We need to talk about Cosmos...

Joseph Martin's picture

I've been watching with interest as the history of science community, particularly on Twitter, has reacted with consternation to the historical components of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos reboot. To a large extent I agree with these criticisms. It is troubling that the forums in which the public gets the most exposure to history of science also tend to be those in which it is the least responsibly represented.

But part of me also wants to play devil's advocate. First, Cosmos is a fantastic artifact of scientific myth making and as such provides a superb teaching tool when paired with more responsible historical presentations and perhaps some anthropological treatments of similar issues like Sharon Traweeks Beamtimes and Lifetimes.

Second, I don't know that we, as a community, have adequately made the case that the scholarly view of history we advance is, in fact, more useful for current cultural and political discourse than the naïve view scientists advance. One thing we often see in our research, and parallel work in philosophy of science, is that "right" is often not the same thing as "useful." I'm interested in generating some discussion in why and how, if at all, we can make the case that "useful" and "right" are and should be the same thing in this case for reasons other than internal professional ones.


Let me suggest a comparison. Consider drama based on history, for example, David Cassidy's play "Farm Hall." This play features some of the ten German/Austrian scientists who were interned at the English estate Farm Hall after the German surrender in WW II. Heisenberg and the others were there for about half a year. Their discussions of the German nuclear projects, their reactions to the bombing of Hiroshima, etc., were all recorded and the transcripts have been available for some of these discussions since 1992.

As a historian, Cassidy was careful in all of his books to "get it right." But in his play, he also had to consider the requirements of theater. Drama needs character, conflict, and catharsis. Cassidy has referred to Aristotle's theory of drama as shaping his approach to the play. Characters in drama must be good, appropriate, realistic, and consistent. That leaves room for invention not allowed in history. Hence, conversations may be shifted in chronology in a play and sometimes may even be shifted from one person to another if it adds to the story. But no matter how much creativity the playwright exercises, the story and the characters must ring true. Heisenberg is still Heisenberg, Diebner is still Diebner. And the bomb was still developed by the Manhattan Project and not by the Germans.

Of course, one could go further and fictionalize, but I don't think that is what we are discussing here. If Cosmos crosses that line, it does have a problem. But if it only changes some details to enhance a different purpose, is that so bad?

I hope this serves to stir the pot.

Thanks for this Greg. I suppose the question we have to ask of the comparison is to what extent are we willing to grant Fox/deGrasse Tyson artistic license. The objection I forsee is that when an audience steps into a theater to see a play, they bring along a set of expectations, including the expectation that they'll be seeing something quite different from the literal truth, which nonetheless strives at some deeper, more general truths. The audience tuning into Cosmos probably doesn't have the same expectations since the show adopts an instructional stance.

But I do think it's useful to set that aside and assume that we should give the Cosmos writers the same latitude we give Cassidy or Frayn or Cook and Lanouette. So granted for the sake of argument.

At the risk of being a bit grandiose, I do think Picasso had some useful things to say on this point. Namely:

"We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over lies, he would never accomplish anything."

If we Cosmos the artistic license to lie, the question is then whether it doing so in service of a greater truth and if so, what is it? And what does it mean for us if it turns out that Cosmos and the history community are simply going after different truths?

For the record, I myself am still very much on the fence about this issue, but if I were tasked with mounting a defence of Cosmos as it stands, one of the things I'd say is that the stakes of scientific authority are very high right now, esepcially in the United States. Perhaps the greater truth here is that we do need to promote greater public trust in science if we are going to tackle some of the frankly quite terrifying challenges ahead and maybe a touch of taradiddle in that direction isn't the worst thing. 

So if we grant the artistic license argument, I think we have to ask:

1. Is it okay for Cosmos to be pursuing different truths from those of the historical community? 

2. Is it possible for it to pursue those truths while still being responsible to the historical truths we value as a profession, or will nuance merely be an opportunity for confusion?

I've been on both sides of this issue. Currently I am an historian; previously I was a graduate student in RTF (radio-TV-film) and a writer for a bilingual children's TV show (among other things).

The issue of portraying history in the media came up a number of times in coursework, but all of the professors made it clear that drama, not facts, drove what went onto the screen. There are exceptions, and you have to watch public TV, etc. to see these. I think the AHA (American Historical Association) does a fine job of reviewing films from a historian's perspective. There is a need to get more historians consulting for films that portray historical events and characters.

COSMOS has multiple science consultants: Andre Bormanis, Donald Goldsmith, and Matthew Siegler. It has one research coordinator (Bob Oltra). Brandon Fibbs came on as a researcher for only one of the 14 episodes. Brandon Fibbs is a writer and producer living in LA. If the name Bob Oltra doesn't ring a bell, don't worry. He too is a LA-based producer (Dancing with the Stars). His only other research credit is on Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story. As I run out of space for this posting, let me state simply that the lack of attention to research versus the three science consultants tells me that the show's producers had no interest in getting the history right or even near right.


Thanks, Andrew, for your insight into Cosmos' operations. I think it's worth asking why the producers didn't consider history when assembling their produciton and consulting team and what, if anything, the historical community can do about that. One reason—although by no means the only reason—that comes to mind for me is that it has become rather unfashionable for historians to break bread with scientists. I have no desire to open old wounds from the science wars, but that distance might contribute to the attitude among scientists that professional history is peripheral to their interests. To my eyes we, as a field, are more pluralistic now than we were a decade or two ago, and so perhaps strengthening ties between historians and scientists would make it more natural for popularizers to think of the history of science community as consonant with their goals.

I also wanted to bring people's attention to a post by Carsten Timmermann over at H-SciMedTech, who kindly shared this discussion with that lists' subscribers, and also pointed out that similar discusisons have occurred in the UK:



Thanks for starting up this conversation, Joe!

For me the most fascinating aspect of Tyson's Cosmos as an example of scientific mythmaking is the extent to which it invites comparisons with Sagan's Cosmos. Here we have two miniseries that share several of the same writers (Ann Druyan & Stephen Soter) and address similar, if not identical, themes. Yet the social and political standing of science and scientific authority has shifted dramatically during the intervening thirty-four years, and these changes are reflected both in the selection of featured historical episodes and the rationale for their inclusion.

Both incarnations of Cosmos, for example, celebrate science as an empowering force that has deepened our understanding of the natural world. Sagan was able to make that case, however, on much more stable ideological terrain. For all of the contradictions associated with Cold War science funding—which Audra Wolfe laid out nicely in her recent Atlantic article—the fundamental legitimacy of the scientific enterprise was relatively secure. The contrast to today's debates over global warming and evolution is striking, as is the extent to which Tyson explicitly devotes time in his series to defining how science works and defending its efficacy.

It is noteworthy, for example, how many scientific practitioners are presented as underdogs in Tyson's Cosmos, fighting against opposition from their peers (Isaac Newton-Ep 3), the academic establishment (Cecilia Payne-Ep 8), organized religion (Giordano Bruno-Ep 1), or industry (Clair Patterson-Ep 7). With the exception of Bruno, whose astronomical bona fides have been rightly critiqued since the series' premiere, each of the individuals referenced above is shown overcoming these hurdles through adherence to an implicitly Mertonian scientific method. Even when evidence is contested, as in the lead pollution hearings seen in the Patterson case study, there is an underlying assumption that Fox Mulder was right: The Truth (capital T) is out there, and (good) Science will lead us to it!

Beyond painting a positive picture of science, Tyson also directly addresses its opponents. Drawing a page from Darwin's playbook, he seizes upon the origins of the eye to dismiss advocates of intelligent design. His respective use of astronomical and geological data to undermine the claims of young earth creationists in Episodes 4 & 7 is similarly overt. On occasion, the new Cosmos also employs a slightly more subtle approach, as in Episode 9, which only ties its exploration of processes that occur over geological time scales (e.g. continental drift) to climate change in its final minutes.

To be clear, Sagan had his own political axes to grind. His discussions of the greenhouse effect and nuclear winter are perhaps the most obvious examples, but even these were not so tightly coupled to the methodological defenses that pervade Tyson's Cosmos. Unlike the PBS viewers who watched Sagan's “personal voyage” in 1980, those who embark on Tyson's “spacetime odyssey” do so after having been exposed to an ever-rising drumbeat of science denialism. Perhaps that is the ultimate mission of the latter show: to recover the sense of wonder about the natural world that Sagan articulated so eloquently from the din of the political echo chamber.

Should that be the case, historians of science and STS scholars have an important role to play. Cosmos is the highest profile science (or history of science!) television program in decades, and given the near total absence of professional historians on its writing staff, it is vital that we take advantage of message boards like this, blog posts, or other social media (e.g. the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s weekly #CosmosChat Twitter discussions) to ensure that scientists do not effectively construct an echo chamber of their own.

For more thoughts about the new Cosmos series, I recommend Lisa Messeri’s recap of a conversation about the show she had with me and Audra Wolfe. Meg Rosenburg has also written several insightful Cosmos-related posts on her True Anomalies blog. And although there are only two new episodes remaining, I encourage any historians on Twitter to join CHF’s #CosmosChat at 2 PM, EDT, the Tuesday after each new show airs. Previous conversations are archived here.