Why Cosmos Can’t Save Public Support for Science

We're not in the Cold War anymore.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remake of Cosmos premiered Sunday night on Fox, to rave reviews. The show’s production values are gorgeous, and Tyson, the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, may be the best science popularizer we have today.

If the conversations on Twitter (#cosmos) and science blogs are any indication, though, people seem to want more from Cosmos than quality edutainment. The New York Times’ Dennis Overbye wonders if Cosmos can solve the fracking debate. Clara Moskowitz, an editor for Scientific American, hopes that Tyson’s series can reeducate the quarter of Americans who think the sun revolves around the Earth. In a taped lead-in to the show, President Obama suggested that the show could play a role in the future of American innovation, urging viewers to “Open your eyes, open your imagination,” because “the next great discovery could be yours.”

As is so often the case with science communication, the assumption seems to be that public understanding of science—sprinkled with a hearty dose of wonder and awe—will produce respect for scientific authority, support for science funding, and a new generation of would-be scientists. If only Americans loved science a little more, the thinking goes, we could end our squabbling about climate change, clean energy, evolution, and funding NASA and the National Science Foundation. These are high hopes to pin on a television show, even one as glorious as Cosmos.

So what’s going on? The original Cosmos, written by and starring the inimitable Carl Sagan, kicked off a decade-long “popular science boom,” according to Bruce Lewenstein, a professor of science communication at Cornell. By 1993, more than 500 million people in 60 countries had seen the television show. “When I ask scientists between the ages of 30 and 60 to name something that made them want to be scientists,” Lewenstein says, “a huge number cite Cosmos.” Beyond raw numbers of viewers and anecdotal reports of personal inspiration, however, we lack data on how Cosmos actually affected public support for science.

Putting aside the question of the original Cosmos’s effects on public opinion, Tyson’s Cosmos is being broadcast to a different world than Sagan’s. Today’s television audiences are famously fragmented; the show came in third-place in the ratings Sunday night, despite being aired simultaneously on 10 Fox family networks. The bigger problem, though, may have to do with changing ideas about what science is for.

Sagan’s Cosmos first aired on PBS in 1980, a moment when Cold War tensions were heating back up. This is critical, because so much of postwar funding for American scientific research depended on an implicit bargain with the military-industrial complex. The federal government supported research in science and technology, and, in exchange, scientists offered their expertise should it be needed in times of war. Public support for science was an easy sell, in part, because so much of the Cold War rivalry depended on high-tech weaponry built on cutting-edge science.

Sagan was well aware of this relationship and spent much of the 1980s working through its contradictions. On the one hand, Sagan championed public funding for planetary and space exploration, knowing that political support for the space program had traditionally depended on a competition with the Soviet Union. On the other, Sagan criticized President Reagan’s plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative (better known as “Star Wars”), a pie-in-the-sky space weapons program backed by physicist Edward Teller and a bevy of defense contractors but derided by most scientists. Sagan was also an outspoken proponent of the concept of nuclear winter, an idea that helped turn American opinion against the nuclear arms race.

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Audra Wolfe is a writer and science historian, and the author of Competing With the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America.

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