Thursday saw a small social gathering of four friends, but also an event that I’d like to dub the first official “Think Too Much” gathering. (Yuck, I need a better name for that.) Oh, and no, it wasn’t official at all, it really was just a couple of friends that joined me as I was watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, but that’s about as official as I like these things to be.
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is a thirteen-part television series written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter, with Sagan as global presenter. […] It covered a wide range of scientific subjects including the origin of life and a perspective of our place in the universe.
The series was first broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service in 1980, and was the most widely watched series in the history of American public television until 1990’s The Civil War. It is still the most widely watched PBS series in the world. It won an Emmy and a Peabody Award and has since been broadcast in more than 60 countries and seen by over 600 million people, according to the Science Channel. A book to accompany the series was also published.
For details on the contents of episodes, check the episode guide on Wikipedia. The first episode gave an overview of the universe, from billions of galaxies, to our local group, to billions of stars, to the planets, and on to the Great Library of Alexandria. It contained some speculation and imagination, I think its purpose was to inspire, as well, of course, to serve as an intro to the 13-episode series.
The second episode dealt with biology, explained natural selection and evolution, and animated the evolutionary process from microbes to humans. It covered the Miller-Urey experiment. The science update at the end (ten years later) presented the idea of exogenesis. Some speculation on the potential nature of extra-terrestrial life was included, including gaseous life-forms on Jupiter, an idea I first came across in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2010: Odyssey Two, published 1982.
Thoughts on Educational Potential
Mentioned on the Wikipedia page:
Other parts of Cosmos were controversial among the general public, though hardly among scientists, such as Sagan’s straightforward treatment of astrology as a pseudoscience and his equally straightforward description of biological evolution.
The straightforward description of biological evolution in the second episode describes to the layperson what science has found. It is unapologetic, and the evidence these conclusions are based on is not shown. It is not an episode aimed at dealing with skeptics and evolution-denialists. (In this case, the skeptics are those undecided between evolution and creationism, and the denialists are those that are explicitly creationists ).
The basic idea is this: when teaching science, the first aim is to bring people up to speed with what science has learned, and teaching the basic principles of how science works. There is so much knowledge in science these days, that until you’re specialising in a particular field, you cannot spend excessive amounts of time dwelling on the evidence that led to its conclusions. Cutting edge science research takes place in postgraduate research work, not at school or in undergraduate courses.
Now the Cosmos series was targeted at laypeople that wanted to know more about science, not at skeptics and denialists. Getting bogged down in the details of and the evidence for every claim would be counter productive to the primary goal of introducing as much science as possible. Of course the side-effect is that those that do play skeptic and denialist will remain unconvinced, having been encouraged to distrust any authority figures or experts in the field.
Episode Three was great, dealing with the history of science and the work of Johannes Kepler. Kepler was a contemporary of Galileo, and participant in the shift from Geocentrism to Heliocentrism. Between Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, I suspect Kepler is the least famous, but that he maybe deserves more fame than he gets?)
The episode presented through these examples, good insight into how the scientific method works. Some of Kepler’s cherished ideas had to die at the hands of evidence. I also liked the illustration of the impact human pride and politics can have in holding back scientific progress, but that it is unable to influence eventual scientific conclusions.
This episode should be quite uncontroversial (except maybe to those that think astrology is “true”) and can be a wonderful resource for illustrating how science works.
The Remaining Episodes
If anyone wants to join in when I watch episodes four to thirteen (over at least three sessions), let me know. It will probably only take place after 9 June.
I’ve discovered how hard it would be to obtain a neutral atmosphere where seekers, undecided between evolution and creationism, could feel comfortable asking questions and discussing theories and the supposed “debate”. The first Christian to arrive simply assumed everyone there would be “evolutionists” like him, demonstrating an incredulous attitude towards creationism. We won’t even need any scientists or atheists at such an event to make them feel inhospitable to creationists…
I’m not sure what we’d have to do to make the atmosphere more conducive to such discussions. Creationist-leaning people typically reject the authority of scientists on science, preferring the authority of their religious leaders (who have not studied science and have typically avoided a university theology degree), or more specifically, the authority of famous creationist websites. For this reason, they may experience the series as a “brainwashing attempt”. (Of course, if they consider that brainwashing, they cannot complain if creationism seminars are also considered brainwashing.) Evolutionists typically “know they’re right”, and may find it very difficult to avoid coming across as condescending. Unless I hand-pick the audience… ideally picking primarily people that have wondered about “creationism versus evolution” in the past, thereby more able to understand what the creationist-leaning folk are going through, or else science educators that have grappled with creationism long enough to understand the nature of the problem, but not too long to have given up on patience.
Most people might say “let them figure it out for themselves or live in ignorance”, but I’m weird. I’m still interested in doing what I can to facilitate dialogue and scientific learning. Maybe it is because humans fascinate me. Should I become a psychologist or an anthropologist, maybe?
Either way, I might have to give up on such discussions on Cosmos-nights, but discussion on this blog afterwards might be possible. There were a number of questions that came up during the night, shall we discuss them here? (Mostly unrelated to creationism, rather just curiosity about certain things in astrophysics and biology.)