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Good for Them: National Center for Science Education Decries "Anti-Religious Bias," "Slipshod History of Science" in Cosmos

William Dembski once observed: “Our critics have, in effect, adopted a zero-concession policy toward intelligent design. According to this policy, absolutely nothing is to be conceded to intelligent design and its proponents. It is therefore futile to hope for concessions from critics.” We see Dembski’s rule at work in statements from a staff member at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) regarding Discovery Institute’s critiques of Cosmos. More on that in a moment.

We have already pointed out the program’s anti-religious and historically inaccurate account of Giordano Bruno. So before going on, I must praise the keen analysis by Peter Hess, over on the NCSE’s blog, of Cosmos‘s revisionist account of Bruno .

Writes Dr. Hess:

It is odd that a great scientific series on the cosmos should open with an attempt to single out one victim of the Inquisition and hold him up as a martyr to science. For inexplicable reasons, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey begins not with Copernicus confidently proposing his heliocentric hypothesis or Galileo excitedly proclaiming his telescopic discoveries. Rather, it begins with the story of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), a renegade Dominican friar executed in 1600 for persistently preaching heretical theological views about a wide variety of core Christian doctrines.

Of course, in 2014 we don’t burn people at the stake, and except for the most conservative voices, Christians don’t cast about casually labeling any dissenting theological perspective as “heresy.”
But Cosmos makes Bruno out to be a martyr who died heroically in the defense of early modern science, and this is a role he certainly did not play. Jole Shackleford details this nicely in his exploration of the myth that “Giordano Bruno was the First Martyr of Modern Science” in Ron Numbers’ edited volume Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion (2009).

The idea of a reboot of the classic Cosmos series (1980) is exciting. The original series inspired in many people a deep and abiding love for science, and the revival has tremendous potential to expose a new generation to the wonder and value of science. I began watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with great interest, in the hope of discovering some new perspectives on the fabulous story of our unfolding universe. Some new ideas are there indeed, and I will eagerly tune in to future episodes to see what else emerges. But I also saw — among the compelling videos of the solar system and galaxies — considerable slipshod history of science and a curiously antireligious bias.

Dr. Hess, who is Catholic, goes on to provide a detailed and insightful account of what really happened with Bruno, explaining that while Bruno’s persecution was of course a terrible tragedy, the man “clearly was not a martyr for modern science.” He notes:

It is troubling that Cosmos — as its only historical background — chose to portray a fallaciously interpreted version of the tragic story of Giordano Bruno. It is unfortunate that the writers uncritically repeated a false narrative about the history of science and religion, providing a public who are already confused about the relationship between these two endeavors with misinformation rather than an accurate and balanced account of a complex history of interaction. The Catholic Church was not monolithic in its approach to science throughout the early modern period. There were both reactionary and profoundly progressive elements within the church, and some of Galileo’s most important supporters were themselves clerics. If Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to recount some history of science in Cosmos, his writers have a professional obligation to furnish him with a text that honestly tells the story with all the subtlety it deserves.

Bravo, Dr. Hess. These are much the same points that I’ve made, as has Jay Richards , and others as well.

But other Darwin defenders — especially atheistic ones — seem to confirm Dembski’s predicted “zero-concession policy,” refusing to admit when their own camp makes a mistake.

For example, in a piece titled, “Watch out, ‘Cosmos’! The Holy Inquisition is not happy with you” at Salon.com, Andrew Leonard praises the series for promoting “scientific materialism,” but mocks Jay Richards’s critique, stating:

But the folks at Evolution News and Views chose a more sophisticated approach, preferring instead to engage in a convoluted argument about Tyson’s decision to focus part of the first episode on the martyred Giordano Bruno. (Hat tip: Steve Silberman).

(Evolution News and Views, incidentally, is published by The Discovery Institute, a vehicle that seems primarily — although perhaps not so intelligently — designed to help religious right-wing millionaires fund attacks on the theory of evolution.)

The revisionist “Cosmos” critique concerning Bruno goes like this: He wasn’t even really a scientist, and he was burned to death because of his theological heresies and not his belief in Copernican theory, (SO HE DESERVED IT!) and the main reason he showed up on “Cosmos” at all was because he was “the only one with even a passing association with a scientific controversy to be burned at the stake during this period of history.”

Maybe it’s just me, but reading between the lines of this piece I detected what seemed to be a tinge of regret that unbelievers can no longer be punished for straying from the Gospel with purging fire. Neil Tyson — watch your back!

Leonard seems to have missed the fact that Jay Richards (and I) explicitly condemned Bruno’s persecution in our respective articles. Leonard may amuse himself by making outlandish insinuations about Discovery Institute wanting to burn unbelievers, but the persecution of scientists is no laughing matter. As I documented earlier, the persecution of scientific minorities isn’t just a thing of the past. Pro-Darwin scientists may not be burning critics at the stake, but a lot of people have had their careers harmed because of intolerance towards scientific viewpoints that dissent from neo-Darwinian evolution.

Another snarky pop-culture blog, “Happy Nice Time People,” likewise mocks those who pointed out Cosmos‘s anti-religious tone, stating: “No secret atheist agenda there. Feel better? Probably not, but we don’t care.” Indeed, really die-hard defenders of Cosmos‘s message probably don’t care that fact Neil deGrasse Tyson rewrote history to bolster his anti-religious narrative.

Nevertheless, these defenders of Cosmos are now being contradicted by the top defenders of Darwinian evolution at the NCSE, who agree with us that the first episode showed a troubling “anti-religious bias,” offering a “slipshod history of science,” and that it was wrong to focus so much of the first episode on the persecution of Giordano Bruno.

Except one person at the NCSE can’t seem to admit that Discovery Institute got something right. As the NCSE’s Josh Rosenau tweets:

@stevesilberman Well, @neiltyson *did* get the Bruno story wrong. Doesn’t make the Disco. ‘tute right, of course.

— Josh Rosenau (@JoshRosenau) March 12, 2014

For my part, I am happy to concede that Peter Hess over at the NCSE, in his apt analysis of Giordano Bruno, gets a lot of things very right. However, as Dembski’s zero-concession rule predicts, Rosenau seems incapable of admitting when Discovery Institute has made a valid point — any point, even after his own NCSE colleague has made exactly the same arguments we did.

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.



__k-reviewcosmoshistoryNational Center for Science EducationncseNeil deGrasse Tyson