I am enjoying Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Cosmos. So far it’s as good as the early 1980’s Sagan original. Popularizing science is a thankless task. Successful stars like Tyson and Sagan will earn nothing but envy and scorn from their peers. They’ll be derided as dilettantes and panderers whoring out science for demeaning public fame and filthy capitalist lucre. “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Such trollish antics are hardly surprising. Watching the success of the undeserving drives men (and bitches) mad and academics, despite being a tad smarter than the average bear, are not exempt.
The snarky back-biting of resentful peers is understandable and I’m sure people like Sagan and Tyson eventually come to see it as a laurel. Yes, Cosmos is dumbing down General Relativity, glossing over the fine points of the Standard Model and ignoring many of the complications of DNA/RNA replication but what the Hell do you expect? Nature is a complicated beast and human beings are slightly evolved naked apes. Most of us can barely walk and chew let alone ponder the formal mathematics of renormalization. Cosmos will not to turn people into Nobel candidates but it might teach them enough to think twice about bowing to lunacies like: the Earth is six thousand years old, there was a global flood in recent times, dowsing works, unidentified lights in the sky are alien spaceships, vaccinations cause autism, bigfoot is crapping in backyards, evolution is wrong, global warming is going to kill us all and prophecy is real.
Science is hard on nonsense but only if it engages. The biggest mistake you can make is ceding the battlefield to your enemies. Recently Bill Nye took a lot of heat for debating a creationist. In silly lefty circles talking to these people only elevates them. They felt Nye was making a big mistake by sharing the stage with a young earther, but then lefties have always been more comfortable with outright suppression, libelous slander and five-minute hates. Shut up they explained! Winning an argument on pure intellectual merit reeks of white male privilege and decent liberal airheads just don’t go there. Now I’m more of a crush your enemies, “drive them before you, and hear the lamentations of the women,” type of guy. So I’m glad people like Nye, Tyson and Sagan suit up and slay nitwits.
And, when it came to slaying nitwits, Sagan was in a rarefied class. He debunked Mars facer’s, Velikovsky enthusiasts, UFO fanatics and more with characteristic style. Twenty years later his arguments still hold up. Sagan’s adherence to the skeptic’s creed, it’s not the skeptic’s job to prove an assertion false, it’s the proponent’s job to make its case, infuriated opponents and delighted “drive them before you” hard-asses like myself. This all happened before the Internet was widely available so I didn’t see how deeply Sagan got under idiot skin until he died in 1996.
By 1996 the web had spread everywhere you could make a phone call. I was using 56K BAUD dial-up then and for someone who started with 300 BAUD acoustic modems it seemed like a golden age. The day that Sagan died I remember thinking “it will be interesting to read the public’s eulogies.” I logged on expecting human decency only to find, for the first time, Internet trolls. Large numbers of vicious cretins hated Sagan and actively celebrated his death. The morbidly religious imagined a sodomized Sagan roasting in Hell for the crime of atheism while scores of UFO dolts reiterated the very fallacies Sagan had debunked: the feeble-minded love proof by repetition. I wasn’t shocked, I don’t do shock, but I was surprised. The tone was everything we’ve come to expect and love in modern unhinged troll-dom. I downgraded my already low opinion of mankind.
As nasty as Sagan’s death celebrations were I consoled myself with the fact that we’re not burned alive for entertaining unpopular cosmologies. It wasn’t always so as Cosmos attests. Left unchecked the omnipresent goons among us would love to grind Orwell’s boot in our faces forever. Part of what holds them at bay is science and its ambassadors like Tyson and Sagan. So thanks Neil, and please continue ignoring your academic trolls.