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Posts in: May 25th, 2015

Topsy-Turvy World

I’ve been watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk TV show, which I find rather delightful.

I had certain issues with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Tyson’s lushly produced sequel to Carl Sagan’s PBS series, for reflecting obvious tropes in line with pseudo-liberal political correctness rather than actual history. As an example, the Catholic Church is repeatedly demonized for its historical anti-science perspective, with hardly a mention of the fact that it was the Catholic Church that permitted and financed scientists doing their thing in the first place. At the same time, Tyson speaks with annoyingly hushed reverence about the Islamic Golden Age, and the Muslim love of science and education and freely exchanged ideas, while focusing on the legacy of Alhazen. Indeed a great scientist of his time, Alhazen literally had to spend a decade pretending to be mentally ill in order to avoid the wrath of a caliph who wanted him to construct a physics-defying Nile dam—because the Islamic Empire, during its golden age, so loved science and the free exchange of ideas. And speaking of mental illness, Cosmos also hails Giordano Bruno and laments his persecution, while downplaying his broken-clock correctness: Bruno only believed the sun was at the center of the universe because he worshipped a sun god. The fact that he was right is irrelevant when you examine the reason behind his “theory”; the fact that the Catholic Church persecuted him is irrelevant when you realize it was for the same reason: he belonged to a cult worshipping Egyptian gods instead of the Christian God. Nothing to do with science-hating popes.

When Tyson talked science, it was compelling; when he talked history, it was suspect…and frankly, that cast a negative light on all the cool science talk. For all the great analogies and visual depictions of physics in action, that becomes a big problem. As I’ve always complained: when a nonfiction work gets something I know a fair amount about completely wrong, it calls into question the educational value of all the things I don’t know about. I’ve already discussed how it is very much possible to skew “science” to fit a political agenda. Did this happen here?

I’m willing to give Tyson the benefit of the doubt, and assume he’s not making up science as he goes along, because I understand a far-left political perspective can skew his perception of history much more easily than the cold, hard facts of the universe he claims to be seeking. I also understand that, when you have 10 minutes of animated segments to communicate complicated sociopolitical events of the past, you have to take shortcuts, and you typically end up telling a story that “feels” true rather than is true—because, as you see it, distorting this one story makes it representative of scores of others. I’m not a fan of that approach, but I get it.

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