The wingnut panic over the show Cosmos is incredibly amusing to me. It’s understandable, because Neil deGrasse Tyson is really good at being clear and concise about science and he eviscerates right wing attempts to muddy the waters with precision. I particularly liked this quote from an interview on Inquiring Minds: “I claim that all those who think they can cherry-pick science simply don’t understand how science works,” because science, unlike theology or musical taste, isn’t a matter of just taking what you like and leaving the rest behind. What is interesting—and threatening—about Cosmos is it asserts interconnectedness of science. Evolution and the “big bang” theory are inseparable, and knowing how old and vast the universe is makes it much, much easier to understand how evolution works.
This runs strongly counter to the conservative approach to science. Conservatives don’t want to be perceived as anti-science, so they claim a general support for it and then just suddenly and coincidentally have “reservations” about science that runs against their political interests. So you have people who wouldn’t dare dream of saying that physics as a field is wrong, but somehow still manage to convince themselves the that laws of physics are suddenly suspended when they point to the conclusion of man-made climate change. Or they have to accept that sexual reproduction, by its nature, creates descent with modification, but they somehow decide that this can’t be true over vast expanses of time. Cosmos makes that kind of cherry-picking hard to pull off. Tyson knows that if you understand, for instance, how dog breeds came to be, you understand evolution and can’t reasonably deny that, over much longer periods of time, you could get way, way more genetic diversity through natural selection.
In my post last week about these issues, I asked why Christian fundies are much less interested in building the case against the old-and-vast universe, even though they clearly don’t believe in it any more than evolution, than they are trying to sow doubt about evolution. This, even though the age and the size of the universe tend to argue against their god more than even evolution does. I neglected to mention that I suspect the main reason is tradition. The fight between evolutionary biologists and fundies predates many of the theories about the universe and certainly predates the popularization of those theories. It’s an arbitrary accident of history. You know, like a lot of evolved features are.
I cannot emphasize enough the arbitrary nature of the attacks on evolutionary theory. Fundamentalists are not interested in crafting legitimate criticisms of science. They just want to cough up a bunch of random “reasons” to disbelieve the science so that their followers can latch onto that as an excuse for why they reject science, and that’s it. That’s why they put astrophysics mostly on “ignore” and focus on evolution, because all their followers need to know is that “criticisms” exist and they can feel good about believing a bunch of bullshit.
PZ Myers has a fun post up about one of the fellows at the Discovery Institute taking cheap potshots at Cosmos and it’s fascinating, because it shows how much his job is to create the illusion that there are “questions” about evolution and that’s it. The point is not to create counter-theories and it’s certainly not about grappling with the overwhelming amount of evidence from various fields of science that point to an old universe that we evolved very recently, relatively speaking, in. It’s about tossing up a few distracting lies, like “biologists can’t explain the eyeball”, and allowing believers to comfort themselves with the lies. But it really comes across as lame if you take a wide view.
The fellow in question, Jay Richards, was all agitated about the evolution episode of Cosmos.
But on the first episode, where Tyson explains that the universe is over 13 billion years old and that there are likely many universes and that we are like a dust speck in Bill Gates’ mansion in our relative size to the universe, he had nothing much to say on Twitter. Which is interesting, because the size and age of the universe are much harder to comprehend than the possibility that an eye evolved over a few hundred thousand generations. But that’s the point: He isn’t interested in comprehending either physics or biology. He is interested in throwing up a few nonsensical claims that supposedly cast doubt on evolution and calling it a day, safe and secure in the knowledge that the fundies he’s pandering to won’t look or think any further about the issue than to feel comfortable dismissing it out of hand. It’s actually kind of weird, if you think about it.
By Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.