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“COSMOS” concludes

by Donald Prothero, Jun 11 2014


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. Continue reading…

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“Cosmos” Reboots

by Donald Prothero, Mar 12 2014

Like many scientists, for over a year I’ve been anxiously awaiting the first episode of the new version of “Cosmos,” starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson. A reboot of the classic series originally done by Carl Sagan in 1980, this version is co-written and co-produced by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan. It is also co-produced by “Family Guy” creator Seth Macfarlane and by Jason Clark (producer of “42”, “Ted”, and the newly released “Mr. Peabody and Sherman”, which premiered the same weekend; he’s married to former actress Kimberly Beck, a high-school classmate of mine).  I figured with these people at the helm, and Tyson as the spokesperson, they would not disappoint. But I was not prepared for how amazing the first episode turned out, even given those high expectations.

It aired on Sunday, March 9, on Fox, which had me a bit concerned, given the political bent of their news network, but this was because Macfarlane has good connections at Fox thanks to “Family Guy”. As the evening started, I was watching my Facebook feed and Twitter to see the reactions from those who saw it in all the time zones before I got my chance in Pacific Daylight Time. I was a bit worried to see a few of my Facebook friends didn’t like the show, but overall it seemed that most of them loved it. Finally, we got the kids to bed and it aired at 9:00 p.m. our time. This is mighty late if they wanted to reach anyone under 12, or for early-to-bed, early-to-rise people like me who get up before 6:00 a.m. It is especially so since we had just gotten the change to Daylight Saving Time that same morning, and most of our biological clocks were out of whack. Continue reading…

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Sagan Versus the Flying Saucers (an Excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50)

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 09 2014


With the world of popular science nerdery (my world!) on fire with excitement for tonight’s premiere of the new television miniseries Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, I thought I might share a small excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50—our special celebratory look back at the life and legacy of Carl Sagan. You can find this short, kid-friendly biography of one of skeptical history’s most inspiring figures bound inside Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1, which ships shortly. Subscribe to Skeptic today in digital or print formats!

For age-appropriate simplicity, the format of Junior Skeptic does not include endnotes (though I often call out important sources in sidebars or in the text of the story itself). Here, for your interest, I’ve included some relevant citation endnotes from my research: Continue reading…

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Revealing Cover of Junior Skeptic 50

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 03 2014

Cover of Junior Skeptic 50 (bound inside Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1). Art by Daniel Loxton. All rights reserved.

I’m very happy (even possibly, I’ll admit it, a little giddy) to reveal my cover artwork for our special, celebratory 50th issue of Junior Skeptic, bound inside the upcoming Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1! Stand by for more details this week, but I think you’ll know what I mean when I say that this Junior Skeptic hearkens back to the very best of the skeptical tradition—our warmest, strongest heart.

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Is Debating Pseudoscience a Good Idea? Carl Sagan Weighs In

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 03 2014

Tomorrow, as many of you know, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” will take the stage with Answers in Genesis frontman Ken Ham to debate the topic of evolution. For those of you interested, the event may be watched streaming for free, live at 7 PM Eastern on February 4, 2014.

Are such debates a good idea? As you might gather from the many divergent opinions on Nye’s choice, the answer is far from clear. Too much depends upon the circumstances, format, and participants of the “debate.” Also, it is often argued—and I tend to agree with this argument—that there are figures too cynical to be fruitfully engaged in any format. (My initial gut feeling was that Ham may not be a fair-minded opponent, and that this particular debate may not have been a wise decision for Nye for that reason—though Randy Olson has almost brought me around with this thoughtful post.)

But the wider meta-question is not a new one. I thought it might be interesting to share a decades-old argument in favor of public engagement with fringe ideas and their proponents by a pioneering voice for modern scientific skepticism: Carl Sagan. It reminds me that “debating pseudoscience” is, when you get down to it, what skeptics do.

In December of 1969, a symposium on the topic of UFOs was hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Organized by Sagan and Thornton Page, it almost didn’t happen at all. For over a year, the symposium faced passionate opposition from scientists who believed that hosting such an exchange would lend inappropriate legitimacy and stage time to the fringe, and all at the expense of the science. “A distinguished scientist once threatened to sic then Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew on me,” Sagan later recalled, “if I persisted in organizing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which both proponents and opponents of the extraterrestrial-spacecraft hypothesis of UFO origins would be permitted to speak.”1

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Wonderful Phenomena Demand Wonderful Evidence

by Daniel Loxton, Dec 11 2012

Growing up in a family of silvicultural contractors, much of my parents’ dinner table conversation revolved around the low bid system, which made the treeplanting industry a deeply exasperating, boom-and-bust roller-coaster. The challenge was how to work out bids which would cover the costs of the work and allow us to keep a roof over our heads through the winter, while also somehow outbidding people who didn’t know how to do that. Maddeningly, startup treeplanting companies were constantly jumping in with an incomplete appreciation of the complexity and risks (and therefore true costs) of running large contracts. The inexperienced routinely underbid the experienced—leaving us hungry—and then went promptly out of business. So I grew up with the lesson that things are always more complicated than they look at first glance—a lesson my work in skepticism has never failed to confirm.

At art school, I learned another lesson no less applicable to understanding paranormal and fringe claims: originality isn’t really a thing. Too many people have been sharing ideas for too long to support the conceit that our own ideas offer much in the way of substantial novelty.

I’m reminded of both lessons right now, as my research takes me a little deeper into skeptical history. Case in point: the well known and often repeated skeptical slogan, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

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Carl Sagan remembered

by Phil Plait, Nov 11 2009

carlsagan_smilingMonday, November 9, was Carl Sagan’s 75th birthday. It would be nice if he were still around to send him the greeting personally, but sadly, he died too young: in 1996 he succumbed to complications of myleodysplasia. As he himself noted, though, the progress of science — medical science in this case — kept him alive far longer than would otherwise have been possible. Up to the end, he was an evangelist of science.
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Carl Sagan Day

by Steven Novella, Nov 09 2009

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
– Carl Sagan

Since I started blogging I have written about Carl Sagan on or about his birthday – November 9th. This year Sagan would have been 75 years old – we definitely lost him far too soon.

Sagan remains an important figure to the skeptical movement for various reasons. He made it popular to popularize science, and simultaneously showed us how it’s done. He condemned pseudoscience without seeming dismissive or judgmental. He emphasized the wonder and awe of science with poetry and power. And he had a way of forcing you to step back and take a broader perspective on the nature of things.

His signature series – Cosmos – was a breakthrough, in my opinion. What separated that series from what was (and unfortunately often still remains) the standard in science documentaries was the way in which Sagan constructed the stories of science as a personal journey. It became our personal journey as we followed Sagan through the Cosmos. Most science documentaries are constructed of talking heads looking off camera, voice overs, and graphics. In Cosmos, Sagan was talking directly to us. He was taking us gently by the hand and leading us on an adventure of discovery.

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