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The First TTM Gathering: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Episodes 1 to 3

May 17th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 3 Comments

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.

From Wikipedia:

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.[1] 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

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.)

Categories: Religion and Science
Tags: · · · ·

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kenneth Oberlander // May 18, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I was going to mail and ask how it went…I’m sorry that I couldn’t make it!

    Did the series generate any interesting discussion in the group that watched it?

  • 2 Hugo // May 18, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    No, not really. As I mentioned, the evening’s atmosphere wasn’t really conducive to that kind of discussion.

    One creationism question was raised: AnswersInGenesis was mentioned, that recent findings about the cosmic background radiation supposedly supports creationism. (Probably http://www.answersingenesis.org/tj/v15/i1/microwave.asp). Which is exactly the problem one has when battling that kind of thing: some obscure piece of data, or some obscure interpretation of said piece of data, is waved about with a “but what about this then?” question… a question you can only really answer if you are an expert in the field. Answer that one, and they find another obscure thingy in a completely different field.

    Yes, science is always improving, i.e. there are always errors to correct, and interesting things to learn from interesting data. Go look for some obscure detail, and you will always find it. (Wait till we start doing that with creationism and flood geology/mechanics…) And there’s not much discussion that can be had about that kind of detail.

    The material itself was presented in a matter-of-fact manner. What can one do there? One can disagree very now and then. Or one can argue about what things we can disagree with and what not, but that’s not so useful. We can laugh at some of the Sci-Fi (speculation/imagination) that was included, and we can speculate whether the example of artificial selection of Heike crabs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heikegani) is realistic or not. It was considered “unlikely” by an audience member. I thought it was an interesting example. But on that Wikipedia page it mentions that some experts have questioned the impact of artificial selection — depends on how many were really eaten and how many thrown back.

    Some questions that came up were technical ones. Would have been useful to have an expert on hand. E.g. “why do galaxies form on a plane?” (I can only say “uh, I think it’s because they spin”, then try to explain what happens when you spin stuff with some hand-waving and fumbling words…)

    But anyway…

  • 3 Kenneth Oberlander // May 20, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Thought I left a comment, but it appears to have been swallowed…

    No, not really. As I mentioned, the evening’s atmosphere wasn’t really conducive to that kind of discussion.

    That’s a pity.

    Answer that one, and they find another obscure thingy in a completely different field.

    I can’t make head or tail of the AnswersInGenesis webpage. What exactly are they trying to say? I sincerely doubt that there is any support for creationism in the cosmic background variation. Is this to do with the clumpiness of said variation?

    we can speculate whether the example of artificial selection of Heike crabs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heikegani) is realistic or not.

    Hmmm…I checked Google Scholar for articles on Heikea. Nothing on artificial selection. This of course doesn’t mean there aren’t any articles in this topic…I will have to ask some crustacean experts.

    Would have been useful to have an expert on hand. E.g. “why do galaxies form on a plane?”

    I think your explanation is correct. Talk.origins has a discussion on this point.

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