Tom McDonald on the Dishonesty of the New “Cosmos” series

The man is right, of course.  Plus, he works in a Star Trek ref, so Shea approves.

It’s funny.  The original Cosmos perpetuated the myth of the Christian destruction of the Library at Alexandria because Sagan, as a historian, was a good science popularizer, but a lousy historian.  Apparently the creators of the reboot had that pointed out to them.  But in obedience to some unspoken convention in the pop sci subculture, they felt they needed *some* kind of “War on Science by Evil Catholics” creation myth.  So we get the new myth that Bruno (a purveyor of mystic woo woo of the highest order) was a “martyr to science” from the Evil Science-Hating Church of Science Hatred.

And, by the way, why does no one ever stop to ask where Bruno got his copy of Lucretius.  Hint:  it was not from the public library.

My hope is that having chanted its creation myth, the makers of Cosmos will get on with actually talking good science instead of crap history.

Oh.  And let’s dispose of a big fat red herring: The question at issue is not “Were medievals and Renaissance types wrong to kill people they regarded as guilty of thoughtcrime?”  If it comes to that, so are a lot of moderns, including atheists (we will glide over the unfortunate Himalaya range of 20th century corpses killed for thoughtcrime that dwarfs the piddling body count of the medievald Renaissance world).  If you want to talk about whether it was wrong to burn a quack like Bruno, I’m happy to agree with you since I reject the death penalty.

But:

1) I’m also enough of a grown up to realize you judge people by the standards of their time and culture, not by your provincial suburban conviction that you are the measure of all things; and

2) Cosmos is supposed to be a show about the history of science, not about medieval standards of justice.  So the *only* questtion that should be at issue here is whether Bruno was persecuted *for science*.  He was not.  If they want to make a show about how mean and crude medievals were in comparison to our enlightened culture that rips babies limb from limb, turns veterans out to freeze to death in the snow, incinerates entire cities, and racks up a body count in excess of 100 million human sacrifices to atheistic communism, they certainly can.  But that’s not what Cosmos is supposed to be.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    I feel vindicated that my Trek reference has received the appropriate kudos.

    • chezami

      I extend to you the Rainbow of Affirmation.

  • k1lokhan

    Although we are against it in current circumstances, isn’t the death penalty justifiable under certain conditions, say ineffective prisons? Aquinas and many early Fathers have defended the death penalty for heretics. So how do we justify that to secular people, in the situations where it’s applicable?

    • kenofken

      You won’t justify the burning of heretics to any modern secular people because it’s utterly unjustifiable.

      What I have always taken from Sagans treatment of the issue is this: Humanity progresses when reason is allowed to follow the facts where they lead. It regresses and stagnates when superstition and dogma or self-serving elites have the power to enforce fundamentalism or willful ignorance. At certain points in history, pivotal points in science, the Church was part of the problem, not the solution. There’s no way around that.

      Does that mean the Church is inherently anti-science? No, but it does show that as an organization, the Church has been no more immune to abuse of power than any other. Whatever its spiritual dimensions, the Church for many centuries was also a secular political and financial entity. A corporation. THE corporation for a long time. It was a multi-billion dollar transnational corporation, and it sought to suppress anything that seemed to threaten its brand and power and profitability. Sometimes that something was science.

      The Church is certainly not unique among corporations or interest groups which have sought to suppress inconvenient science. We’ve seen it in the pharmaceutical industry, petroleum, tobacco, you name it. They use whatever tools they have at their disposal. In Bruno’s day, that particular corporation had the death penalty readily at its disposal.

      • Noah Doyle

        You won’t justify the burning of heretics to any modern secular people because it’s utterly unjustifiable.

        No, because modern seculars have enormous trouble putting themselves in the position of medieval faith.

        Given that the medievals believed:

        1) Heaven and Hell are real
        2) Your soul (also real) is in one or the other for eternity
        3) The Church has the true way to be saved from eternal torment

        Execution for teaching formal and material heresy was not just justifiable, but practically required!

        If one was guilty of leading others astray from the teachings of the church (and not just finer points of doctrine – people argued those all the time – you really had to go off the rails to be declared a formal and material heretic), you were guilty of a crime far worse than rape or murder – you were guilty of dragging the souls of others down into eternal torment with you. You simply couldn’t do anything worse.

        Yeah, they’re going to give you a horrible public execution. It’s a very clear ‘Don’t do this’.

        At certain points in history, pivotal points in science, the Church was part of the problem, not the solution.

        Which ones, specifically?

        • ivan_the_mad

          No, no, in modern parlance, the categorical “utterly unjustifiable” doesn’t mean that something is incapable of being justified (because clearly there is at least one justification, as you’ve aptly illustrated), but that there is no justification deemed acceptable. This lack of acceptability is known a priori. In this case, it’s a corollary of chronological snobbery. This is in fact a stunning lack of sympathy for our forebears, all the more stunning since those who refuse to give it frequently pride themselves as open-minded and tolerant. For, to steal (I think) from GKC, tolerance today is merely another word for indifference, which is merely another word for apathy. But true tolerance is sympathy; i.e., the ability to sympathize with The Other. I do not tolerate my Muslim neighbor because I’m indifferent to his philosophy (except when it threatens the satisfaction of my appetites); I tolerate him precisely because I have worked to sympathize with his philosophy. The choice of the word “worked” is intentional; because tolerance is emphatically not indifference (which is free), tolerance requires constant effort. An attitude of tolerance would, I should think, not permit a priori categoricals denying any possibility of a justifying argument, bearing in mind that sympathy demands neither agreement nor endorsement.

      • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

        Humanity progresses when reason is allowed to follow the facts where they lead. It regresses and stagnates when superstition and dogma or self-serving elites have the power to enforce fundamentalism or willful ignorance.

        I’m not going to 100% disagree with this, but I must point out that this (and pretty much the entire Enlightenment’s take on just about everything) is absurdly simplistic. “Following the facts where they lead” means following the facts as you understand them, and you just might be fantastically ignorant, as are, for example, Creationists and (maybe) Athropogenic Global Warming-deniers.

        So, how do you cure your fantastic ignorance? By staying in touch with people who know and trusting them and their extra-rational procedures for rooting out fruitcakes: procedures like “denial of tenure” or “rejection of manuscript” or “conviction for heresy”. An act like denial of tenure is an authoritative act, made by those who are the position to know and enforce certain standards of evidence and rationality. Sometimes those people abuse their position. Sometimes they don’t. But their office is necessary, if not for progress per se, then certainly to guard against the inevitable entropy of error that creeps in wherever people lose contact with authority, i.e. with those who actually know. (See Protestants and Creationists.)

        And without that basic guard against the entropy of ignorance and error, you can’t make progress because people just don’t know the basics. That Kent Hovind has any credibility with anyone has to do with the fact that certain kinds of Evangelicals have lost contact with reasonable scientists and with reasonable Christian authorities. Their image of “scientist” is Richard Freaking Dawkins, or pompous, self-important windbags who make obviously unjustifiable assertions like “The cosmos is all that is, was, or ever will be” or “I am nothing more than a collection of atoms with the name ‘Carl Sagan’” and do it while wrapping themselves in the mantle of Science(TM).

        But the Evangelicals at places like Wheaton (my alma mater) aren’t so led astray. The biology dept there knows the score (or did in my day). Is it because they don’t believe in that “superstitious dogma” the authority of scripture? No. It’s because they believe in the superstitious dogma of the authority of the scientific community. It’s because they’ve stayed in touch both with the scientific community and with the best of philosophical and theological scholarship of the Christian tradition. They’re listening to all the authorities. And my own move from ignorance to (something like) knowledge in biological origins owes quite a bit to the rumors that got passed around while I was an undergrad that Dr. So-And-So was actually an evolutionist and yet was obviously a devout Christian and general good egg.

        So, yes, absurdly simplistic all those Enlightenment tropes are. Also, pretty much largely wrong. And anyone who ever got frustrated at the refusal of Evangelicals to just go to public school and read their Ken Miller devoutly knows deep in his heart of hearts that the medievals were actually a lot more right than he gives them credit for.

      • ivan_the_mad

        “The Church is certainly not unique among corporations or interest groups which have sought to suppress inconvenient science. We’ve seen it in the pharmaceutical industry, petroleum, tobacco, you name it. They use whatever tools they have at their disposal. In Bruno’s day, that particular corporation had the death penalty readily at its disposal.”

        Oh for goodness’ sake, how many times must we dispel this fiction? Bruno wasn’t burned at the stake for science. Perhaps you’ll find authoritative the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Thus, in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology …”

      • MarylandBill

        What were the particular points? The best argument has anyone came up with that the Church opposed the advance of science was the Galileo affair, and that argument has been fairly discredited. The Church was responsible for saving much of classical learning when the Western Empire fell, and pretty much ever since, the Church has been involved in the advance of Natural Philosophy and later science.

  • jacobus

    Cosmos taught me that Science is dreaming up whatever crazy idea you want with no proof whatsoever, and then being a total dick about it!

    Go Science!


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