Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cosmos: great, except where it's wrong

I loved Neil deGrasse Tyson's renewal of the great Carl Sagan's Cosmos series. Oh, the gorgeous science!

But one segment fell afoul of two of my pet peeves: 1) it perpetrated the myth that science and religion are enemies, and 2) it did so by seriously misrepresenting history.

Cosmos's producers chose Giordano Bruno, a 16th century monk who was burned at the stake for heresy, to represent the history of science. In their framing of his life, Bruno argued for an infinite universe, in which the earth revolved around the sun, and where the stars were themselves suns, all with their own circling worlds. The Church, frightened defenders of faith in the face of science, executed him, making him a martyr for science.

If your agenda is to prove that faith is diametrically opposed to science, then it's a good story. Too bad it's not true.

Giordano Bruno was a troubled man. He gained and lost important patrons throughout his life, as a result of his mercurial and abrasive personality. His vision of an infinite universe was exactly that: a vision. He was not a scientist, and while he was inspired by Copernicus, he was not an astronomer himself. His ideas about the world were not based on empirical evidence, they were based on a mix of visions and ancient philosophy that were no more scientific than a belief in bodily humors. He's an odd choice as a poster boy for science.

Furthermore, Giordano Bruno was not executed for his non-standard beliefs about the universe (either the ones that have subsequently turned out to be correct, or the ones that were just as wrong as his contemporaries' ideas). Bruno's "scientific" beliefs were a small part of his trial. He was executed for heresy: for denying the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and for his pantheism. The Church wasn't trying to shut him up because they were afraid of a heliocentric, infinite universe. They wanted an ordained priest to stop calling Christ a magician!

No matter what Bruno believed, he shouldn't have been executed. Today we'd consider it horrific to kill a man for his beliefs. That's why the Church doesn't execute people for heresy any more, just as the government of Great Britain no longer hangs children for picking pockets. But it is profoundly misleading to make Bruno's tragic story into a morality play about the role of religion in silencing science. The myth of Bruno-as-martyr-for-science developed in the late 1800's, when British naturalists tried to convince their skeptical countrymen that opposing the theory of evolution, (and other aspects of scientific thought), on a religious basis would make them like the much-reviled and maligned Catholic Church, the great bogey-man of British history.

Galileo, a true scientist whose empirically-based work was seen as a challenge to Aristotle, would have made a better choice. The complicated and politically-charged relationship between Galileo and the Church would have served as a much more accurate and illuminating story about science, religion, and politics.

Science and religion are not in opposition. To portray them that way is a disservice to both. This constant message is why students come to my classes convinced that they aren't allowed to believe in evolution, even if they are members of the Church that produced great evolutionary scientists like Brother Gregor Mendel (father of modern genetics), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (who was educated by the Jesuits), and Blessed Nicolas Steno (a founder of modern geology).

Cosmos is wonderful scientific outreach, but by unnecessarily portraying religion as fundamentally opposed to science, it creates an image of scientists who are hostile to people of faith. If Cosmos continues with this theme, it will limit its own audience, and undermine its message that science is open to all.

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