Cosmos episode 3

Last night was an exploration of how knowledge conquers fear, and the power of scientific prediction over superstition. NASA pulled together stories of how their missions overlapped with this week's theme. Read on for the episode recap.

Cosmos Chronicles How Knowledge Conquers Fear

With all the clockwork predictability of Halley's Comet, last week Danny Faulkner of Answers in Genesis plead for Cosmos to show more "balance" by covering creationism. Tyson derided the idea as being akin to giving the Flat Earth Society equal time. Ridicule is the appropriate response to the ridiculous.

Rather than hand the microphone over to the usual crowd of mountebanks and charlatans and give them some freebie air time to sell their defective product, Tyson dedicates this episode to the telling of a single story in the history of science that provides the strongest counter-argument to creationism or any other mystical explanations for reality. Scientific thought doesn't just give you a bag of facts that are more reliable than someone else's bag. Scientific thought gives you a bulwark against ignorance and fear.

The episode opens by describing the mystery we are all born into. Awakening into existence on this tiny world under a blanket of stars, we are like abandoned babies who must break our cosmic isolation by figuring nature out for ourselves. The subtext, which rapidly becomes text as the episode proceeds, is that there is no received wisdom, no obvious divine plan, no big book of answers. There is only us and our capacity for pattern recognition to light a candle in the dark.

Tyson describes how early humans looked to the sky and learned to schedule their lives around the passage of the stars and planets. They took cosmology very personally back then. The Earth was big and the seasons varied wildly. If there was a clockwork in the sky that foretold the cycles of the year, almost certainly it must have been put there intentionally for us to find. The Babel Fish principle applies here: the night sky is far too useful a thing to have not been put there by the gods.

Of course, the gods also create monsters. Every early human culture on Earth developed superstitions around the arrival of comets. For some they meant plague, for others war, for others famine. The Chinese developed an elaborate system of classification for comets, specifying just exactly what kind of smackdown each kind foretold.

Today, we know better. Thanks to the work of Jan Oort, we now know a great deal about what comets are, where they come from and what determines their periodicity. Oort, naturally, stood on the shoulders of giants. The remainder of the episode is dedicated to a chronicle of the lives of Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton who collaborated to bring about the publication of the Principia Mathematica.

Prior to the publication of the Principia, and the subsequent work by Halley applying Newton's laws to the orbits of comets, western scholars had but one explanation for how or why things worked the way they did in the sky: God did it. But God, of course, is a theory of anything and a theory of anything is a theory of nothing.


With the publication of the Principia, we could now apply a comprehensible formula to the motions of the heavenly bodies. Now, of course, when we see a comet in the sky, we know that we're looking not at a tempestuous storm crow portending doom, but just an old friend playing out a mathematical tune that any school child can learn to hum.

And this, of course, is the ultimate answer to critics who want to see more "balance" with creationism. Balance with creationism is balance with ignorance, with fear and with scientific agnosticism that esteems opinions, hunches and tradition over evidence, facts and sound theories.

It's not just that the Earth is billions of years old. It's not just that life evolved from earlier forms. It's not just that the Earth goes around the sun. That's just a bag of facts. The Earth well could be 6,000 years old. Life might have been created by a powerful intelligence. The Earth might have been at the center of the solar system.


Of course, none of these things are supported by the evidence, but they might have been. By describing how scientific and systematic thought transforms evidence into deeper understanding, Tyson points out how creationism would be wrong even if it was right.

It's not the particular facts that matter. The Argument From Authority is always invalid even when it draws correct conclusions. And it's especially wrong when it draws incorrect ones.

To embrace creationism, or even to validate it in any way, is to close a door on the expansion of human knowledge. It is to shrug our shoulders and pronounce the natural world forever beyond our ability to grasp. It is to replace curiosity with ignorance, wonder with fear and progress with stagnation.


And that's why creationism can go get its own damn show.