Last night’s 13th and final installment of Cosmos was thick with irony. The episode, "Unafraid of the Dark," focusing on mysteries of the cosmos like dark matter, dark energy and cosmic rays, necessarily functioned as a summary of the themes that host Neil deGrasse Tyson has sought to communicate. It’s like the paragraph at the end of an article that starts, "In conclusion."
The episode was Dr. Tyson’s opportunity to really preach it to his intended audience of impressionable young people. He didn’t disappoint. Science, he tells us, is all about thinking for yourself and feeling okay about saying you don’t know something.
It is, he says, "one of things I love about science; we don’t have to pretend we have all the answers." Dark energy, he explains at one point, is "merely a code word for our ignorance." Copping to that ignorance is good, because "Pretending to know everything closes the door to knowing what’s really there." And again, "It’s okay not to have all the answers."
Skepticism and humility are his watchwords. Tyson lists a series of commandments: "Question authority," "think for yourself," "question yourself," "don’t believe anything just because you want to," "test ideas," "follow the evidence wherever it leads," "reserve judgment," and "remember, you can be wrong." Who around here would argue with him?
Invoking his predecessor Carl Sagan’s image of the Earth as an obscure "pale blue dot" becomes an occasion to punch the theme of our own insignificance, and the "the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe."
Humility is a wonderful thing. So is resisting the impulse to assume you’ve got everything all figured out. So is insisting on your right to think for yourself. But in practice, upholders of the materialist view of reality — which has been the primary take-home message of the revived Cosmos — police our culture by punishing all these wonderful things.
The excellent science writer Philip Ball has an essay in Aeon now taking a look at the scientific preference for beautiful simplicity in explanations, the way scientists may confuse an aesthetic preference for the simple and clear with the way reality actually is.
He gives natural selection as an illustration:
Might it even be that the marvellous simplicity and power of natural selection strikes some biologists as so beautiful an idea — an island of order in a field otherwise beset with caveats and contradictions — that it must be defended at any cost? Why else would attempts to expose its limitations, exceptions and compromises still ignite disputes pursued with near-religious fervour?
In the context of biology, Darwinists persecute free thinkers — those too modest to think science has got it all figured out when it comes to explaining the apparent design of life — with what really is a "near-religious fervor." Likewise, if to a lesser degree, in cosmology.
Lashing those who doubt current scientific authority, on evolution or climate change, has been a major project of the folks who produced Cosmos. Executive producer Seth MacFarlane said as much before the first episode aired.
As Casey has written here, for the makers of Cosmos, the only good controversy is a dead controversy, one that was settled by science long ago. Current debates on hot topics like intelligent design or global warming are deplorable.
The concluding episode opened with Tyson giving a tour of a beautifully computer-generated model of the great Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Dr. Tyson strolls about, examining scrolls by great science thinkers of the ancient past.
He recounts how "mobs" burned the library with its contents — a huge distortion and simplification of the historical record. (What else is new? The Wikipedia article is instructive.) Tyson then asks darkly, "What will happen next time the mob comes?"
If you’ve seen the rest of this series, you’ll have no doubt that by the "mob" he means us, the skeptics who in fact subscribe to the values of doubt and questioning that he lists as vital to science, "Question authority," "think for yourself," "question yourself," and the rest.
For such crimes, Darwin doubters and climate skeptics are relentlessly mocked, and worse, by adherents of Neil Tyson-style materialism. If there’s a mob today — silencing debate, resisting the publication of dissenting views, setting arbitrary limits on the acquisition of scientific knowledge — it’s them, not us.
Photo source: Fox TV.