Evolution, the New Cosmos, and the Continued Need for Public Broadcasting (Retracted)
Update: Boy, talk about jumping the gun.
So, I obviously should have waited to see more of Tyson’s Cosmos before writing this post. My jump-the-gun assumptions were about as wrong as one could be. Apologies to Tyson, Cosmos, and anyone who wasted time reading the OP. And thanks to those readers whose sharp criticisms keep me honest. That’s an “in general” thanks to the community at large, of course, but in this particular case let me give an especially big shout out to Kolohe and jim colllins.
Mind you, I still stand by my two main points: that public broadcasting is necessary, and that we fail our kids in this country’s public school science classrooms. But since all of the arguments in this post jumped of the singularity of my egregious error about Tyson’s Cosmos, everything else in the post pretty much falls apart like a poorly built house of cards. So rather than argue about those things here, I’ll regroup and try to address each separately down the road with better arguments.
Like many others my age, I was tremendously excited to hear that Neil deGrasse Tyson was remaking — or rather, updating — Carl Sagan’s brilliant public television show, Cosmos. I was an enormous fan of the first series. I watched it each week when it first aired. For me, like many others, Sagan’s Cosmos was the dropping penny: it was the first time it have ever occurred to me that science was more than a list of dates, Latin words, and the names of dead white men I had to memorize. And if you had to pick a modern-day stand-in for Sagan, Tyson seems the obvious choice. Like his predecessor, Tyson is one on those guys whose love of both the scientific method and the unknown is downright infectious. The new Cosmos, however, is not being aired on pubic television. It’s being aired on network television — specifically, Fox and National Geographic. And as it turns out, that may have been something of a mistake — a mistake that highlights the real continued need for public broadcasting in the United States. This week’s episode dealt with biology, including evolution. Or, to be more accurate, it kind of, sort of, almost dealt with evolution. If you’ve never before seen Sagan’s Cosmos, the theory of evolution pops up throughout the series, and the bit that explains the theory is here: [Note: If you don’t have access to video, know that the section is about eight minutes long and talks in detail about Darwin’s landmark theory.]
But due to the demands of the market, Tyson was unable to devote much time at all to the subject on network television. In fact, the “discussion” of evolution in the 2014 remake is a mere 15 seconds long, and merely uses the word as a reference. The new Cosmos doesn’t really talk about evolution at all. This is because in a country where talking about an accepted, foundational scientific theory makes some people uncomfortable in their faith, the free market demands we simply don’t talk about it at all. Indeed, the Fox affiliate in Oklahoma cut the entire fifteen seconds out of the episode before airing it. Station officials, who had the common decency to appear to be embarrassed by having done so later, sheepishly claimed the missing fifteen seconds was due to accidental operator error. You know, because TV station control panels are built in a way that require low-level employees to press just the right button to make sure random fifteen-second bits of programming don’t get edited out. The Sooner State’s House, by the way, just passed a bill that would make it illegal for school administrators to prevent science teachers from telling kids that evolution is a no more scientifically valid or accepted than creationism.
If you’re a parent of a teenager enrolled in public high schools, you know this problem is not unique to Tyson’s Cosmos or the state of Oklahoma. The truth of the matter is that in most places in the United States the theory of evolution isn’t really taught anymore, even in Blue states. Sure, high school biology classes teach the word evolution and the name Charles Darwin, but to save themselves potential headaches with squeaky-wheel parents most administrations have teachers leave it at that. The nuances of the theory, the way that it has been proven over time in a number of fields, the fascinating variances that evolutionary biologist still disagree over, all of this is left on the cutting room floor. Which is why most young adults today who have taken high school biology, when asked, will tell you without embarrassment that evolutions is a theory that says that people came from monkeys. And why when they are presented with bogus pseudo-science from the fundamentalist crowd, they have nothing of substance inside their head to make valid counter-arguments. And so it is that Cosmos has just become the latest in a long line of arguments about the merits of publicly supported broadcasting. Biology is science, and — I would argue — science is important in and of itself. Having a population that is as well versed in basic scientific principles is good for the health of society. Why this is so is a larger argument that I will leave for another day, so for now let me just say that teaching kids about evolution is not the same as teaching kids it’s okay to get an abortion, or teaching kids that gay people should be allowed to be married. The dual arguments for those who rail against public broadcasting are that the free market will take care of what we need to know, and that if the market doesn’t choose something then that thing isn’t worth taxpayer money. In the case of evolution, however, Tyson’s Cosmos has shown us that sometimes the market works against our best interests, and further that there are some things that most people don’t want to buy that the public commons is better off having available. (Oh, and by the way — after having read about the cutting of evolution from the new Cosmos, liberal bloggers who spend their time trying to convince readers that public broadcasting should be treated with scorn and derision for being a bunch of “tote-baggers” just because public broadcasting occasionally hires people who aren’t them can officially kiss my ass. They’re just as responsible for every economic death-nail public TV and radio gets these days as the fundamentalist crowd.) Update: Kolohe notes below that it isn’t really fair to judge the series treatment of evolution until it’s aired completely. This seems an excellent point, so for the moment I’m shelving my opinion on the matter. I’ll post a quick Off the Cuff in a month of two when it’s done to double down, or sooner to eat crow.
 For those wanting a review, here’s my elevator version: I watched the first episode right after it was available online, and have to say that it was pretty true to the original. Tyson’s graphics and animation were billions and billions of light-years (sorry, I couldn’t resist) ahead of Sagan’s, but that innocent sense of wonder is still intact. If I had a quibble, it was that as an adult who now reads a ton about science, I wanted it to have the kind of depth of detail the Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything had.