The ninth installment of Cosmos, titled "The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth," aired last night. Though focusing mostly on geology, the episode is a representative sample of the series. It mixes one part illuminating discussion of scientific discoveries, one part fanciful, highly speculative narrative, and one part rigid ideology disguised as the assured results of scientific research. This would be OK if the different ingredients were clearly distinguishable, like a marble rye. But they are mixed so thoroughly that the casual viewer can have little idea where the evidence leaves off and the speculation and ideology begin.
First, the scientific discovery: this episode tells the inspiring stories of Alfred Wegener and Marie Tharp, the geologists whose work helped give rise to our understanding of large scale geology and plate tectonics. Wegener was one of the great scientific dissenters of the 20th century. In fact, he died while he was still considered a "denier" of the established scientific consensus. But his notion of continental drift eventually won the day, once the evidence and the mechanisms for plate tectonics became hard to deny.
Host Neil deGrasse Tyson admits that the case of Wegener (and to a lesser extent, Tharp) shows that scientists can be as guilty of prejudice and groupthink as a gaggle of middle schoolers with low self-esteem. (He didn’t use that imagery, but you get the point.) Unfortunately, such a frank admission of groupthink among scientists is never applied to the current intellectual orthodoxies that form the backbone of the Cosmos series.
The speculative scenarios principally involve claims about how extinction events helped evolution along. There’s nothing wrong with speculation as long as it is identified as such. But in "The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth," we receive no such viewer advisories. The contested hypothetical details about the Permian-Triassic Extinction, for instance, which are described with appropriate tentativeness on Wikipedia, get flattened into a narrative that seems as certain and uncontroversial as a basic timeline of World War II.
And did you know that the common ancestor of all mammals was from New Jersey?
In this episode, the hard-edged ideology comes mostly in the form of extreme environmental catastrophism. We learn of the negative effects of methane, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and global warming in the ancient past. No conscious viewer could fail to expect that a sermon about climate change is not far behind.
But the sermon unwittingly contradicts the general thrust of the episode. The CGI and the narration make it clear that the present era (since the last Ice Age) is far more peaceful and life-friendly than previous Ice Ages and the super-volcanic infernos of the distant past. For instance, Tyson tells of a super volcano in Siberia that shut down "the circulatory system of the ocean," and describes periods in which the global climate fluctuated between extreme heat and extreme cold. If anything is obvious, it is that man had nothing to do with these events in the distant geologic past, and nothing that extreme is happening now.
Nevertheless, this serves as a set-up to hector viewers who continue to dredge up the carbon planted in the Earth’s crust, rather than using the abundant and "free" sunlight all around us.
Now it’s reasonable to think that the human contributions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (about two parts per million per year) in the last couple of centuries is having some effect on the climate. And there are plenty of reasonable people who think that those effects are more bad than good, even though the main presumed effect — global warming — is not presently happening. But it is simply bizarre to compare the conditions that led to massive extinctions in Earth’s distant past with our current climate quandaries. And to contrast the "costly" energy from carbon sources (coal, oil, natural gas) with "free" energy from the sun displays a staggering level of economic illiteracy.
If we had the ability to convert sunlight to useable energy at no cost — that’s what "free" means — then no one would be burning coal or refining oil for energy. If this is not clear to you, stop and think about it for a minute. If it cost ten cents to extract a barrel of oil from the ground and refine it, that would still be far more expensive than useable solar energy — which remember, would be free. So no one would bother to extract oil for energy.
The reason we still use oil, natural gas, and coal is that in the real world, it is by far the most economical choice for many uses. Converting sunlight to useable energy requires expensive technology and doesn’t provide much energy. That doesn’t mean that fossil fuels will never be displaced by other, "renewable" sources of energy. It’s just that, at the moment, such sources are not economically feasible for most widespread uses.
It is a dangerous ideology that resists even such rudimentary common sense.