Peccavo (peccavo) wrote,

Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson

I started watching the new Cosmos. I've seen the first three episodes so far. I think I'll continue watching forward, but after watching the first three episodes, it really has fallen on the list of TV priorities. I posted on Facebook, asking if I was the only one to think the show was overly Conservative, Patriarchal, and Jingoist. Apparently I'm one of the few. I was actually introduced to the show by people at work, and they're a little disappointed by the show as well. Someone pointed out to me that the show fills a long empty niche in the broadcast prime-time line-up, which is true. There should be more popular science shows... that are actually science. But anyhow, I'll elaborate on my views.

1) Conservative.

So far, the show has arduously adhered to what is long established scientific fact. The graphics are cutting edge, but most of the information they present could have come out of the 60s or 70s. While I respect that they talk about science as a process of challenging, experimenting, and moving forward in a results based manner-- the types of results they demonstrate on the show are still very text-book. Cosmos doesn't challenge the now; it doesn't take an interest in what people are working on; it doesn't explore our current failures. A mature science show should start with the failures, the challenges, and how to push forward. I feel like I signed up for a tour of modern art, and ended up with a retrospective of Pre-Raphaelite artists. Now, I like the Pre-Raphaelites, but the world moved past that a while back. Where is the science of trying to determine what happened before the big bang? Where is the science of the Grand Unifying Theory? Higher dimensional string theory? Twistors? Even the biological side is overly simplistic-- how is it we came about RNA, DNA, proteins-- which of these came first and how did the give rise to the others? Why do we have RNA viruses-- and how is it that they can move in either 5'->3' or 3'->5' direction, and what does that mean for evolution? And how can prions self-replicate... could they have done that in the distant past even without a host?

I am not Cosmos's target demographic.

2) Patriarchal

Even more disturbing than the lack of cutting edge science is the social nature of the show. In a culture that is trying its darndest to include women and show the accomplishments of women-- we have a show that focuses almost entirely on men. Let me give an example: Statistics was entirely invented, popularized, and went from concept to accepted dogma by the work of a single woman. You may have heard of her- Florence Nightingale. But women aren't supposed to be smart, so you probably have heard of her in terms of being a nurse... because women are nurses, duh. And this is what our patriarchal history does to the history of our women contributors. The woman who came up with the double-helix-- shortshrifted of the nobel. The woman who invented compilers and modern computer language- ever heard of her?

The stories are all of men. The animations are all of men. Even in the hunter-gatherer society animations-- they show groups of men hunting the herds. First this is inaccurate, as in early societies the women had the key role in hunt and fire. Second, it minimizes the role of women in pushing early communities forward. And in the later era science, they show only the contributions of men. Now, I admit Hooke, Halley and Newton were all men and you can't get around that. But the token woman in the story did nothing more than complain about receiving fish books. Really? And the earlier story about the crazy Italian monk? They couldn't have spent time on one of the many enlightenment women contributing to society and science.

The show thus far has continued with the current paradigm of marginalizing women in scientific roles. I hope that changes, but I wouldn't be surprised if it continues. Just as the show seems to stay the course with accepted scientific dogma, it stays the course with our culture's traditional treatment of women. Which makes me angry.

3) Jingoist

Now this one is a hard sell. It's less obvious that the blatant patriarchal slant of the show. One of the pit-falls of early theories of evolution and 19th century social-Darwinism was to make out as though that the process of evolution in organisms and society is always for the better. So, when fossils of Dinosaurs were found-- they were made out to be slow and lumbering-- stupid even-- because if they had evolutionary fitness-- they would still be around. Modern evolution shows more conclusively that evolution is more of a random process. It wasn't that dinosaurs were slow or stupid-- or unfit. Stuff changes. Randomly. With many interior and exterior forces acting on them. So it was our judgement of the dinosaurs that was wrong-- it feeds into our sense of superiority. The same sense of superiority that made us think the universe revolved around us. We're not at the "top" of evolution, we're just another rung. And the thing that comes next could be better or worse-- but they're all valid steps in the evolutionary process. Why bemoan the fall of biological life if in 10,000 years the earth is populated solely by bacteria with no humans left? How awful! Like Cicero said: "Oh the times! Oh the values!"

Much of the same can be said for human society, and societies as an organism that evolves. Because one society precedes another, does that make it inferior? Less clever? Less hard-working? The show portrays societies of the past living in ignorance, victims of their own superstitions, constantly working against the forward flow of science. I call anthropology bullshit. Just because societies have changed with time, and science helped us move forward does not make past societies backwards. It's a story of pride and superiority we tell ourselves. We're better than people in the past. "What were they thinking back then?" Well, what the fuck are we thinking now? In fifty years, what will people say about millenial culture and our obsession with the Rapture? Evolution does not change our bodies that quickly. We are the same people. The cultural context has changed. And it is disrespectful and jingoist of us to portray the people of the past as backwards ignorants who couldn't get with the times quickly enough. If you put me in a time-machine and sent me back 1,000-- 2,000-- however many years-- what could I really do? I can't make an engine from scratch-- much less a computer-- I know some rudiments of science, but I couldn't construct a whole system. I am a product of my society that acts within my society. As has been every other human. Newton didn't arise in a vacuum-- the Enlightenment was well underway-- and you had contributors across societies. Just because he was the brightest star of his time, doesn't mean he was the only one.

So yes, Jingoist.

And don't get me started on the special place of white people on the show.


Okay. I'm done. So, yes, I'm disappointed. The show fills a niche, and I hope it leads to more popularization of science. I might keep watching it, or maybe not. I understand the show for what it is and isn't. To me, it's a reflection of our society as it is-- not through science what it can be.
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic