SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

“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.

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.


15 Responses to ““COSMOS” concludes”

  1. David Linther says:

    I like Prothero’s easily accessible writing, and the article addresses important major accomplishments of the series, as well as putting its shortcomings in perspective.

  2. Mark Scurry says:

    I thought Cosmos was just brilliant. I loved how Tyson didn’t try to imitate Sagan; he instead was just great being himself. I loved how he told the stories, I loved how they presented scientific consensus without any kind of pandering to ignorant minds.

    I found it both informative and entertaining. I hadn’t heard of Clair Patterson and the timing was perfect because I was interested in reading about radiometric dating. I liked how when different myths were told it wasn’t just the ones most of us are familiar with – the Epic of Gilgamesh being a great example. I loved how Carl Sagan’s version started in the Library of Alexandria and Tyson’s ended there. Putting in little snippets of Sagan now and again was a lovely touch, but yet it felt like a new show; not a repeat of the old.

    Most of all, I loved his final comment when going through I guess the scientific process – “if you have a pet theory, and the data doesn’t support it, you’re wrong. Get over it”.

    I’m just sad that I don’t have it to look forward to on Sunday nights now, but hopefully more quality programs such as this will be made.

  3. Canman says:

    Are people like Neil Degrass Tyson allergic to nuclear fission? He ignores it in episode 12 . Peter Hadfield ignores it in the energy discusion of his latest Potholer54 climate video:

    • tmac57 says:

      I think it is more of a case that investors are ‘allergic’ to nuclear fission.

      • Canman says:

        I’d say they have become addicted to wind and solar subsidies. These subsidies are particularly short sighted when you consider that there is no economically viable solution to the “duck curve”.

  4. Greg says:

    I love the new Cosmos, but don’t be too optimistic about audience. The large part of those 4 millions may be temporary cross overs from PBS. Those “who are science illiterate, and still think humans roamed with dinosaurs, or that the Earth is the center of the universe” are probably ignored the show.

  5. Ashley Haworth-roberts says:

    Ken Ham is not happy about your post:
    I dare to suggest that Mr Ham is reacting like Mr Prothero was ONLY talking about him.

    • WOW! I must have made the BIG TIME to get savaged by Ken Ham! He’s ignored most of my other posts about him (and this one only mentions him briefly).

      • Mark Scurry says:

        Congratulations Don, you must be so proud! :)

      • Ed Graham says:

        It’s so difficult, on the one hand is Science, a method of searching for the truth.

        On the other hand, all you have to do is believe some crap that someone made up thousands of years ago.

        Wish I knew what to do…

  6. colnago80 says:

    Ken Ham is a grifter who, I suspect, believes little of the rubbish that he preaches.

  7. Luke Weston says:

    To be honest, I think Cosmos could have done more to counteract the problem of science denial that we see today, and in a couple of episodes it failed to do this, when there was real potential there to do it effectively.

    For example, I thought the Clair Patterson episode was pretty good. It’s good to be skeptical of profit-driven businesses and corporations, to ask them skeptical questions, and expect them to read and to use the best available honest science from high quality sources. And as a serendipitous side-effect of his radiochemical measurement of the age of the Earth, Patterson made a very significant discovery about the magnitude of anthropogenic lead releases to the surface environment. And there was pressure on him from the corporations that were funding him.

    However, not everything that you don’t agree with is a Big Bad Industry Conspiracy.

    Just about every scientist I know has, at one time or another, been on the receiving end of the usual “You’re a shill! You’re a liar! You’re paid by them! It’s all a big conspiracy by the corporations!” when discussing the facts and science concerning technologies such as vaccination, water fluoridation, nuclear energy or biotechnology. Patterson’s story could have been combined with a message to help stop that type of behaviour, but it wasn’t.

    (As an aside, Clair Patterson was able to accurately measure the age of the Earth by taking the new technology that he had helped develop and mastered during the war, building and operating the enormous industrial-scale mass spectrometers at Oak Ridge that would gradually pry apart, atom by atom, the isotope-separated uranium for the Hiroshima bomb. After the war he would take the strange new tools and technologies of isotope mass spectrometry and radiochemistry and use them to finally unlock one of the greatest questions in natural science – at the same time as these new tools of the nuclear age, particle accelerators, nuclear reactors and artificial radionuclides, were rapidly providing scientists in all fields of medicine and basic science with great new revelations – how photosynthesis works, how oxygen transport in the body works, how DNA replication works, etc, along with powerful new tools for diagnostics, imaging, cancer therapy and the like.)

    Episode 12 wasn’t perfect either.

    For example, many credible scientists and studies have found that nuclear power is a highly cost effective, scalable, reliable, technologically mature technology for the real-world rapid large-scale replacement of existing coal-burning power plants, and that it is cheaper, more realistic, faster and less environmentally intensive than diffuse, unreliable and expensive solar and wind energy. But this wasn’t mentioned at all.

    We see huge areas of wind farms and solar mirrors stretching as far as the eye can see – realistically, they probably generate about the same amount energy over that area as one single coal-fired or nuclear power plant. Probably much less energy, and less reliably.

    And although an anti-nuclear-power message was never explicitly spoken – because they know it cannot scientifically be defended – to make it worse we cut from these images of a “wind and solar can do it all” utopia to the mushroom cloud of a nuclear weapon, as though that’s some sort of contrasting alternative.

    Was including the role of nuclear power “politically incorrect”, or unfavoured by the producers or the networks? Was there any pressure to keep it out? And if there was, what would Clair Patterson do?

    • Matt says:

      @luke. I think cosmos did well in regarding to the problems of science deniers by lightly raising the subject instead of a more vigorous approach. I think cosmos reached more people this way. I think people who are deniers would be turned off too quick if tyson came in more aggressive. However its clear you paid more attention then me since I don’t remember as much specifics from episodes and a couple re watches are on the way. Making deniers feel comfortable enough to watch cosmos and to get them to maybe think about their positions would be good enough for me. Of course I’d love all of them to accept science but any step in the right direction is a win IMO. The deniers I have come across have this attitude in that it takes very little for them to stop any thinking about what you are saying. They put up these walls… so gently easing them into this subject is the best way IMO.

      • Michael says:


        I am a denier of the belief that skeptics have the job of trying to change the minds of “deniers [you] have come across,” whether by “gently easing them into” a subject or by banging them over the head with your moral superiority.

        Care to try to end my skepticism on this subject?

        I mean, there must be some backing to your belief that you should be out there converting deniers to your cause (whatever it is, I can never figure out from reading blogs like this) – so, please spell it out in terms a rationalist, atheist, biology-degree-holding, engineer like me can understand.

        Do you (or anyone else reading this) have any evidence that beliefs were changed from watching this show? If not, then what was its purpose?

  8. Michael says:

    If anyone is still reading here: I thought the whole thing was a waste of time. It dumbed down the topics so far as to be pointless. Dr. Tyson talked like his audience was grade-schoolers and they deliberately skewed the history segments to make the protagonists seem more important than they were. Whenever they had the opportunity to go for the cheap jab at whomever the producers didn’t like, they took it. Not all religionists are anti-science. Not all corporations are out to strip-mine the wilderness. Not all people who think there are problems with renewable energy are AGW deniers. And most people don’t really care about understanding evolution exactly the way it occurred because it has zero effect on their lives.

    If the producers and writers were trying to get mainstream TV watchers interested in science, they failed, mostly because they didn’t believe that the watchers were smart enough to think for themselves. If the people involved in this show didn’t try so hard to force-feed “The TRUTH” to their viewers, they may have had a better result.