On Sunday 3/16, the second episode of the new Cosmos series by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Seth MacFarlane was broadcast. As a fan of NGT since his early days (before 2006), I cannot help but feel like this series was a long time coming. Neil’s inspirational message helped shape my education and still directs aspects of my career. Moreover, the timing of its release could not be any more perfect for a number of reasons which I’ll cover later.
American financial support of science agencies is diminishing, and our higher education system is crumbling under the burden of its own costs. What does this all mean? Well, you should probably ask the 20% of scientists in the United States who are leaving for more supportive countries.America is losing a quarter of its scientists because we don’t prioritize science within the national budget. This is primarily due to debt ceiling threats and huge government spending reductions. Even though corporate tax breaks are at an all time high, and bailing out the financial market was a priority for both parties.
Do you remember the government shutdown last October? The government forcefully closed the labs and classrooms to any project operating under federal expense. The damage done to many PI’s life work was irreversible or very costly. Here’s a Reddit thread where scientists actually weighed in and discussed the destruction of their experiments. Remember when the NOAA made this joke statement, “PLEASE PAY US.” The NOAA provides most of the weather services to our nation, including space weather and hazardous storms. If another Katrina or Sandy came along during a shutdown, it would have been even more disastrous.
Does this fiscal war on science have anything to do with America’s infatuation with revivalism and the reinvention of the church? Could it be that most Americans think that belief in a God is required for a person to behave morally. According to those numbers, the United States is more than twice as dogmatic as the European nations which popularized Christianity in the first place.
Watching this new Cosmos series, I can’t help but feel that the science is being taught at the most superficial level possible. It’s “infotainment” meant to raise interest in science, but more than that, it exists to challenge the place of religion in American culture. The plot is story focused, it revolves around characters and parables. Reuse of memes such as the Cosmic Calendar lend the concepts to be treated as symbolic objects of ontological implication. The episodes of Cosmos might in some future context be treated as verses, or as some approximate to “holy works” but in the context of a humanist anthology. Already internet and geek culture are infatuated with both Carl Sagan and NGT, it’s not that much of a stretch to see their characters enshrined into the permanent fabric of the web’s hive-mind.
So is Christianity on the decline in the US? Does the bipartisan blame-game media mindset ingrained into Americans require Christians to create a straw-man enemy “across the fence?” Some groups think so. Of course, it doesn’t help shape chart depicting religious decline in America doesn’t label their Y-axis, but this gallup poll shows some more appropriate figures. These rates are not as alarming as they are in the UK, where as of 2008, more than half of all citizens had no religious affiliation. However, Britain hasn’t been consumed by Fire and Brimstone quite yet.
One thing which has been pleasantly surprising though has been the revision of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis. Finally there is a religious figure for Christianity that teaches compassion as more important than devotion. His tolerance of Muslims and Athiests is a surprising change for a world leader whose position throughout history has lead the persecution of minorities for centuries. This could be because Francis himself is a Jesuit. The Jesuits have been more beneficial to science than any other catholic “society.”
The Catholic Church in the ninteenth century founded the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and later the Vatican Observatory. Yes, in Mt Graham, Arizona there is a telescopic observatory run by Italian priests. I’ve heard they often wear robes. NGT himself drew parallels to spiritual awakening during his own stays at observatories. I’ve worked at a few myself and have felt the same connection.
Most religious Europeans have no problem accepting science, even if they believe in God. The Creationist arguement persists widely in America because it’s profitable. If there’s one thing Americans love more than the prophet, it’s profit. The religion versus science debate is a manufactured argument. It exists because it earns money, pure and simple. Does Ken Ham seriously believe in his own delusional claims? Probably, but for many pro-creationists, the money is probably a bigger influence on their life then their posited beliefs. If you’re not convinced, go ask Ted Haggard.
A majority of Americans might be Christian, but few actually care for the finer points of the so called “debate.” Americans are raised from birth to be consumers, and that they need to memorize facts to be able to win arguments. Politicians don’t care who’s right, they care who wins. That’s why, as NGT points out, most politicans are career politicians, lawyers or lobbyists. It’s in our blood to want to win, regardless of the how. However, that is a very dangerous psychological state if mishandled or purposefully manipulated.
Which brings up the biggest threat to organized science and a rational world view. War. Carl Sagan always spoke loudly against nuclear proliferation. During the airing of the original Cosmos series, the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan and America lead a boycott on the Russian held 1980 Summer Olympics? Does that sound slightly familiar? Our situation in March 2014 is different, perhaps more complex.
Whereas globalized financed and distributed national debts will likely prevent WWIII from taking place, it doesn’t rule out its possibility completely. The Ukrainian situation likely will not escalate in the near term, but the annexation of Crimea will void the arms agreement and Ukraine will likely rearm themselves with nuclear weapons from the west. Simultaneously, the arms race between China, Korea and Japan, and the dispute over fishing rights has the potential to become a larger conflict as well.
Carl Sagan was a professed Pacifist, and his message needs to be remembered. The atrocities of the twentieth century need to be remembered. The United States isn’t clean this time either. The intelligence community treats all citizens as potential terrorists, spies on the US Senate for its own ethical oversight… We arrest journalists, and have militarized our police force more than ever before.
The NSA will not disclose how much it spends on its programs, and we all know that the DHS is funneling off far more than they could ever need for averting disasters. They are more likely preparing for large-scale dissent than for foreign maliciousness. Meanwhile, NASA is slashing programs and education is failing to compete internationally.
We’re more interesting in standardized tests and conformity than we are in creating inquisitive minds or new scientists; and why bother, there aren’t any jobs for new generations of scientists to have anyway. There’s plenty of space for engineers, software developers and roboticists for the next 20 years as we perfect the surveillance state and automate all of the labor jobs away, but basic research doesn’t pay off fast enough and is losing ground. The ROI is too low, so it gets the chopping block.
Which is why we need Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos more than ever. With any luck his message will help shape a more positive future for humanity, progress, and understanding.