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Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson: Same Old Product, Bright New Packaging

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If there was any doubt that the rebooted Cosmos series, which premiered last night, would be politically charged and have a materialistic ideological message, consider what viewers saw in its first 60 seconds. The initial opening featured President Obama, with the Presidential Seal in the background, giving a statement endorsing the new series, praising “the spirit of discovery that Carl Sagan captured in the original Cosmos.” That’s not necessarily bad, and in fact it could have been a good thing, except for what happened next. Immediately following President Obama’s endorsement, the show replayed Carl Sagan’s famous materialistic credo from the opening of the original Cosmos series, stating: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Does it violate the separation of church and state for the President of the United States to be portrayed seemingly officially endorsing Sagan’s materialistic philosophy? Is this what President Obama intended when he promised in his first inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place“? Or did the president simply give a general endorsement of the series, and the producers of Cosmos positioned it so as to appear that he endorsed Sagan’s atheistic worldview?

Whatever the answers, the show’s intent to open with a heavy-hitting endorsement of materialism came through loud and clear. Ironically, viewers were immediately then told by the series’s host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, that science follows a “set of rules.” It should:

Again, that all sounds fine and good. But does science support Sagan’s belief that the “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be”? At best, that’s a philosophical or metaphysical claim that goes beyond science. At worst, Sagan’s claim is refuted by science, since known natural laws are incapable of explaining certain peculiar properties of the cosmos, including the life-friendly fine-tuning of the universe, and the fine-tuning of biological information to yield complex structures. If the cosmos is “all there is,” then the cosmos cannot account for its own existence, nor the complexity of what’s inside it.

Before I launch into any more critiques, let me note some genuine positives about the rebooted series. First, the expensive CGI which animates the new Cosmos is easy on the eyes, and deliberately appeals to sci-fi fans like myself. Having watched every episode of every Star Trek series multiple times, I was excited to learn that the new Cosmos series was directed by Brannon Braga, who also helped create Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise. In the first few minutes of Cosmos, Braga’s influence was clear. Neil deGrasse Tyson is portrayed flying in a sleek spaceship through our solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and then the entire universe, giving us a visually stunning and innovative tour of our “cosmic address,” as Tyson puts it. That’s another positive about the series: Tyson is a fabulous science communicator. If only he had used this series to simply communicate science, rather than science plus a heavy dose of materialist philosophy.

During the first episode, Tyson devotes lengthy segments to promoting the old tale that religion is at war science, and strongly promotes the idea that religion opposes intellectual advancement. He tells the story of the 16th-century astronomer cultist philosopher Giordano Bruno, who he says lived in a time without “freedom of speech” or “separation of church and state,” and thus fell into the clutches of the “thought police” of the Inquisition for disagreeing with the church’s geocentric views. Never mind that his show made it appear that President Obama endorsed Sagan-style materialism, but I digress… Of course the main religious authority of that time was the Catholic Church, and the program shows angry priests with evil-sounding British accents dressed in full religious garb throwing Bruno out on the street, and eventually burning him at the stake.

Just to make sure that other Christians who aren’t Catholic also understand their religions too hinder scientific progress, Tyson goes out of his way to point out that Bruno was opposed by “Calvinists in Switzerland,” and “Lutherans in Germany,” including the great protestant reformer Martin Luther himself. He never mentions that Protestants aren’t the ones who burned Bruno at the stake, nor does he ever mention that most of the founders of modern science were Christians. But I digress…

It’s a lengthy scene, all to highlight some of the darkest chapters of Christianity in Europe. But the entire retelling of Bruno’s fate lasts a good portion of the first episode’s hour. Why make the religious persecution of scientists some four hundred years ago a major focus of a widely publicized television series that is ostensibly about promoting science?

Actually, I’d love to see a TV show aimed at helping the public to understand the dangers of hindering academic freedom for scientists. I suppose if you wanted to cover that topic, you’d want to talk about the evil things some members of the church did to persecute scientists hundreds of years ago. But why stop there? Why not also talk about how Lysenkoists in the USSR persecuted scientists who didn’t support their atheist, Communist ideology during the 20th century? Or why not talk about the numerous well-documented examples of scientists who have faced persecution and discrimination for disagreeing with Darwinian evolution in just the last few years? For example:

  • In 2005, Smithsonian spokesman Randall Kremer objected to a private screening of the pro-ID film The Privileged Planet because it drew a “philosophical conclusion.” The Smithsonian made no complaints when Sagan’s original Cosmos in 1980 argued that “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”
  • A congressional subcommittee staff investigation found that biologist Richard Sternberg experienced retaliation by his co-workers and superiors at the Smithsonian, including transfer to a hostile supervisor, removal of his name placard from his door, deprivation of workspace, subjection to work requirements not imposed on others, restriction of specimen access, and loss of his keys, because he allowed a pro-ID article to be published in a biology journal. The Congressional staff investigation concluded that the “Smithsonian’s top officials permit[ed] the demotion and harassment of [a] scientist skeptical of Darwinian evolution” and “officials explicitly acknowledged in emails their intent to pressure Sternberg to resign because of his role in the publication of the [pro-ID] Meyer paper and his views on evolution.”
  • In 2009 the state-funded California Science Center (CSC) museum cancelled the contract of a pro-ID group, American Freedom Alliance (AFA), to show a pro-ID film. The lawsuit was settled in August 2011, with the CSC agreeing to pay AFA $110,000 to avoid a public trial. However, documents disclosed during the course of litigation showed that employees of the CSC, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, joined with other LA-area academics to suppress the expression of ID, most egregiously by pressing CSC decision-makers to hastily cancel AFA’s event.
  • In 2005, over 120 faculty members at Iowa State University (ISU) signed a petition denouncing ID and calling on “all faculty members to … reject efforts to portray Intelligent Design as science.” These efforts were significant not just because they opposed academic freedom by demanding conformity among faculty to reject ID, but because they focused on creating a hostile environment for pro-ID astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, co-author of The Privileged Planet, who was denied tenure at ISU in 2006 due to his support for ID. Both public and private statements exposed through public records requests revealed that members of ISU’s department in physics and astronomy voted against Gonzalez’s tenure due to his support for ID.
  • In 1993, San Francisco State University biology professor Dean Kenyon was forced to stop teaching introductory biology because he was informing students that scientists had doubts about materialist theories of the origin of life.
  • In a similar case five years later, Minnesota high school teacher Rodney LeVake was removed from teaching biology after expressing skepticism about Darwin’s theory. LeVake, who holds a master’s degree in biology, agreed to teach evolution as required in the district’s curriculum, but said he wanted to “accompany that treatment of evolution with an honest look at the difficulties and inconsistencies of the theory.”
  • Rogert DeHart, a public high school biology teacher in Washington State, was denied the right to have his students read articles from mainstream science publications that made scientific criticisms of certain pieces of evidence typically offered to support Darwinian theory. One of the forbidden articles was written by noted evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. Although DeHart complied with this ban, he was later removed from teaching biology.
  • In Mississippi, chemistry professor Nancy Bryson was asked by Mississippi University for Women to resign as head of the Division of Science and Mathematics after she gave a lecture to honors students called “Critical Thinking on Evolution.” She remarked, “Students at my college got the message very clearly[;] do not ask any questions about Darwinism.”
  • In 1999, ID theorist William Dembski founded the Polanyi Center at Baylor University to allow scientists and scholars to conduct scientific research into intelligent design. The Center was later shut down largely due to intolerance of ID among Baylor faculty.
  • In 2005, the president of the University of Idaho instituted a campus-wide classroom speech-code, where “evolution” was “the only curriculum that is appropriate” for science classes. This was done in retaliation towards a professor at the university, Scott Minnich, who at the time was testifying in favor of intelligent design as an expert witness at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial.
  • Also in 2005, Cornell’s former interim president Hunter Rawlings devoted a State of the University Address “to denounce ‘intelligent design,’ arguing that it has no place in science classrooms and calling on faculty members in a range of disciplines” to similarly attack ID.
  • In 2005, top biology professors at Ohio State University derailed a doctoral student’s thesis defense by writing a letter claiming “there are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution” and therefore the student’s teaching about problems with neo-Darwinism was “unethical” and “deliberate miseducation.”
  • In 2005, pro-ID adjunct biology professor Caroline Crocker lost her job at George Mason University after teaching students about both the evidence for and against evolution in the classroom, and mentioning ID as a possible alternative to Darwinism. While her former employer maintains that it simply chose not to renew her contract, she was specifically told she would be “disciplined” for teaching students about the scientific controversy over evolution.
  • In 2007, Robert Marks, Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor, had established an Evolutionary Informatics Lab at Baylor University to study the ability of Darwinian processes to generate new information using computer simulations and evolutionary algorithms. However, after Dr. Marks was interviewed by ID the Future in 2007, he subsequently received a letter from his dean warning that the website was “associated” with “ID,” and he was forced to take the lab’s site down and move the lab itself off campus.
  • In 2006, a professor of biochemistry and leading biochemistry textbook author at the University of Toronto, Laurence A. Moran, stated that a major public research university “should never have admitted” students who support ID, and should “just flunk the lot of them and make room for smart students.”
  • In 2011, a biology professor at the University of Waikato stated that “If, for example, a student were to use examples such as the bacterial flagellum to advance an ID view then they should expect to be marked down”
  • Likewise, that same year Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, stated that “adherence to ID (which, after all, claims to be a nonreligious theory) should be absolute grounds for not hiring a science professor.”
  • In January 2011, the University of Kentucky (UK) paid over $100,000 to settle astronomer Martin Gaskell’s lawsuit claiming that he was wrongfully denied employment because of UK’s perception that he doubted Darwinism. UK faculty admitted that Gaskell was the most qualified applicant for the position, but they hired a much less qualified candidate out of concerns about statements Gaskell had made that were critical of Darwinian evolution.
  • In June 2011, the journal Applied Mathematics Letters paid $10,000 and publicly apologized to avoid litigation after it wrongfully withdrew mathematician Granville Sewell’s paper critiquing neo-Darwinism.
  • In 2009, David Coppedge was demoted and punished for sharing pro-ID videos with co-workers at Jet Propulsion Lab. Later, his employment was terminated.
  • In 2012, Springer-Verlag illegally breached a contract to publish the proceedings of an ID-friendly research conference at Cornell University after a pressure campaign was mounted by pro-Darwin activists to have the book scuttled.
  • In 2013, Ball State University (BSU) President Jo Ann Gora issued a speech code declaring that “intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses” at BSU, after atheist activists from the Freedom from Religion Foundation charged that a “Boundaries of Science” course taught by a well-liked physics professor (Eric Hedin) was violating the Constitution by favorably discussing intelligent design.
  • Also in 2013, atheist activists forced Amarillo College to cancel an intelligent design course after they threatened disruption if it went forward.

True, ID-critics may not be burning people at the stake, but they have become so intolerant that in 2007, the Council of Europe, the leading European “human rights” organization, adopted a resolution calling ID a potential “threat to human rights”!

So if Neil deGrasse Tyson felt so strongly that it’s important to teach the public about the importance of “freedom of speech” for scientists to “question everything,” then why didn’t he mention any of these recent incidents where skeptics of Darwinian evolution or proponents of intelligent design had their academic freedom violated? Why did he only focus on incidents from four hundred years ago where the church suppressed science, while he ignored all the numerous instances of the present day where atheist-Darwin activists have suppressed the rights of ID-friendly scientists? Could it be because Tyson himself is basically an atheist, and sees the Cosmos reboot as a great opportunity to promote his materialistic worldview?

Now Tyson may officially deny that he’s an atheist, but that’s just standard political posturing. As he said in the “Beyond Belief” conference, which helped launch the New Atheist movement in 2006:

I want to put on the table, not why 85% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject God, I want to know why 15% of the National Academy don’t. That’s really what we’ve got to address here. Otherwise the public is secondary to this.

There’s even a Facebook page created by fans of “Tysonism” which purports to promote “a secular religion based on the philosophy of astrophysicist Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson.” The page quotes him saying things like:

The more I learn about the universe, the less convinced I am that there’s any sort of benevolent force that has anything to do with it, at all.

Another sign that Cosmos has a materialistic agenda is the fact that its executive producer is celebrity atheist Seth MacFarlane (the creator of Family Guy), who commented in an interview with Esquire about the need to be “vocal about the advancement of knowledge over faith”:

ESQ: … I see you’ve recently become rather vocal about your atheism. Isn’t it antithetical to make public proclamations about secularism?

SM: We have to. Because of all the mysticism and stuff that’s gotten so popular.

ESQ: But when you wave banners, how does it differ from religion?

SM: It’s like the civil-rights movement. There have to be people who are vocal about the advancement of knowledge over faith.

Could the anti-religious message already seen in the first episode of Cosmos be MacFarlane’s attempt to promote what he thinks is “the advancement of knowledge over faith”?

In any case, MacFarlane seems to promise the new Cosmos series will attack intelligent design:

For argument’s sake, let’s say “Family Guy” is not family-friendly, then I would say “Cosmos” is the first thing that I’ve done in my career that you can sit down with your entire family. It’s for young people and old people. I think there will be a lot of crossover from the animated shows to this program. I think that there is a hunger for science and knowing about science and understanding of science that hasn’t really been fed in the past two decades. We’ve had a resurgence of creationism and intelligent design quote-unquote theory. There’s been a real vacuum when it comes to science education. The nice thing about this show is that I think that it does what the original “Cosmos” did and presents it in such a flashy, entertaining way that, as Carl Sagan put it in 1980, even people who have no interest in science will watch just because it’s a spectacle. People who watched the original “Cosmos” will sit down and watch with their kids.

Just how badly will Cosmos botch its attempts to attack intelligent design? Stay tuned.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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