Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bruno

By now it seems clear: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos got Bruno wrong.[1] People have pointed out, and out, and out, and out, and out the various errors.[2] Meg Rosenburg starts to move the discussion beyond the errors by offering a bit more about Bruno. In her post Becky Ferreira adds still more detail. But as the comments to all these posts suggest, the vast majority of readers (at least those who bother to leave comments)[3] don’t care that Cosmos got it wrong—a disturbing number seem to defend Cosmos’s inaccuracies. And when Corey S. Powell challenged Cosmos’s selection and portrayal of Bruno (the second “and out” above), astronomer and co-writer Steven Soter also defended his mischaracterization of Bruno, which defense Thony C. takes apart.

Cosmos’s portrayal of Bruno is not the first time some media franchise or modern commentator has provoked historians of science.

A year ago Adam Gopnik hailed Galileo as the founder of modern science and defender of free rational thought. Historians of science took him to task for his depiction. Gopnik (like Soter) defended his characterization of Galileo, lambasting the “half-bright” pedants and dullards in the process, eliciting yet a further reply from historians, e.g., this one. Two months later, science writer Ed Yong linked to and praised Gopnik’s piece: “Galileo was a great scientist because he wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong. If only more of us did the same.,” sparking another response from Thony C.

The flat earth is another episode that gets recycled, despite popular and scholarly work refuting it (I’ve ranted about the power of the flat earth myth).

Unfortunately, I fear these rearguard efforts will have no more effect this time than they have had in the past because they fail to provide readers and audiences with something. It’s easy to be condescending, to dismiss these triumphalist distortions of the past as reassuring modern audiences of their superiority. But such an approach is not helpful. Those of us who get worked up over the Cosmos’s version of Bruno or Obama’s invocation of Columbus and the flat earth or Gopnik’s use of Galileo come off sounding like churlish pedants[4] who have missed the forest of truth for the trees of irrelevant detail.

Rather than righting all the wrongs, perhaps we should start telling our own stories in compelling ways. To do that we have to begin by asking: What was Cosmos trying to accomplish in using Bruno?[5] Why did Cosmos bother to invoke Bruno (or any historical figure)? What does Cosmos’s use of the past suggest about the value of that past? What was the Cosmos’s audience looking for in such an article, and how is that complicated by the fact that this show is produced and broadcast on FOX?[6] These questions can prompt us to think about how to communicate with audiences beyond the history of science.

However engaged historians and historians of science might be, we have failed to communicate (effectively ?) with various audiences beyond the boundaries of our own discipline.[7] In that sense, I think Kelly J. Baker is right to encourage academics to do a better job engaging other publics.[8] We haven’t demonstrated the value of our knowledge and expertise.[9] We haven’t convinced people that we and our knowledge matter.

Do we want to be Neil deGrasse Tysons? Probably not. But we’re all a long way from that.

  1. This is the first and probably most positive in what will likely be a series of posts prompted by the brouhaha over Cosmos’s recent depiction of Giordano Bruno. The producers and writers and editors of Cosmos failed to think about enlisting an expert in the process. Although Neil deGrasse Tyson probably had little to do with the writing, as the face of Cosmos he has been implicated in the depiction of Bruno as bold Copernican and proto-scientist. It would have been nice if somebody had consulted an expert—a historian or better still a historian of science of early modern science—about historical matters. As a preview of rants to come: Steven Soter is not an expert when it comes to historical topics, even if he has written a number of “popular works” and did research on the original Cosmos.  ↩

  2. And yet another post has detailed the problems with Cosmos’s depiction of Bruno.  ↩

  3. Reading through the dogmatic, repetitive, trite, and inaccurate drivel that accretes in comment sections often by people hiding behind anonymity confirms for me my decision to turn off comments here. Sure, buried in those comments are some well-formulated and defensible observations, now and then, but everybody would be better served if those commenters with well-formulated and defensible observations wrote their own posts about the issues, thereby broadening the conversation.  ↩

  4. Are there any other kinds of pedants?  ↩

  5. The easy but less than constructive answer casts this as primarily science vs. religion or new-atheists vs. young-earth-creationists or rationality vs. dogma. There is, to be sure, considerable merit to that interpretation. See, e.g., Tim O’Neill’s comments toward the end of his detailed post.  ↩

  6. These are just a subset of questions I asked about Gopnik’s piece last year, Gopnik on Galileo.  ↩

  7. The issue of academic engagement has exploded recently, following Nicholas Kristof’s column in the NY Times. See, for example, Corey Robin’s response and further thoughts, and Gwendolyn Beetham’s response.  ↩

  8. I admit, I have been part of the problem. I have ranted here, in my own little sandbox, about issues but have only half-heartedly tried to reach beyond this sandbox. As a junior academic, I feared reprisal—the academic panopticon is powerful. As a recently tenured academic, I can’t hide behind that excuse any longer. I have “engaged” audiences in other, non-conventional ways, and work with lower school and middle school students, and local retirement communities and continuing education communities. But those are easy.  ↩

  9. This is more than just literacy, which Audra Wolf has rightly pointed out is insufficient:
    Audra is one a few historians of science who has recently moved beyond the academic sandbox, “Why Cosmos Can’t Save Public Support for Science.” Patrick McCray is another. There are others, but they remain a minority.  ↩