COSMOS tells a great story, but it forgets to explain the science of denying science

COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey  is presented by FOX Sundays 9/8c and National Geographic Mondays 10/9c

COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey is presented by FOX Sundays 9/8c and National Geographic Mondays 10/9c

I've been anticipating COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey ever since it was teased at last year's San Diego Comic Con. Carl Sagan's original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was a big part of my childhood and, along with Star Trek, it made me believe that science would create a better future for humanity. Knowing that COSMOS was returning in one of the biggest television rollouts of all time with the coolest modern scientific communicator (Neil deGrasse Tyson) made me a very happy nerd.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's got the right stuff to take on  COSMOS .

Neil deGrasse Tyson's got the right stuff to take on COSMOS.

The first episode explains Earth's position in the universe and introduces the cosmic calendar to a whole new generation of people. Both had the effect of making me feel impossibly small & completely inspired. What was unexpected was the story of Giordano Bruno, a man who argued that the Earth orbits the Sun in an era when most believed the Earth was the center of the universe. Bruno died for his beliefs and in telling this story COSMOS makes a clear case for the scientific method of questioning everything. The episode tells a great story, but it forgets to explain the science of why people deny science.

Stories are persuasive

A history of the universe, condensed into an easy to understand story.

A history of the universe, condensed into an easy to understand story.

What made COSMOS so effective is Tyson's mastery of storytelling. He's been doing this for years at the Hayden Planetarium, on Capitol Hill, and across television networks (probably because he was inspired to follow Sagan’s example). Tyson easily translates complex ideas into straightforward language that gets people excited about understanding space. Most scientists can't do this and have a hard time sharing their ideas with people who aren’t in their field. Check out Tyson at his best in the "We Stopped Dreaming" speech.   

Stories aren't just entertaining. They’re an essential part of our psychology. The brain creates a story of who we are based upon the experiences we’ve had. These stories are simplified versions of reality (cognitive biases filter much of what happens to us). We're also biased to remember supernatural things like singing frogs (remembering things that are unusual helps us stay alive). But regardless of accuracy, stories are important because they have a huge impact on how we think, act, and feel.

The key stories from the first episode of COSMOS include:

  1. The Earth is a tiny part of a vast universe.
  2. Humanity didn't always believe this and people like Giordano Bruno were killed for asking too many questions.
  3. Humanity has existed for a very small amount of time compared to the rest of the universe.

Each of these stories is backed by science, with the exception of Bruno's story. COSMOS fails to explain why people rejected Bruno’s ideas and why many continue to deny modern day scientific truths (like climate change).

We attack information that conflicts with our stories

Cognitive dissonance explains why Giordano Bruno was attacked for his views of the universe.

Cognitive dissonance explains why Giordano Bruno was attacked for his views of the universe.

The best explanation for why people deny science comes from Leon Festinger's study of "The Seekers". Festinger infiltrated a cult led by Marian Keech who claimed to be receiving messages from aliens telling her the world would end on December 21st, 1954. Keech also claimed that she, along with her followers, would be saved at midnight prior to the end of the world. Her devotees left their jobs and stayed with Keech for the week leading up to the 21st. Midnight came and went – nothing happened. Instead of coming up with a rational explanation for why they weren’t beamed up by aliens, the seekers believed that God was so impressed with their prayers that he saved the world.

Festinger tested this experience in the lab and developed cognitive dissonance theory. Basically, we try to be true to the stories we tell ourselves. When there's a clash between our beliefs and new information (The Earth is the center of the universe but this guy is saying the Earth moves around the Sun), we unconsciously find information that fits our personal stories and end the conflict (He’s a crazy heretic). Cognitive dissonance is another part of the psychological immune system that keeps us feeling good about ourselves and the choices we make. Chris Mooney summarizes it nicely:

…our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts...That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment…We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

The brain attacks information that might challenge our beliefs the same way antibodies fight viruses. We unconsciously morph new information to fit in with existing stories (Sure, smoking isn’t healthy, but I don’t smoke that often and when I do they’re lights). Research has also shown that the harder you try to change someone’s perspective on an emotional topic, the stronger their existing point of view becomes. That's why debates on abortion don’t go anywhere and just make people mad.

How do we get around the problem of cognitive dissonance? New information has to be communicated in a way that fits in with someone’s existing stories. That's one of the reasons why many Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in the big bang – it’s consistent with many religious stories about genesis and creation. It’s also why some people of faith have a hard time with evolution – the cosmic calendar doesn’t align with many religious texts.

COSMOS  doesn't look like any documentary we've seen before.

COSMOS doesn't look like any documentary we've seen before.

COSMOS, a big budget primetime miniseries that looks more like a science fiction blockbuster than a science documentary, is perfectly positioned to get around the barriers of cognitive dissonance because it tells a cool story. I’m bummed it didn’t explain why people rejected Bruno’s convictions, but I believe it will inspire a new generation to love science.

Rating: 9/10

To learn more about the science of science communication, check out Kyle Hill’s article at Discover Magazine

The Top 10 Science Fiction Moments of 2012

Yesterday, I wrote about why we love end of year retrospective lists. Today, I want to give you my rundown of the 10 best science fiction moments of 2012. I'm not ranking 2012's best scifi movies or TV shows (io9 and Tor already did a good job of that). Rather, I am ranking moments from 2012 that were important to fans of science fiction.

10. The Walking Dead strikes back

Walking Dead Season 3.jpg

Great writing, acting, social commentary, and special effects make Walking Dead one of the best shows on TV. But 2011's 2nd season wasn't that good. Fans were worried about season 3, especially after hearing that executive producer Frank Darabont left the show. Not only has season 3 been awesome so far, but it also has provided some of the most memorable moments of the entire show.   

9. IMAX endures

I'm a huge fan of the IMAX format (real IMAX, not the fake stuff) and find it much more engrossing than 3D.

This year was a big one for the format with several movies optimized for the giant screen (Skyfall, The Amazing Spider-Man, Titanic 3D, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and one partially filmed in native IMAX (The Dark Knight Rises).   

Next year promises more films optimized for IMAX (Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and at least two partially filmed in the format (Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire).

Seeing the Dark Knight Rises in the native IMAX format was an awesome experience. Source: DC Comics/Warner Brothers Pictures. 

Seeing the Dark Knight Rises in the native IMAX format was an awesome experience. Source: DC Comics/Warner Brothers Pictures. 

8. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the ultimate fanboy

Neil deGrasse Tyson is about as geeky as you can get. As an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History, Tyson is one of the nation's foremost authorities on space, an eloquent ambassador for science (watch "The Most Astounding Fact"), and a passionate advocate for NASA (see "We Stopped Dreaming").

He's also a major Trekkie. This past year, Tyson had two standout moments - proclaiming the U.S.S. Enterprise as the champion of the 2012 Comic-Con Starship Smackdown (see below) and dedicating an entire episode of his hit internet show to the science of Star Trek (in which he revealed that his sideburns are an homage to Star Trek).  

7. Dystopian novels are cool again

Dystopias are a staple of science fiction, though it's been awhile since a new dystopian story captured the public's attention. Thanks to critical acclaim, word of mouth, social commentary on our obsession with reality TV, and an excellent film adaptation, this was the year Hunger Games returned dystopias to the bestseller list. Hopefully, the success of Hunger Games will bring about a renewed interest in other dystopian classics

6. TNG gets a facelift

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, CBS launched a complete HD restoration of the show for blu-ray. This meant scanning the film negatives, repairing damaged film, updating special effects, remastering sound, and recording new interviews and behind the scenes specials. The first two seasons are out and the results are spectacular! The remastering has ensured that TNG will live on long into the 21st century.

5. Space jumping becomes a reality

Space Jumping from 2009's Star Trek
Space Jumping from 2009's Star Trek

One of the coolest scenes from 2009's Star Trek became a reality on October 14th, 2012 when Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a capsule at the edge of space, broke the sound barrier, and safety returned to Earth. Science fiction to science fact in 3 years - that's pretty cool.

4. The cybernetic age begins

At the 2012 London Olympics, Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius became the first double leg amputee to participate in the games (he had previously competed in the Paralympic games). His participation sparked a global debate on the role of biological augmentation in our society.

This year also marked the first case of a cybernetic hate crime when Steve Mann was physically assaulted in a French McDonalds for having a "digital eye glass". 

Both of these cases, along with the growing sophistication of robotic implants marked the beginning of the cybernetic age.

Photo by  Erik van Leeuwen .

Photo by Erik van Leeuwen.

3. Avengers is actually a good movie

Marvel Studios' Avengers was a bold experiment. If you factor in the five separate films that were produced in parallel between 2008 - 2011 to setup the Avengers, this was one of the biggest and most expensive films in history.

I was afraid Avengers would be a flop. The first footage didn't look promising, Hulk never worked on the big screen, I didn't think Tony Stark/Iron Man/Robert Downey Jr. could play nice with the other heroes, and Loki didn't seem like a big enough villain for the movie. Why did I care? If Avengers failed, there was a good chance Marvel and other studios would become far more risk-averse in their productions of superhero films.

I was completely wrong. Avengers worked on all levels (well...nearly all, see the “Honest Trailer” below), was critically acclaimed, and made a ton of money. Not only has Marvel Studios announced 4 new movies which will lead to Avengers 2 in 2015, the studio is taking their "cinematic universe" into the very geeky galactic realm of Marvel Comics - a far more ambitious and bold move than Avengers Part 1. 

2. NASA does a lot of cool stuff

NASA did a lot to capture the public's attention this year.

First, the space agency sent its space shuttles into retirement with style by orchestrating flyovers above Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles.

Next, Harold White reiterated that the agency is looking into wrap drive technology for interstellar space travel at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, though the science remains purely speculative at this point.

Finally, NASA's most advanced Mars rover, the Curiosity, landed on August 6, 2012 at 1:32 a.m. EDT. The landing was the most complicated in NASA history and was ripped from the pages of science fiction, utilizing the largest and strongest supersonic parachute ever created and a combination of sky crane tethers and rockets to lower the rover to the surface. Curiosity has already made some interesting discoveries and is on its way to Gale Crater near the Martian equator to determine if the area had the right conditions to support life.

My favorite part of Curiosity? This photo below featuring NASA's "Mohawk Guy".

NASA Time Machine.jpeg

1. Star Wars is coming back

The best scifi moment of the year was also the biggest entertainment news of the year - Disney buys Lucasfilm and announces new Star Wars movies beginning with Star Wars Episode VII in 2015.

Yes, it's a little strange picking a corporate acquisition as my number one pick. But, Star Wars is the biggest science fiction franchise EVER, the original trilogy influenced generations of artists and scientists, and if you look at the subtext behind George Lucas' exit interviews, it seems like he's truly stepping away from creative control of the new movies suggesting that this upcoming trilogy might finally give us a fresh take on the universe.

That's my list for 2012. What do you think? What did I miss or get wrong?