in the scope of geologic time, and grand tours of the universe that remind us of our insignificance in the context of the immensity of space. Many times we were reminded about how unlikely the existence of intelligent life is, how improbably our own evolution was, and how vulnerable our presence on this planet is, while we do our best to foul our nest. Many times were were reminded of the huge advances we have made in science and technology, often contrasted with the historic background of ignorance, or the touching stories of the pioneering scientists who made that discovery—always reminding us how much science has changed our world for the better. We saw Bruno burned at the stake for defying the Church, Clair Patterson attacked by Big Industry for discovering that we were poisoning our world with lead, and Michael Faraday making amazing discoveries in electromagnetism despite his lower-class background and limited education. “Cosmos” devoted an entire episode to evolution without once toning it down or kowtowing to religious nuts, and an entire episode to the reality of climate change while shredding the arguments of the energy industries and the climate deniers. (The visual metaphor of the wandering dog as short-term weather vs. Tyson’s steady path as climate as they strolled on a beach was brilliant.) As both Tyson and especially Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan (the main writer) pointed out, they felt the need to revive “Cosmos” after the alarming rise of anti-science in this country and the horrific attacks that science deniers have made not only on the scientific research community, but especially on our science literacy (something that Carl Sagan was particularly worried about).
A measure of the effectiveness and reach of “Cosmos” came from the non-stop attacks from the creationist and right-wing community. The Discovery Institute ID creationist site savaged nearly every episode, as did Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis site, and numerous other creationist and climate-denier outlets. They gave no such attention to Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” on PBS, even though it presented evolution is an even more friendly but unyielding, matter-of-fact fashion without even mentioning religion once. These anti-science forces do not regard Shubin’s show, with its limited, mostly well educated PBS audience, as much of a threat to reach their core audience. This is just like how they ignore episodes of “Nova” that cover evolution and climate change. But “Cosmos” with its slot on a major network on Sunday prime time, had not only a much bigger audience, but especially an audience which might not get PBS or HBO or basic cable, and is seldom reached by the educational shows on those channels.
So how big was its audience? It’s on a very crowded Sunday night schedule, going against huge hits like HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, as well as the usual garbage on the networks, such as ABC’s “The Bachelorette”. Still, it’s managed to pull in about 4 million viewers each Sunday, beating most of its network competition easily, let alone most of the cable networks. That’s much bigger than the audience for Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” on PBS (or even, for that matter, Sagan’s original “Cosmos” on PBS). As Tyson put it in an interview:
Overall, Tyson notes, Cosmos premiered not only on Fox but on National Geographic Channel and, globally, in 181 countries and 46 languages. “It tells you that science is trending in our culture,” Tyson averred to me. “And if science is trending, that can only be good for the health, the wealth, and the security of our species, of our civilization.”
More importantly, it has a huge lead in the young adult audience, the ones that advertisers covet most. That’s extremely encouraging, since it is the younger generation that will soon inherit the mess of the world that we older generations left them, and they need all the science literacy they can get to solve the problems we now face. It also is consistent with the polls that show the younger generation (especially the Millennials and the twenty-somethings) are the least likely to follow creationism or fundamentalist religion, and the most supportive of science, especially the reality of global climate change. In another few election cycles, their generation will be the biggest part of the electorate (along with the expanding numbers of minorities and women), so “Cosmos” is apparently reaching just the right audience to improve science literacy where it really counts. “Cosmos” continues to live online as well, and just came out in DVD, so it’s readily accessible to any audience long after it first aired. Many people say that Sagan’s original “Cosmos” inspired them to their current attitudes about science, especially lots of scientists. Let’s hope that the current “Cosmos” has that effect on future generations.