Monday, June 16, 2014

Subversive television.

The digital curtain came down last weekend on the thirteen-part documentary Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by astrophysisit Neil deGrasse Tyson.  It was high production value subversive televison.  Why?  Because among the core messges put forward was that science counts, that evolution is central to our story and, of most immediate concern, that global warming is real and a product of human folly.  President Obama had somethng further to say about that and about the denyers in his recent and very forceful UC Irvine commencement address (worth watching).  Cosmos reminds us once again that our universe is so vast as to be beyond our full comprehension and that we are not at its center.  None of that is really subversive, unless of course you are among the many in America, including in the political class, who cling to myths and stories which they take literally and claim to be absolute immutable fact.  Perhaps not the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it, but bad enough.  These are the neibors who continue to deny what is before them in full sight. 

Full disclosure.  The Tysons are decades long and very dear friends.  I worked closely with Ty Tyson when he directed the anti-poverty program of which I was a founder back in the 1960s.  I first encountered Neil when he was but a boy and as an adult he wrote a very generous blurb for my book, Transcenders.  I am grateful for both the enduring family friendship and especially for his kindness.

For both Tyson and for Ann Druyan the current documentary is very much a labor of love.  It is a contemporary update, of Carl Sagan’s iconic PBS series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  Sagan was an inspiring hero in Tyson’s early days and continues to be so.  Druyan was his wife, a co-creator of the original series, and the writer/co-producer of this one.  Of course video technology has come a long way since 1980 and commercial TV affords bells and whistles that just aren’t in the reach of public broadcasting.  Cosmos makes the most of both.  At times, they get a little bit in the way, but ultimately serve to support the narrative.  Tyson’s has had his own PBS show, appears often before cameras and is at heart what he self defines as an educator.  The sum total of all that has produced perhaps our preeminent and compelling conveyor/translator of otherwise complicated cosmic science.  An unabashed science proselytizer, his ambition is to reach the widest possible audience.

Vincent van Gogh: The Starry Night
The story Cosmos tells is subversive.  What’s remarkable is that it comes to us via the same outlet that brings Fox News. This should serve as a cautionary reminder that it isn’t always a good idea to filter our viewing or listening by considering the source (a habit mentioned in a recent post). That said, Cosmos did not sit well with many of those with whom we generally associate as either Fox presenters or viewers. To many among them and to a wide swath of fundamentalists the series has definitely been controversial, subversive.  A comprehensive review of the specifics can be found in Dan Arel’s Salon piece, 13 ways Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” sent the religious right off the deep end.  Again, worth a look.

In that regard, among the great and unresolved debates of our and earlier times is whether religion and science are compatible.  For some of religion’s adherents, especially of the orthodox and fundamentalist kind, the answer is pretty simple.  They are not.  A recent Gallup poll makes that quite clear and in fact suggests that the conflict between religion and science extends pretty far in this country.   Here are the introductory lines of Gallup’s report:

More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades. Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guided the evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved is rising.

Creationists’ making up 42% of the population isn’t a majority but in twenty-first century America it is a huge number.  Add to that those who believe in evolution but think God was involved in the process.  This duality is what I call a, “yes, but” approach to science, one that prevails even among many non-orthodox.  While many in the religious community embrace science, a large number of them do so conditionally.  For most scientists, and indeed for science itself, God is not part of the equation.

This is not to say that science denies that there is something far greater than ourselves, something that we still don’t understand.  It’s what my father, a religious leader who also believed in science, called “imponderables”.  That might imply unanswerable which the scientist and others, myself included, might be more apt to describe as still unanswered questions.  Any viewer of the Cosmos series is bound to take away a sense of vastness and wonder.  Neil Tyson, above all, seems overwhelmed by both — vastness and wonder.  I would think that both are driving forces in his pursuit of scientific knowledge.  Awe doesn’t require God.  There is a Hebrew injunction, “know before whom you stand”.   It refers of course to the divine, but no less does it stand as a reminder that we are but a spec in something far larger.  The wonder is that we are here, the way we are.  Evolution has produced something truly remarkable and that alone should make us humble.

Cosmos is subversive.  One of the great mysteries of our time, a moment of such science powered discovery and technological advancement, is how many humans remain stuck in a darker past.  It isn’t that they adhere to a belief in God, but that they close their minds to what science is all about.  Science focuses on questions, views virtually every bit of learning with a grain of skepticism — “facts” always open to proof and modification, even total abandonment.  Proving that some long held truth is wrong isn’t discouraging; it’s rewarding, a move toward light. 

I can understand that people in the still undeveloped parts of the world cling to myth.  It boggles the mind that in a country known for the world’s best universities, a place so empowered from scientific innovation, that there are still office holders who not only resist science but diss it as a “liberal conspiracy”.   It boggles the mind and, in my view, is what’s truly subversive, dangerous.   It was this kind of backward thinking that Obama mocked in his Irvine speech.  Yes, he mocked it, which tells you how very frustrated he is and we ought to be.  Their excuse, he pointed out, is the claim that they are not scientists.  Come again?  Do they not believe the physician who tells them they or a loved one has cancer because they are not doctors?   Does it prevent them from speaking with absolute certainty on the issues about which as non-scientists they admit to know little or nothing.   Oh I get it; they’re not scientists but they play one on TV or on the stump.  They do deserve mocking.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Fox Network have given us a gift of knowledge in thirteen understandable, but not dumbed down, segments.  Millions viewed Cosmos, the kind of audience usually reserved for often-mindless entertainment.  The series elevated our conversation at a time when so much broadcast time, and not only at Fox, is devoted to fudging facts and dividing us.  Cosmos surely was subversive television.  Bravo.  Would that we had more of it.

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