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Shining Light on the Latest Errors and Omissions in Cosmos

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The latest episode of the new Cosmos reboot is described on the program's website as an opportunity to "Discover the meanings of light and enlightenment." This fifth episode had some wonderful animations illustrating how electrons are bumped into higher energy levels when they absorb light, and how they then emit light when they drop to a lower energy level. The show included lucid explanations of how each element has a unique absorption and emission spectrum of light, which amazingly allows us to detect the presence (or absence) of specific elements in stars that are light years away simply by studying the spectrum of light the stars emit. There were also keen comparisons of different types of electromagnetic radiation to the "octaves" of sound in music -- an effective audiovisual method of explaining the EM spectrum. I know science teachers who would love to use this sort of material in their classes -- if only it weren't consistently revising history and promoting inaccuracies to advocate a demonstrably false materialistic narrative of science.

Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Purposefully Misstate a Book's Title to Bash Religion?

Early in the episode, host Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses the ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi, whose ideas included "early stirrings of the scientific approach," as well as innovative political theories encouraging peace, love, and egalitarian values. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mozi's followers were later persecuted by a government that wanted power.

As I watched the episode, my notes record that I heard Tyson say Mozi wrote a book titled Against Faith, as if Tyson intended to suggest that Mozi was some early anti-religious visionary. Later, after finishing the episode, I read David Klinghoffer's excellent response and was surprised to learn that the actual title was Against Fate -- or according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which describes it as an essay rather than a book, titled "Rejecting Fatalism."

So what did Tyson actually say in the episode? Is this another historical inaccuracy in Cosmos? I've listened to Tyson's words now multiple times, and here's my conclusion: It could be argued that he says Mozi's work was titled "Against Fate," but when you listen over and over again, it sounds a lot more like he's saying "Against Faith." Certainly, the context has nothing to do with fate or fatalism, but it has everything to do with a supposed triumph of rational investigation over faith-based thinking. Our colleagues Jay Richards and Donald McLaughlin also heard "Against Faith." Donald adds that these programs are of course taped and meticulously edited, so it's not an unscripted live performance where verbal stumbles or ambiguities are unavoidable and difficult or impossible to correct. In any case, you can listen to the clip here and decide for yourself.

Perhaps Tyson did intend to say "Against Fate" -- though the context argues against it. My wife heard "Against Faith," and wonders if perhaps Tyson made a Freudian slip. Whatever the case, I suspect most other viewers will hear the same, especially given the context of the scene, and how much faith-bashing we've seen throughout the series thus far. That's unfortunate because it means viewers will be misled into thinking Mozi opposed religion.

More Scrubbing of the Positive Influence of Religion on Science

If Tyson was seeking a materialist sage to spark science in ancient China, then Mozi is the wrong guy. One statement by Tyson that is clear comes when he praises Mozi for promoting a philosophy "against blind obedience to ritual and authority," attempting to cast Mozi as some kind of a secular innovator. Once again, Tyson left out a crucial, inconvenient fact: Mozi was a monotheist whom scholars have recognized promoted a "Christian"-like view of God. You might even call Mozi an apologist for a form of monotheistic religion in his day. As historian Klaus Schlichtmann puts it:

Mozi advocated a monotheistic religion, in which God reigned as King in Heaven, a universalism based on principles of equality and justice, as well as the concept of "unbound (i.e., undifferentiated) love" (jian'ai), which was also said to be of "mutual utility," quite similar to the Christian idea in many ways.

The Chinese scholar and reformer Hu Shi (1891-1962) remarked in 1919 that Mozi was "probably the only Chinese who had founded a religion" and "possibly one of the greatest spirits China ever produced." Hu Shi came to the conclusion that "though it is to Confucius that his countrymen paid lip service it is Meh Tse [Mozi] who has -- unknown to them -- really molded their thought. Mozi's practical philosophy contains elements of what one might call political science as well as fundamentals of a political and individual ethic. Among the main goals of his political ethic is the elevation of the welfare of the people and the general cultivation of law and good administration. The utilitarianism of the Mozi school is everywhere emphasized in the literature as a main characteristic: "His aim is the mutual balancing of needs, based on equality ... The principle, however, that supports people's relations to each other is for Mozi not blood relationships and not ritual, but love."

(Klaus Schlichtmann, Japan in the World: Shidehara Kijuro, Pacifism, and the Abolition of War (Lexington Books, 2009), pp. 12-13 (internal citations removed).)

Far from being against faith, Mozi founded a monotheistic religion where a supreme and loving God reigned over the Earth from heaven. No wonder he also promoted scientific methodologies -- after all it was also a monotheistic culture -- a Christian one -- that gave birth to science in the West, where people believed in one God who reigned supreme over the universe and gave it intelligible, discoverable laws. Once again, we see that monotheistic religion is conducive to science and democratic values. Cosmos not only ignores this, but seeks to give the impression that religion and science stand opposed to each other.

Do Scientists Have the Right of Free Expression to Question Neo-Darwinism?

One aspect of this episode that I really liked was Neil deGrasse Tyson's strong statements about the importance of intellectual freedom for a healthy science. He says "science needs the light of free expression to flourish," and notes that science "depends on the fearless questioning of authority," and requires "the open exchange of ideas." That's exactly right -- bravo Dr. Tyson!

Unfortunately, Tyson stops short of asking whether scientists today have the academic freedom to question certain authorities or freely express certain views. So let's ask a question that Cosmos wouldn't: Are scientists today free to express their views when they feel there are problems with authoritative paradigms, like modern evolutionary biology? Don't ask me. Ask scientists and skeptics:

  • "There's a feeling in biology that scientists should keep their dirty laundry hidden, because the religious right are always looking for any argument between evolutionists as support for their creationist theories. There's a strong school of thought that one should never question Darwin in public." (W. Daniel Hillis, in "Introduction: The Emerging Third Culture," in Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, edited by John Brockman (Touchstone, 1995), p. 26.)
  • "It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection ... My skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense. This is especially true with regard to the origin of life ... I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science. ... In thinking about these questions I have been stimulated by criticisms of the prevailing scientific world picture... by the defenders of intelligent design. ... [T]he problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair." (Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, p. (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 6-7, 10.)

  • "Honest critics of the evolutionary way of thinking who have emphasized problems with biologists' dogma and their undefinable terms are often dismissed as if they were Christian fundamentalist zealots or racial bigots. But the part of this book's thesis that insists such terminology interferes with real science requires an open and thoughtful debate about the reality of the claims made by zoocentric evolutionists." (Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of the Species, (Basic Books, 2003), p. 29).)
  • "It is dangerous to raise attention to the fact that there is no satisfying explanation for macroevolution. One easily becomes a target of orthodox evolutionary biology and a false friend of proponents of non-scientific concepts. According to the former we already know all the relevant principles that explain the complexity and diversity of life on earth; for the latter science and research will never be able to provide a conclusive explanation, simply because complex life does not have a natural origin." (Günter Theißen, "The proper place of hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology," Theory in Biosciences, 124: 349-369 (2006).)
  • "We've been told by more than one of our colleagues that, even if Darwin was substantially wrong to claim that natural selection is the mechanism of evolution, nonetheless we shouldn't say so. Not, anyhow, in public. To do that is, however inadvertently, to align oneself with the Forces of Darkness, whose goal is to bring Science into disrepute. ... [N]eo-Darwinism is taken as axiomatic; it goes literally unquestioned. A view that looks to contradict it, either directly or by implication is ipso facto rejected, however plausible it may otherwise seem. Entire departments, journals and research centres now work on this principle." (Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), pp. xx, xvi.)

Indeed, while some scientists are forced to censor their criticisms of Darwinian theory out of fear of the establishment, a 2008 article in Nature on the Altenberg 16 conference explained that some others willingly self-censor their own criticisms so as to avoid "handing ammunition" to "creationists":

[T]here was no sense at Altenberg of a desire to attack evolutionary theory from the left. Quite the reverse -- the dominant political concern was a fear of attack from fundamentalists. As Gould discovered, creationists seize on any hint of splits in evolutionary theory or dissatisfaction with Darwinism. In the past couple of decades, everyone has become keenly aware of this, regardless of their satisfaction or otherwise with the modern synthesis. "You always feel like you're trying to cover your rear," says Love. "If you criticize, it's like handing ammunition to these folks." So don't criticize in a grandstanding way, says Coyne: "People shouldn't suppress their differences to placate creationists, but to suggest that neo-Darwinism has reached some kind of crisis point plays into creationists' hands," he says.

(John Whitfield, "Biological theory: Postmodern evolution?," Nature, Vol. 455: 281-284 (September 17, 2008).)

This article therefore candidly admits a motive for suppressing criticisms of evolutionary theory: they have a "political concern" that they want to avoid "handing ammunition" to those they call the "fundamentalists" and "creationists."

And finally, since we've been on the topic of China, here's one final comment to think about, from the Chinese paleontologist J.Y. Chen: "In China we can criticize Darwin, but not the government. In America, you can criticize the government, but not Darwin."

These are not proponents of intelligent design. They are atheists and/or mainstream evolutionary scientists/scholars, telling us that scientists don't have the full freedom to express views that dissent from the standard evolutionary viewpoint.

Somehow I suspect that Cosmos will continue to sing the praises of the scientific enterprise, and will even promote the idea that evolutionary science is the pinnacle of an intellectually liberated, highly objective, and extremely careful and self-correcting scientific endeavor. But what would Neil deGrasse Tyson know about questioning Darwinism? Ask scientists and scholars who have tried to question Darwinian thinking, and you'll find out just how much freedom of expression there really is.

Photo credit: Fox TV.