John Ostrander: Equal Time is Not Equally True

CosmosMy pal Bob Greenberger did a nice review this week of the TV show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson; the TV series is now out on BluRay. I was particularly struck by two facts about the show when it first aired. 1) It was shown on two TV networks, National Geographic and Fox. Nat Geo doesn’t surprise me, but Fox? 2) It was exec produced by Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, American Dad, Ted, and A Million Ways to Die in the West (which several million people, including myself, have opted out of seeing). I’ll be honest; I’m not a fan of MacFarlane. His humor doesn’t work for me. However, I have a ton of respect for his getting Cosmos on the air. He used his considerable clout to make it happen, and that’s a service to us all.

For those who bypassed the series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is the sequel to Carl Sagan’s noted and much respected PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, from 35 years ago. Both series have sought to explore and explain concepts of science in ways that are comprehensible to those of us who struggled with algebra in high school. (I’m raising my hand here; I squeaked out of algebra, failed horribly at chemistry and math is Greek to me).

Both shows had charismatic and brilliant hosts – the early version with Dr. Sagan and the recent one with Dr. DeGrasse Tyson, who has to be the foremost communicator of science for our time. An astrophysicist, he is the Frederick P. Rose Director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum “The goal is to convey why science matters to the person, to our society, to us as shepherds of this planet. It involves presenting science in ways that connect to you, so ‘Cosmos’ can influence you not only intellectually but emotionally, with a celebration of wonder and awe,” Tyson says about the series, according to USA Today.

In both versions of Cosmos, there was a basic desire to entertain, to make the show visually stunning, to make it accessible. Tyson said that it’s goal “is not that you become a scientist. It’s that at the end of the series, you will embrace science and recognize its role in who and what you are.” It used animation in a graphic novel style and hired noted composer Alan Silvestri to do the music. It was popular culture in the best sense and use of that concept.

The series wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. It talked about evolution, it talked about climate change, it talked about the science of both of these and of other things, it gave the scientific dating of the earth and the Universe. The Creationists, predictably, were not amused.

Danny Faulkner of Answers In Genesis voiced his complaints about Cosmos and how the 13-episode series has described scientific theories such as evolution, but has failed to shed light on dissenting creationist viewpoints. AiG maintained that God is the Creator, who “was the only eyewitness to the time of origins and that He has given us the truth about how He created everything in His Word. He is the one that created the natural laws that govern the physical world and make science possible.”

Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, if the first segment is any indication, will attempt to package unconditional blind faith in evolution as scientific literacy in an effort to create interest in science,” wrote Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on the AiG blog.

Creationism tries to explain the Bible in a scientific or quasi-scientific way but it insists on the existence of God, specifically the Judao-Christian God, as a prerequisite. Its proponents want it taught in schools as a viable alternative to the theory of evolution and the creationists are upset with how Cosmos presents evolution and some want equal time to explain their view, preferably on Cosmos itself. Opposing views should get equal time, right? That’s only fair, after all.

Except it isn’t.

Tyson, in an interview on CNN, said “You don’t talk about the spherical earth with NASA and then say let’s give equal time to the flat-earthers.” Kate Mulgrew, the former Capt. Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager, was the narrator on a documentary that tried to promote the theory that sun did, if fact, revolve around the Earth. Should she have a voice on Cosmos as well?

Creationism is not equal to the scientific method. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” Boiled down – observation, theory, experiment and test to ratify the theory, repeat the experiment to verify the results. Confirm or change the hypotheses.

Creationism doesn’t do that. It starts from a specific conclusion – that the Bible is factually true and God exists – and draws its theories from that. That’s not science. That’s belief. Dr. Mitchell’s assertion of a “blind faith” in evolution is simply wrong; science doesn’t ask for blind faith. It accepts as true what can be proven from observation and experiment. That is why it remains a “theory” even after it has been universally accepted. If you can prove something wrong, science can and will accept that, if sometimes a little belatedly. (Cosmos itself illustrated that.) Science acknowledges that a theory can be mistaken; creationism does not.

I continue to have problems with those who insist that the Bible is a history or a science book or an infallible source of information. It’s not meant to be taken literally. It is full of myth and poetry and metaphor and in that lies its power. It isn’t meant to stand up to the same rigors by which science holds itself. My former pastor, Phillip Wilson, used to say there is a difference between the road map and the road. The former is not the same as the latter but it may be able to guide you. If we understand that Genesis is a metaphor and evolution is a description, then perhaps the two can live together. The Bible can have truths in it without needing to be literally true.

Science and religion have the same origin – gazing at the stars and the world around us and asking, “Why? How did this come to be? How did we come to be here?” Religion has come up with answers and has stopped questioning; it has dogma and that’s where questions go to die. Science continues to question even after it has a reasonable answer.

As for having creationists have equal time on Cosmos – maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson might consider it. Right after he’s given equal time on the 700 Club.

I mean, that would be fair, right?