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Three Reasons Why Cosmos Was One of the Best Things to Happen to TV: Part 1

With Cosmos’ thirteenth episode, “Unafraid of the Dark,” Neil deGrasse Tyson brings to conclusion his extraordinary re-imagining of Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking series. Tyson’s brilliant presentations, rich in detail while always clear and comprehensible, have done a great service to the public understanding of science. Over the last few months, the intellectual wasteland of American popular culture was briefly illuminated with this surprising display of science. Given the toxic state of typical television programming (three words: Honey Boo Boo), shows of the quality of Cosmos may not be seen again for a long time.

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It's worthwhile now to reflect on three things Neil deGrasse Tyson accomplished in Cosmos. Cosmos directly helped science literacy, provided the spark of inspiration, and addressed the nature of science.

Tyson helped science literacy in a revolutionary way: directly educating the public. While many self-styled education reformers talk endlessly about education, Tyson’s approach was simply to educate. He clearly explained important points from numerous disciplines in a way that will, I think, stick with viewers and enlighten untold numbers of citizens and future students. Years from now Cosmos will supplement lessons in classrooms, from K-12 to universities.

Given the state of how poorly citizens and students are learning science, any improvement is welcome. Consider this:

  • Twenty percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, while almost six out of ten cannot calculate a 10% tip at a restaurant.
  • Sixteen percent of Americans believe in curses and the “evil eye,” and over a quarter think trees have “spiritual energy".
  • Sixty-three percent of Americans cannot name the planet closest to the sun, yet sixty percent know the name of Superman’s home planet.

I could go on, but it’s too painful. (However, if you’re feeling masochistic, here is an interesting essay on the uniqueness of the American “cult of ignorance.)

When confronted with this vast scientific illiteracy, some may respond, “So what? I don’t do science, this doesn’t matter to me. Leave science for the nerds.” This is rather like saying, “I’m not a restaurant owner, so what do I care if health inspectors find rotten food at my favorite restaurant?”

The truth is we all have a stake in science literacy. Science and technology run our world, and modern innovations have greatly improved not just the length, but the quality of life. While some, such as author Eric Bender, argue the virtues of a less-connected, less-technological world, few people would truly be willing to go backwards into a world without communications, without transportation, without vaccines, without advanced surgical techniques.

Despite the importance of science in our lives, many Americans feel deep distrust toward scientists. According to a 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll, fully 78% of Americans think scientists shape their results based on ideology, and 82% think scientists alter their findings to please funders. According to a 2014 Economist/YouGov poll, 71% think scientists are often dishonest. A 2014 Stanford National Global Warming poll found that about one-third of Americans are suspicious of climate scientists in particular, and determine their views on global warming based on the previous year’s weather.

We enjoy the fruits of a world run on technology and science, but we don’t want to pay for it, and we don’t want to pay to educate the next generation of scientists. Americans are happy to have safe drinking water and use the Internet and navigate their cars using GPS, without realizing how these came about. Safe water, the Internet, GPS—all came from government initiatives, initiatives that had to be funded.

If taxpayers don’t appreciate the importance of science and technology, then politicians will be ill-inclined to allocate taxpayer money on vital research. As a recent issue of Science highlighted, the funding of basic research is a critical issue right now, with many young scientists struggling to run labs on shoestring budgets and achieve the grants they need to keep researching. In 2000, 33% of NIH applicants were awarded grants; in 2013, only 18% of applications were funded. Funding has flat-lined even as the number of researchers has increased. Yet how many voters have ever called their elected officials and demanded more science spending?

Americans love their iPhones and medicines, yet quesion the honesty of the scientists who created them. We enjoy the comforts of an advanced society, yet too many Americans do not in their hearts accept the process of science that created our luxuries.

Cosmos can help resolve this contradiction. By presenting scientific findings as they are—not in the contrived “debate” common in journalism—Cosmos gave the American public a rare view of science. It was real science, where the process of how we get there is as important than the conclusions we find. Real science, where people make mistakes. Real science, unadulterated by the cultural contempt and negative stereotypes reserved for scientists.

It is hard to think of any social group currently so unabashedly subjected to malicious stereotypes as scientists. Many think scientists are geeky, awkward nerds, cloistered in labs because they can’t score dates. If you’re a scientist, this thinking goes, you must so obsessed with your esoteric work that you can hardly hold a conversation. Sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory and Friends (where the character Ross was a paleontologist) perpetuate these stereotypes about the social ineptitude of scientists. Even in the original Star Trek, Spock—the science officer—was cold and detached, deliberately rejecting human traits in favor of Apollonian aloofness.

In reality, scientists are no different than any other professionals—some are nerds, some are social butterflies. Some are jerks, some are generous. Some are wild-haired eccentrics, some are so straight-laced they could pass for Don Draper. Given this diversity, any sentence that begins, “All scientists are…” veers into illiteracy about science.

In a country that worships professional athletes above all else, those who make a living with their minds rather than their muscles are regarded with unease. But no one need feel that way; anyone can learn about science and appreciate its wonders. And anyone who watched Cosmos came away a little more literate than before.

Next time: how Cosmos provided the missing key in science education: inspiration.