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.

Sagan, in other words, was no fan of the military-industrial complex, but he understood that expensive research in fields like astrophysics had historically been supported by the government for reasons that fell short of idealism. And Sagan’s willingness to publicly disagree with other scientists was an acknowledgement that scientists have political opinions as well as technical expertise.

Tyson, meanwhile, sometimes presents a more idealized version of science and scientists. In a recent interview with Parade, Tyson remembered his reaction when he witnessing the hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11:

What I know is, when you have a cosmic perspective, when you know how large the universe is and how small we are within it—what Earth looks like from space, how tiny it is in a cosmic void—it’s impossible for you to say, ‘I so don’t like how you think that I’m going to kill you for it.’ You will never find scientists leading armies into battle. You just won’t. Especially not astrophysicists—we see the biggest picture there is…We understand there are bigger problems we need to solve as a species than what God you pray to.

It’s a wonderful sentiment, this idea that exposure to the wonders of science will allow people to transcend social, political, and cultural differences. But it’s also obviously wrong, given how much 20th-century warfare depended directly on the products of science. (Historian of technology Patrick McCray has compiled a helpful list of some of the ways that scientists have, in fact, “led armies into battle.”) And Tyson himself probably doesn't truly believe that the relationship between the military and science is so simple. (He's said he's writing a book that will, in part, examine the topic.)

Looking back on the 1980s, it’s hard to say how much public support for scientific research, including the planetary exploration missions so dear to Sagan’s heart, can be credited directly to programs like Cosmos, and how much depended on Congressional support for a space industry that might play some yet-to-be-determined role in World War III. Today, the federal government continues to invest in R&D, but those funds skew toward defense projects, health research, and technology-oriented innovation. Instead of space war, defense R&D focuses on cybersecurity, remote-sensing technologies, and neurowarfare.

NASA, meanwhile, limps along. That seems unlikely to change, whether Cosmos scores 5 or 500 million viewers.

The ‘80s are over. We should let the show succeed or fail on its own terms, without weighing it down with Cold War-era fantasies that confuse the public understanding of science with its appreciation.

If you missed Sunday’s night premiere, you can still watch it online.