13 ways Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Cosmos" sent the religious right off the deep end

The series will be watched in classrooms around the world -- much to the chagrin of science-denying Evangelicals

Published June 14, 2014 2:00PM (EDT)

Neil DeGrasse Tyson                                           (AP/Richard Shotwell)
Neil DeGrasse Tyson (AP/Richard Shotwell)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet One of the most anticipated shows of 2014 was Fox’s "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," hosted by notable astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and produced by Seth McFarlane and Ann Druyan, the widow of Carl Sagan, the host of the original "Cosmos" series. The new "Cosmos" had the largest worldwide debut of a mini-series, capturing an audience of over 8 million viewers in the U.S. Controversy surrounded the show immediately, thrusting Tyson into the spotlight of religious fundamentalists and science deniers on the extreme right. How did each episode upset the religious fundamentalists and call out scientific denialism?

Episode 1: "Standing Up in the Milky Way"

Tyson wasted no time inspiring the world with the opening episode, telling a story about meeting Carl Sagan and the impact it had on his life. Introducing viewers to the cosmic calendar that would often be used throughout the show, we are given a 12-month calendar that shows the history of the cosmos, immediately setting off creationists because the calendar shows a universe that is 13.8 billion years and an earth that is 4.5 billion years old.

However, this got the least amount of attention from the naysayers, as Tyson mentions Giordano Bruno, a Catholic who dared to challenge the church's geocentric theory of the cosmos and proposed that the earth actually revolved around the sun. Bruno was jailed, charged with heresy and eventually burned at the stake. While no Christian apologists tried to condemn the church for such a killing, instead they tried to make the killing not about science and simply about speaking out against the church.

The controversy didn’t end quite there, as it was later discovered that during the only time Tyson mentions the word evolution in this episode, a Fox station in Oklahoma cut out to a promo before returning to the show, sparking outrage in the scientific community for censoring the show.

The station later claimed this was a complete accident, but many remain skeptical.

Episode 2: "Some of the Things That Molecules Do"

Evolution is a fact, and Tyson did not hold back his words or feelings when expressing this. He tore down the one argument creationists and intelligent design proponents have attempted to hold onto for years: Irreducible complexity, the idea that some functions or organs are too complex to have been built from scratch. The most notable organ used in this debate? The eye.

Creationists often see the eye as far too complex to have evolved, but Tyson tears this argument down, showing viewers how the eye developed from very simple organisms that had an eye just to see light to the very complex eyes we see today, to the flaws in the eye that show if designed, it was done so poorly.

This episode really set off groups like Answers in Genesis, a creationist organization ran by Ken Ham, the owner of the Creationist Museum, most known for his debate with Bill Nye (the Science Guy) about evolution versus creationism. However, just as in the debate with Nye, Ham and his organization could not debunk the science of the episode and instead attempted to redefine evolution and claim that scientists have “hijacked” the word and are not using it properly. They turned to Bible scripture as their only rebuttal, something that became commonplace after subsequent episodes of the show.

Episode 3: "When Knowledge Conquered Fear"

The world almost never knew the greatest works of Isaac Newton. The Royal Society was financially failing, books were not selling and new books could not be published and claims of plagiarism were running wild. Newton’s most notable work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematicawas basically dead before it was born.

Tyson explained how Newton discovered many of the findings he uncovered, and how his work was later used to predict things like the pattern of Halley’s Comet. He went on to compare these findings with what past civilizations once believed while basking in the awe of our growing understanding of our universe and our place in it.

Religious fundamentalists took issue that Tyson wrote off Christianity as they did with all other past failed religious contributions to science. They took issue that Tyson used gravity as the clock the universe moves by, constant laws such as the speed of light, and that Tyson did not reveal their God as this clockmaker, using the old creationist argument of a blind watchmaker.

Tyson also discussed our constant search for significance in the world. Humans have a constant desire to assume the earth was made all for us, and that we are special. We find meaning in superstition and myth, yet fundamentalists like those at Answers in Genesis claim that the Bible and Christianity are not superstition and that their beliefs are aligned with the truth. To prove this claim, they again resort to circular reasoning, reciting Bible scripture that simply confirms the Bible is true.

Episode 4: "A Sky Full of Ghosts"

How do we know the universe is not young? Cosmological constants, such as the speed of light, help us map the universe back to its very beginnings, the Big Bang, which took place some 13.8 billion years ago.

Tyson launched a direct attack on young earth creationism in this episode. Discussing the ghosts in the sky, dead stars and galaxies we still see in the night sky, explaining the time light takes to travel to us, he showed viewers that stars we look at in the sky could not be less than 6,000-7,000 years old, because if they were, we could not see them.

Tyson used a map of the Milky Way galaxy to show the observable cosmos, and what we would be able to see if the universe was only 6,000 years old, and then compared that to what we can see.

Tyson says:

“The Crab Nebula is about 6,500 light years from earth.

According to some beliefs, that’s the age of the whole universe, but if the universe were only 6,500 years old, how could we see the light from anything more distant than the Crab Nebula? We couldn’t. There wouldn’t have been enough time for light to get to earth from anywhere farther away than 6,500 light years in any direction. That’s just enough time for light to travel through a tiny portion of our Milky Way galaxy. To believe in a universe as young as six or seven thousand years old is to extinguish the light from most of the galaxy, not to mention the light from all the 100 billion other galaxies in the observable universe.”

Answers in Genesis took direct issue with this, of course, recognizing the direct attack on their claims. AIG astronomer Danny Faulkner attacked back:

“When Tyson made that statement, I wondered why he picked the figure of 6,000-7,000 years. Why not some other figure? Obviously, without explicitly mentioning biblical creationists, he clearly was aiming for us. Some have hailed this as a total refutation of recent creation, but Tyson's a bit late here, for that problem was pointed out long before he was even born. And just as those who believe in the Big Bang have offered a solution to their light travel time problem, we've offered possible solutions to our light travel time problem.”

Faulkner and Answers in Genesis have concocted their own fallacy to explain why we can see what we do, dismissing Einstein’s speed of light discovery, even rejecting that the speed of light is a unit of measurement. Once again, this highlights that creationists lack an even basic middle-school understanding of science.

Episode 5: "Hiding in the Light"

In one of the least controversial episodes of the series, Tyson explains light waves, their discovery and their importance.

How do we know what stars are made of? Light waves on the spectrum. How do we measure a star's distance? Light waves.

Wave lengths tell us an awful lot about the world, and their discovery is fascinating. Religious groups only really took note to point out that the discoverer of much of what we know about wave lengths, William Herschel, was a Christian, yet ignore that he didn’t use the Bible or his religion to uncover his findings, but simply science and the scientific method.

Herschel’s findings led us to microwave lengths that helped us understand the Big Bang and played an important role in the Big Bang theory itself. Tyson explained that, “In microwave light we can see all the way back to the birth of our universe.”

Faulkner of Answers in Genesis simply dismissed this claim, saying he did not believe Tyson actually believes it himself.

It was no surprise creationists took issue with the mention of the Big Bang theory, but with little evidence to refute, they spent most of their time praising Christian scientists for their findings and ignoring the fact that those findings refute creationism's very claims.

Episode 6: "Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still"

Tyson introduced us to the tardigrade in an earlier episode, but in this installment, we get to know them a little better. Tardigrades are tiny, eight-legged creatures that live in water, and they can survive some of the worst conditions imaginable.

According to Tyson, “Tardigrades have been living on this planet a lot longer than we have—about 500 million years,” adding that, “they’ve survived all five of the recent mass extinctions on this planet.”

Creationists do acknowledge that tardigrades are old and resilient, but they do not buy into the idea they are more than 6,000 years old. The fact they are alive now and have been found in fossils in Cambrian rock lead creationists to claim, “evolutionists assume they survived multiple mass extinction events.”

Fossil dating is extremely accurate, so if we can place tardigrades back 500 million years, and know at least five major extinctions have occurred since then, the conclusion is not hard to form.

This episode also looks closely at photosynthesis and the evolution of plant life on the planet. Creationists now believe that plants “evolve” in a sense, but not to form new species and not from one common ancestor, Answers in Genesis claims:

“God’s Word, however, tells us that God made all kinds of plants on Day Three of Creation Week, about 6,000 years ago. And recent discoveries of pollen grains demonstrating impressive floral diversity much deeper in the fossil record than previously believed is consistent not with the evolutionary story but with God’s Word.”

Creationists use this made-up scientific word “kinds” to describe a species; a rhino is a “kind” and all other species of rhino are evolved from this one kind, but they do not believe the rhino is descended from another species before it: God made every animal in one kind, and that is that.

Well, “kinds” is not a scientific term, but species is. All species on this planet are evolved from one single source and natural selection explains in great detail, backed by mountains of evidence, the diversity of life on this planet.

Episode 7: "The Clean Room"

How old is the earth? Ask a bunch of scientists, or kids who went to a public school and you will get the same answer: 4.5 billion years old.

How do we know this with such certainty? Tyson explains that by introducing us to Clair Patterson, a scientist whose work in radioactivity led to the discovery of the earth's age, based on radiocarbon dating. Ask any scientist about carbon dating or radioactive dating methods, and you will be assured of its accuracy. It is used time and again to date rocks, bone and other samples taken from buried layers in the earth.

Yet, if the earth is 4.5 billion years old, won’t that negate the claims made by creationists who need a young earth to validate their mythological claims? To the shocking surprise of no one, creationists quickly rejected this claim and dismissed all carbon dating methods, claiming bias plays the strongest role in dating.

Creationists believe secular scientists lie about the earth's age because they need an old earth to validate evolution, since evolution needs billions of years of time to work.

Tyson greatly upset creationists when he said on the show that we have turned away from the Bible as the book that helps us date the earth and have since opened a new book, one that is “written in the rocks themselves.”

Answers in Genesis answered:

“The record written in the rocks, however, cannot be correctly read without a knowledge of the historical events that shaped them. And if the rocks are the source of that history, then all those singing the 4.55-billion-year song are depending on circular reasoning.”

Dating rocks is not circular reasoning, because it is not the rocks themselves validating their age, but many methods that include dating the rocks using radioactive isotopes. The scientific method protects itself from circular reasoning and bias.

Science has no need to use bias to destroy biblical myths; the truth lies within the data. Scientists have nothing to gain or lose by validating or invalidating the Bible, yet creationists have everything to lose, because they have formed a conclusion before gathering and in many instances despite the evidence, and any contradictory claims will negate their story.

Episode 8: "Sisters of the Sun"

Science is too often seen as a boys' club, yet some of the biggest discoveries and some of the hardest research leading to some of the world's biggest discoveries have been done by women. Tyson decided it was time to recognize this and remind the world that science has no sex or gender and cares only for the truth.

We learn about a team of “computers” working in a Harvard lab—computers being the term used to describe the women in a lab who did the data entry and recording work. In this particular lab, the computers happened to be inserting information about stars, their movement and information about their light as seen through a prism, leading to our understanding of the temperature of stars and their distance.

Aside from not seeing women as equals, what could the religious right find wrong with this episode? What could ever be controversial about stars' distances?

Well, Tyson explained that the findings of the computers, these talented and dedicated female scientists, helped explain stellar evolution. We understand what stars are made of, what causes them to die and what happens when they die. Do they become black holes? White dwarves? Red giants? Do we see massive super novae?

Science brought us the answers; creationists tell us it’s all a lie. Faulkner, the go-to guy at Answers in Genesis, says:

“It makes sense from physics that stars change over time. But can we know how long these processes will take? Or how long they took in the past? The problem is, we cannot know what happened in the unobservable past nor can we necessarily anticipate continuing long enough to see if the predicted ten-billion-year lifespan of our sun will pan out. As with radiometric dating, millions- and billions-year assumptions about the past are based on assumptions that all the conditions and circumstances represented in models perfectly represent reality and that the rates predicted for processes have never varied.”

Yet we do know, and we do observe, and past events make for amazing ways to predict future events. I wonder if Faulkner is willing to jump off a building because past events are in no way good enough to predict what will happen to him if he did.

This episode taught millions about the amazing dedication of scientists and gave us a better understanding of the universe, yet it also taught us that creationists cherrypick science that works for them personally, but if it negates their fairy tales, they say scientists are nothing but liars.

Episode 9: "The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth"

Big bugs. This episode opens with Tyson explaining the earth before humans, before dinosaurs. Because of much higher oxygen levels, insects were able to grow to massive sizes.

Tyson explains how trees once ruled the earth and caused oxygen levels to rise to levels we could not survive today, but as the earth does, natural disasters changed everything. Following terrible volcanic explosions leading to mass extinctions, the earth and the atmosphere changed dramatically.

Tyson took us to the depths of the oceans, explaining tectonic plates and showing the awesome evidence of plate tectonics above ground, as seen in the mountains. The earth has a story to tell and it recorded every detail in the rocks and the ocean. Tyson taught viewers how scientists read this story and how these tools help us understand the future.

But if you don’t care about the facts, you can read a story in the Bible about a great flood that caused mass extinction. There is also a story about some donkeys and a talking snake.

Episode 10: "The Electric Boy"

If you are looking for silly things that make the religious right angry, look no further than electricity. Apparently, if you ignore the religion of the person who helped harness the amazing power of electricity and discoverer of electromagnetism, Michael Faraday, you are attacking religion.

The Discovery Institute’s David Kinghoffer took great issue with Tyson's treatment of Faraday’s religion:

“Faraday's faith is mentioned at the beginning but implicitly dismissed as having anything to do with his science. Cosmos shows us his impoverished family saying grace at the dinner table and explains that he 'took [their] fundamentalist Christian faith to heart. It would always remain a source of strength, comfort and humility for him.' That's it—nothing more than a warm blanket on a cold night.”

Tyson did nothing but honestly highlight Faraday’s religion, but true to science, showed how Faraday was able to check his religion at the door and take care of business using the scientific method.

Answers in Genesis had a problem with electromagnetism, because later in the episode Tyson said the dirty word creationists cannot stand: evolution. You see, birds navigate using the earth’s electromagnetic compass, a trait they evolved, but creationists took issue with that:

“Evolutionists assume our existence and the existence of birds must have an evolutionary explanation. Yet molecules-to-man evolution—depending as it does on both the spontaneous emergence of life from non-living elements and the evolution of organisms into new, more complex ones—demands that we believe things that violate the laws of nature (e.g., law of biogenesis).”

Creationists assume a bird’s existence has a biblical explanation; the difference is scientists have fossils and DNA evidence, while creationists have a book of silly stories.

Later Answers in Genesis quipped that God gave the birds this power, it says so in the Bible, and the Bible is true because… well, this has been covered.

Episode 11: "The Immortals"

Want to upset Christians worldwide and send creationists into a panic? Go on national television and reveal to the world that Noah’s great flood never happened, or worse, tell them about the Epic of Gilgamesh that predates the great flood and show that the Bible is nothing but copies of earlier texts, retold.

That is exactly what Tyson did when he told us about the origins of civilization, and more importantly, the written word. While this upset creationists to no end, intelligent design advocates found something even more upsetting.

How do you upset intelligent design advocates? Explain how science explains the origins of life. Better yet, go on national television and say, “we don’t know.” Nothing scares the religious right more than honesty. To say you don’t know something for them is a weakness; to scientists, it is a virtue and means an adventure awaits.

Tyson explained some of the leading hypotheses in the field of abiogenesis, the explanation for the origins of life, but he never made a bold claim to know how, just that scientists are happily working on it.

What made the Discovery Institute so mad was that Tyson gave airtime to the idea that life could have formed on another planet and been carried here by a comet or a meteoroid.

The very idea that we could be Martians hurts those seven-day creation claims as well as the idea that some God designed us perfectly for this planet, if in the end, we were never supposed to be here anyway.

Episode 12: "The World Set Free"

Climate change is real, it is happening and it has dire consequences. Tyson and the writers at "Cosmos" devoted an entire show to the facts surrounding climate change.

With little to do with evolution, you would have assumed creationists would have taken the night off and got back to fundraising for a Noah’s Ark theme park, but alas, claiming man can control the climate means God is much less powerful.

Answers in Genesis also found the idea of trying to pass laws to control climate change just downright dangerous:

“The repercussions of drastic action would hurt a lot of people, especially the poorer among us. Therefore, if the problem is not perilous, man-made, or man-fixable, a worldwide civilization overhaul is neither necessary nor advisable. We must be sure of our facts. And those 'facts' are neither as easy to come by nor as clear to interpret as Dr. Tyson claims.”

That’s right, if you try to save the planet, you will hurt the poor. Let’s ignore all the laws hurting the poor already and crony capitalism and blame climate scientists!

Tyson explained in great detail how greenhouse gases work, the effect they have on the planet, and what it will mean if we do nothing to rein in climate change.

Science denialism ran rampant after this episode, with religious and political groups playing damage control as all the lies they spout day in and day out about the myth of climate change were thrown right back in their faces.

While Tyson painted a dark picture of where we are headed, he also showed us a way to come together and change the world for the better.

Don’t tell that to the fundamentalists, though. Their religions may preach about peace on earth, but their actions tell a different story.

Episode 13: "Unafraid of the Dark"

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

These are the immortal words of Carl Sagan, from the original "Cosmos" series, in response to a photograph he convinced NASA to take from the Voyager 1 spacecraft after it had passed the planet Neptune.

Tyson replayed this moment for viewers, and unless you were born without feelings, you struggled to keep your eyes dry.

Tyson ended "Cosmos" in fantastical form. Exploring the amazing cosmos, he showed us the power of dark matter and dark energy, explaining how the planets, the stars and the galaxies are all held together, apart.

In his final push, Tyson took down religion in a way very few can: "One of things I love about science; we don't have to pretend we have all the answers." Dark energy, he goes on to explain, is "merely a code word for our ignorance." He assures the viewers, “It’s okay not to have all the answers."

Of course, this again set off the Discovery Institute, which touts ignorance as a weakness and pretends to know everything they cannot know, yet has the audacity to attack science and Tyson for making claims that are scientifically sound. David Klinghoffer, writing for Discovery Institute's dubiously named website, Evolution News, writes that Darwinists despise free thinkers, a downright silly claim, but Klinghoffer insists that because scientists believe natural selection is the answer, they are not playing by their own rules.

Tyson's words were no accident: in the 14 weeks the show was on, religious and political groups attacked him constantly. Not a day went by his name was not on the front of some website dealing with the issues the show brought to light.

He delivered the final blows to these religious ideas that science cannot be trusted. In true Tyson fashion, he never told viewers they could not hold religious beliefs and never once mentioned atheism; he simply told viewers to question everything, and especially to question anyone who claims to have all the answers. Tyson tackled the issues many are afraid to face head-on. He never minced words and told it like it was, calling religious stories "myths" when he needed to and questioning their desire to know the actual truth.

Much like Carl Sagan did before him, Neil deGrasse Tyson is going to reinvigorate scientific curiosity around the world. This show will be shown in hundreds of classrooms around the country to children curious about what makes the universe work, helping to put this country on a path to scientific greatness it has not seen since the Cold War.

By Dan Arel


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