Cosmos and the Clash Between Academic and Popular Science

Illustration for article titled Cosmos and the Clash Between Academic and Popular Science

Over at Symmetry Magazine, DOE Office of High Energy Physics scientist Glen Crawford remembers how the original Cosmos show affected him as a college student. His comments are fascinating in light of the new show.


Crawford describes being a physics student when Cosmos aired, and then what it was like to be in the same department as Carl Sagan as a graduate student:

I started college around that time, toiling away as a physics major in a hothouse tech school that would soon be fictionally immortalized in the geek cinema classic Real Genius (look it up, kids). We journeyman nerds were aware of "Cosmos" as a sort of cultural phenomenon but didn't really appreciate the fact that science was starting to become a pop culture item. We could see that Sagan was a good storyteller and that the special effects were cool (for the time), but as far as the content went, we knew all that stuff already. We entirely missed the fact that Sagan was getting middle America to spend an hour every week thinking about real science topics. And they seemed to like it.

In graduate school, I had the good fortune to land at Cornell University, where Sagan taught, and I would see him from time to time at seminars. In that context he was your typical working scientist, asking questions, challenging assumptions, trying out new ideas. If anything, he was less voluble than some of the other faculty, and not an obvious "personality." He had an unmarked office in the astronomy building so he wouldn't be swamped by star-struck students. And yet some of the Cornell faculty privately disparaged Sagan's science popularization projects because they were not "real science."

Interestingly, today's Cosmos host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, is affiliated with a science popularizing institution, the American Museum of Natural History, rather than a strictly academic institution like Cornell.

Crawford cheers for the popularization of science, and describes how important today's reboot of the Cosmos show is. At the same time, it's worth pondering his comments about how the Cornell faculty reacted to Sagan's work. This unfortunate division in the academic community is still alive and well — many scientists are discouraged from speaking out about their work in the popular press. Here's hoping that shows like Cosmos will open doors for many more people like Tyson and Sagan in the future.

Read more at Symmetry Magazine


I have such mixed feelings about Cosmos. On the one hand, educating children and the massively ignorant about basic scientific knowledge is great. On the other hand, it's mostly just infotainment.

Also, and this has been sticking my craw for a while now:

I'm getting sick of people who worship Science with a capital S, but think themselves superior to religious people. And they seem to be the target adult audience of Cosmos.

They're the people who say the phrase "because Science says so". Science can't talk! A scientist said so. And that scientist is fallible like everybody else. Unless you read the publication in the journal and critically analyzed the experimental design and results, you're a believer, a person of faith. That's fine, so long as you don't sneer down your nose at the religious. Which Cosmos kinda does a lot.

Example: I have never tested Faraday shielding. I believe it's real because I was raised in a culture and a tradition where it is believed. There are tales of others having tested it and the elders in my community have born witness to it's testing. I've never witnessed it myself. I've never looked at the research. I believe it's real. I have faith.

Now imagine if someone walks up to you and shows you, who let's pretend doesn't really understand physics, that Faraday shielding ISN'T real. Who do you believe? I'd bet 99% of people would assume that there was something wrong with the test. Because they believe in the teachings of their community. Yes, the scientific method requires repeatability, but most of us aren't doing that testing or even looking critically at the results and methodology of those who do. So while the system is designed to prevent false knowledge (peer review, repetition of trials), you are relying on trust. The mentality and acceptance of most scientific layman knowledge comes from the same place as religious belief: trust that the people around us know what they're talking about. And since no one is a master of all scientific fields, we all fall into this category. We're all people of faith.

So could we quit thinking we're sooooo much smarter than the non-secularists? Everyone thinks their faith is better than everyone else's. We're all exactly alike.

Rant over.