Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was unarguably one of the best TV science series ever and remains hugely influential – but its new remake has caused a bit of a stir. Not because Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t a worthy successor to Sagan – he absolutely is – or for the couple of errors that only geeks like me get exercised about, but because Tyson is ignoring creationism as a valid alternative theory to the Big Bang, evolution and, well, science.
I’ll return to Tyson in a bit (and will argue that he is in fact working creationist ideas into the show in a subtle and subversive way) but let’s first examine their complaint that the show has a pro-science bias and creationist ideas are being ignored and treated like they have no scientific merit. It’s a legitimate complaint in that creationist arguments get no explicit coverage but this is not just a false balance issue. It’s deeper than that.
The young earth creationists’ notion that the earth is 6-10,000 years old is easily debunked so I’ll skip over that bit. But I have heard the argument that the devil put the fossils there to make us doubt (well, that one worked on me, then) but as yet I’ve heard no creationist explanation for prehistoric German sex toys dating back some 28,000 years.
Anyway, the central flaw here – of several – is that religion is a worldview. Science isn’t. So what’s the difference between science and worldviews such as religious or other philosophies?
For me demarcation between science and worldview is quite simple; science is just a set of tools used to observe and evaluate our environment. It’s about systematic measurement and using consistent logic to evaluate those measurements. It’s self-correcting. It’s testable. It’s about observation, proof and falsification, and nothing to do with faith. (Yes, you could argue science was a worldview if you go back a few hundred years but philosophers nailed that one centuries ago).
A worldview is very different. A worldview generally comprises an explanation of the world, its origins and its construction but also deals in futurology, methodology and ethics – ‘where are we going?’, ‘how do we get there?’ and ‘what’s right and what’s wrong?’. It also tends to treat humans as some sort of higher being with a purpose rather than sentient social care systems for our microbial overlords.
“Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.” – Dick Feynman
There is the old adage that science is true whether you believe in it or not (generally credited to Tyson but I’m sure it’s older) but Richard Feynmann put the difference most succinctly: “Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.” In essence, science has no place for myth, sacred narrative, doctrine or dogma.
Back to Tyson. I think the creationists’ complaint is unfounded but not just because their position (that creation myths belong in the science classroom rather than the Sunday School) is Utter, Utter Bollocks (µ²B) in and of itself. Tyson does deal with creationism in the programme. For example he gives a history of the eyeball, how it’s not perfect, how it evolved in different species – which seems like an odd thing to focus on (pardon the pun).
I think (and hope) his reason for this is that the eye is central to a classic creationist argument. The theory of irreducible complexity (µ²B) posits the eyeball is so perfect and so complex and because it only works as a complex ‘whole’ it could not possibly have ‘evolved’ – and so evolution in its entirely is disproved. For a start the human eye is far less than perfect not least because it evolved to work underwater and isn’t so good out of it so you might have guessed this argument is Utter, Utter Bollocks (µ²B). So, by thoroughly debunking the argument without even mentioning it explicitly Tyson is firmly sticking two fingers up to the creationists, bible thumpers and god botherers – and everyone who continues to argue that evolution is just ‘a theory‘ and creationism or intelligent design are alternative ‘theories’ and so carry equal weight. And therefore should be taught as part of the science curriculum.
I think it appropriate to end on a couple of Carl Sagan quotes:
“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”
“A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism.”
But the real challenge was also summed up by Sagan:
“We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.
We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”