Lecturer, McGill University
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was broadcast in 1980, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson (NDT) starred in the Cosmos reboot of 2014. Both shows were wildly successful (by the standards of educational TV), and in tandem they build a good-cop/good-cop image of science as a source of moral authority. Here’s how: Cosmos 1980 and Cosmos 2014 a) cultivate an ideal of science being in the wonder business. They then b) claim a moral authority rooted in its cosmic revelation. They c) stress the idea of a pressing global choice between life and death, and d) assert that the perspective offered by sciences like astronomy can help us make the right choice. In this way, they e) position “spiritual but not religious” and “scientific but not scientistic” science promoters like Carl Sagan and NDT as moral authorities.
a) One way Cosmos (1980) promotes a wonder business mood is its use of literally astronomical numbers. In Episode 1 alone, I counted 50 millions/billions/trillions/quadrillions (about an illion per minute). This insistent invocation of inconceivably grand numbers positions Cosmos as a source of infotainment wonder, rightly administering the marvels of science to the people. Sagan is no cold scientistic egghead, you see? His science is passionate and “deep.”
b) There’s a moral authority that flows from this wonder, since Cosmos offers – in the words of co-writer Ann Druyan – a message of cosmic belonging through the “spiritual high” of its “revelation” (Introduction to Episode 1). As Sagan explains, such healthy wonder works best when it’s channeled by good teachers (Episode 13).
c) Cosmos stresses that science necessitates and informs global life-and-death choices regarding nuclear war, climate change, etc (Episode 1). The series’ grand finale opens on this note, in a literally biblical tone: “Behold, I have set before thee life and death,” with Sagan expressing his hope that we’ll accept from sciences like astronomy the cosmic “perspective” we’ll need to survive (Episode 13).
d) Slash-and-burn forestry is, for example, done by people who are “heedless of the beauty of our cousins the trees, and ignorant of the possible climactic catastrophes” (Episode 4). Science education is therefore a moral force, and literally a life-saver. “Science is not perfect,” Sagan says, “but it’s the best tool we have” (Episode 13).
e) Science replaces older (“religious”) ways of engaging wonder, and does it better (Episode 7), identifying and answering life-and-death decisions with humbling, soaring perspectives. The people who teach science properly are therefore moral actors in positions of great power and responsibility.
a) In Cosmos 2(014) it’s clear that science is still in the wonder business. The world revealed by science is marvelous and staggering. “Imagination alone not enough – The reality of nature is far more wondrous than anything we can imagine” (Episode 1). Science is the legitimate heir of territories previously claimed by older (“religious”) systems of meaning (Episode 13), including the functions of providing “humility” and “soaring spiritual experience” (Episode 2). NDT is, like, Sagan, scientific but not coldly or narrowly scientistic, you see. The bogeyman of scientism is banished, and the terrain of humane wonder is claimed for science.
b) The moral authority that flows from this includes in Cosmos 2 a claim to apostolic succession, and NDT’s frankly maudlin personal story about how “I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become” (Episode 1) drives the flag of Cosmos science deeper into the terrain of humane magnanimity.
c) Cosmos 2 also repeatedly stresses the planetary dangers of nuclear weapons and climate change (Episode 12, 13), and repeats the claim that the perspective gained from science can help us see and make the right choice, because it delivers on wonder and humility, as opposed to older anthropocentric (“religious”) systems of meaning (Episode 2, 6, 13).
d) NDT explicitly repeats (twice) Sagan’s admission that science is not perfect, along with Sagan’s insistence that it’s still humanity’s best bet (Episode 9, 13).
e) If the “cosmic perspective” offered by science is the only thing that can save the world (Episode 1, 13), NDT is accepting a moral mission when he inherits Sagan’s mantle, and repeats Sagan’s Christlike invitation “Come with me” (Episode 1).
In Cosmos 1 and 2, then, authorities like Sagan and NDT are moral authorities. They rightly divide the dauntingly astronomical numbers of the word of truth. They correctly administer the TV episode sacrament of wonder. To be clear: I’m not slamming them! They did great work and made great points. Engaged Religious Studies scholars are bound, though, to reflect critically about the ways in which pop culture giants construct authority with reference to issues flagged as “religious,” in a world where (as Jeremy Carrette and Richard King point out in their book Selling Spirituality), “spiritual but not religious” is a major demographic and its muscle is most demonstrably flexed in pop culture marketplaces.