This column originally appeared on AlterNet.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new Cosmos series is a worthy reboot of Carl Sagan’s original. Following in Sagan’s footsteps, Tyson takes viewers on a voyage through the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond, showing how our sun is just one star out of a hundred billion in the majestic spiral of the Milky Way galaxy, and even the Milky Way itself is a speck in the observable universe. As in the original series, he compresses the history of the universe into a single year, showing that on that scale, the human species emerges only in the last few seconds before midnight on December 31.
Sagan’s Cosmos was due for an update, and not just because our computer graphics are better. Since the original series aired, we’ve sent robotic rovers to Mars, sampling its rocks and exploring its history. We’ve detected hundreds of alien planets outside the solar system, finding them by the slight gravitational wobble they cause in their home stars, or by the brief dips in light as they pass across the star’s face as seen from Earth. We’ve found the Higgs boson, the elusive and long-theorized particle that endows everything else with mass. We’ve discovered that the expansion of the Universe which began with the Big Bang is accelerating, driven by a mysterious force called dark energy. All these scientific advances deserve to be recognized and celebrated.
The story of Cosmos is also the story of human beings. For the vast majority of our history as a species, we were wanderers, small hunter-gatherer bands. Civilization is a recent innovation, arising within the last few thousand years, and science is more recent still, appearing only in the last few hundred. But in just those few short centuries, we’ve made dramatic strides: from wooden sailing ships to space shuttles, bloodletting to bionic limbs, quill pens to the Internet. We’ve drawn back the curtain on ancient mythologies and glimpsed the true immensity of time and space. Compared to that vastness, we’re unimaginably small and insignificant; yet we possess an intelligence and a power of understanding that, as far as we still know, is unique among all the countless worlds. As Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
However, not everyone accepts this as a positive development. There have always been those who prefer a small, comprehensible cosmos, with human beings placed firmly at the center. The religious belief systems that posit such a universe were our first, fumbling attempts to explain the origin of the world, and they rarely share power gladly. Those who clash against conventional wisdom, who dare to suggest that the cosmos holds wonders undreamed-of in conventional mythology, have always found themselves in grave peril from the gatekeepers of dogma who presume to dictate the thoughts human beings should be permitted to think.
The first episode of the new Cosmos graphically illustrates this with the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century monk who argued that the sun was a star like all the rest, and that every star had its own planets and its own living beings. Bruno wasn’t a scientist, as the show makes clear: his cosmological views flowed from his mystical, pantheist theology, not from evidence. But that made no difference to the Inquisition, which imprisoned and tortured Bruno and then, when he refused to recant, burned him at the stake. His statue still stands in the Campo dei Fiori where he was executed, facing the Vatican as if accusing those who murdered him.
There’s also Bruno’s contemporary, Galileo Galilei, the astronomer who discovered the moons of Jupiter and argued for the heliocentric solar system. As a reward for his revolutionary scientific work, he was judged suspect of heresy by the Inquisition and forced to abjure his own work under threat of torture; his books were banned and he was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. The story of Galileo’s persecution is so well-known that I’d hesitate to retell it yet again, if it weren’t for the fact that church apologists like Jay Wesley Richards are still defending and soft-pedaling it.
In fact, even Bruno’s torture and execution still have their defenders, like the creationist site Evolution News and Views, or professional outrage-monger William Donohue of the Catholic League, who ludicrously claimed that the Spanish Inquisition was a good thing. A Catholic cardinal, Angelo Sodano, likewise said in 2000 that the inquisitors who condemned Bruno “had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life.”
And from Carl Sagan’s original series, one more cautionary tale: the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, a philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who lived in fourth-century Egypt in the waning days of the Roman Empire. Christianity was on the rise and bent on stamping out pagan ideas, and Hypatia was despised by the local bishop, Cyril of Alexandria, who hated her for her friendship with the governor and the different worldview she represented. Despite the personal danger she was in, she continued to study and to teach until, one day, she was assaulted in the street by a mob of Christian fanatics who dragged her from her chariot and hacked her to death with tiles. Her works were destroyed, her books lost. Cyril was made a saint. (Hypatia’s life and death were dramatized in the 2009 film Agora, starring Rachel Weisz.)
But this kind of persecution isn’t just a relic of ancient history. While we’re thankfully past the days when scientists could be stoned in the street or imprisoned by church tribunals, the anti-science spirit is alive and virulent in the world today, waving away facts that disagree with their ideology and seeking to silence or intimidate those who speak inconvenient truths.
We can see this most clearly with one of the most urgent issues confronting the human species, the danger of global climate change. While it’s a matter of uncontroversial fact among scientists that the burning of fossil fuels is changing the Earth’s climate in perilous ways, climate science is far less accepted among the public, driven by fierce resistance from those who have an ideological reason for disbelieving it.
The renowned climate scientist Michael Mann, whose work forms the basis for United Nations climate reports and the famous “hockey stick” graph that illustrates global temperature rises, has been the subject of continual harassment by conservative legislators, including frivolous subpoenas by Ken Cuccinelli, the former right-wing attorney general of Virginia, accusing him of scientific fraud. In other localities, the right-wing response to climate change has reached epic levels of head-in-the-sand denial, such as when the North Carolina legislature passed a law forbidding science to be used in forecasting future sea-level rise.
Religious groups have joined the banner of climate-change denial as well, calling the environmental movement a pagan religion and arguing that global warming is a nonissue because the Bible says God won’t allow the Earth to change too much. When moderate evangelical Richard Cizik argued that Christians should devote more time to environmental issues, he was pressured and eventually forced to resign his vice-presidential position in the National Association of Evangelicals by religious-right groups who said that talking about global warming would “shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time.”
The theory of evolution is, if anything, even more convincingly established than climate change – if only because it has the benefit of over a hundred years of diligent scientific work in support of it – yet it too runs into roadblocks of resistance from religious conservatives.
A Pew poll from last year found that a majority of Republican voters are creationists, and church-state separation groups routinely hear reports of creationists working as teachers in public schools and preaching their beliefs in the classroom. Just last month, Bill Nye the Science Guy publicly debated Ken Ham, a creationist who believes the universe is only 6,000 years old – which is, for the record, considerably younger than the oldest cities on the planet – and who wants to build a theme park dedicated to the genetically and geologically impossible proposition that every species on the planet is descended from just two individuals that rode on Noah’s ark.
But while future generations will suffer the consequences of climate change, and rejecting evolution deprives us of a keystone in the scientific understanding of our place in the world, the deadly consequences of the anti-scientific mindset can most clearly be seen in the anti-vaccination movement.
Thanks to the unsubstantiated fear-mongering of celebrities with no medical or scientific credentials, vaccination rates are declining and herd immunity has weakened – with the entirely predictable consequence that highly contagious diseases like measles and whooping cough have reemerged, including in cities and countries that had long been free of them. Vaccination, for the record, is one of the simplest, safest and most effective medical interventions ever invented, and the diseases it prevents are killers (yes, even chicken pox)). There’s no reason whatsoever why people (mostly children) should still suffer and die from them, other than a foolish and tragic lack of trust in scientific knowledge.
These stories go on and on: from antichoice groups pushing the pseudoscientific myth that IUDs and other contraceptive methods cause abortions or spreading falsehoods about the health risks of abortion, to the gun paranoia lobby demanding prohibitions on using public money to study gun violence. But no matter the field or the discovery, the ideologically driven rejection of science diminishes and impoverishes us in ways even beyond the immediate, practical harm it causes.
Science is the most powerful tool ever invented for the expansion of our intellectual horizon, and even besides its concrete benefits, it’s done us the immeasurable service of showing us our true place in a vast, ancient and wondrous universe. Through following the scientific method, we’ve learned that we are congealed stardust, the heavy elements of our bodies forged in supernovae; we’ve learned that we were shaped by evolution, our DNA reaching back in an unbroken chain of descent to the origin of life on Earth, expanding outward to bind us to every other living organism in a tree of kinship. These profound revelations ought to have far more power to move and inspire us than any human-centered mythology – and they ought to expand our moral horizons as well, by showing us our fragility and fundamental equality at the genetic and cognitive level. While science can be misused to create tools of terrible destruction, there have been at least as many times when it resolutely refused to confirm popular prejudices, and so it’s no surprise that it’s so often hated by regressive, superstitious, authoritarian world views both religious and political.
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