The Battle for Science Moves to Prime-Time Network Television

Fox 'Cosmos' reboot is just as much for lawmakers as it is for children, the creators say.

On the voyage to explore how all living things are related and the possible evolution of life in the cosmos, host Neil deGrasse Tyson visits Reykjavic, Iceland in the all-new "Some of the Things That Molecules Do" episode of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey."

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," a reboot of the 1980 "Cosmos" series.

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A lot has changed since the science series “Cosmos” – which is being rebooted this week – first aired on PBS in 1980, and not just in the flashiness of the graphics available to explore the mysteries of the universe.

“In the 1970s, I think there was a higher degree of respect for science, of hope about the future and the kind of future-oriented vision,” said Ann Druyan, the executive producer and writer of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,”  on a media call with the press. She notes the series came on the heels of the Apollo space program and Voyager missions that instilled a level of national pride in the sciences.

[READ: NASA's Kepler Telescope Discovers 715 New Planets]

Her late husband Carl Sagan, hailed as one of the greatest science communicators of the 20th century, hosted the original series, which the couple co-wrote in addition to a number of books about space and science.
“There was a high degree of confidence, something that changed dramatically around the year 2000, where suddenly there was a kind of public hostility to science. You could see it in many different manifestations,” she said. “We began to turn inward. Our vision for the frontier was not as compelling as it once had been.”
She is referring, in part, to political battles regarding climate change, the teaching of evolution and even the very funding of science programs.
“We need to break down this kind of denial that keeps us from taking what science is telling us, not just about the problems we face but about the fantastic possibilities of the future and what we could do if we get our act together,” she said.

“Cosmos” holds no punches when it comes to challenging that denial. It is a forward-looking show, tackling topics such as the possibility of life on other planets. But "Cosmos" also takes a historical look at humanity’s greatest discoveries in understanding the universe – discoveries that did not come without fierce opposition. For instance the first episode includes the story of Giordano Bruno, who in the 16th century proposed the theory that the sun was just one of many stars in an infinite universe – a proposition that led him to being burned at the stake by the Roman inquisition.

Sunday’s premiere also references the theory of climate change driven by man-made activities – a theory supported by a vast majority of scientists, yet denied by 56 percent of congressional Republicans.

“We aspire to have a democratic society, well a good place to start would be for us – as many of us as possible – to begin to understand the decision-making and the basis for those decisions, and to act independently and not be manipulated,” Druyan said. “That’s what science does. One of its greatest powers is that it teaches you how to know when you are being lied to.”

Filling Sagan’s very large shoes as show host is Neil deGrasse Tyson, a prominent astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (you may also know him as the guy who fact checked the bejesus out of “Gravity” in 140 characters or less). Tyson, along with Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” have become highly visible faces in the political battles against what President Barack Obama has called “the Flat Earth Society.” Both have publicly taken on lawmakers regarding matters of science funding and legislation, and Nye recently debated creationist Ken Ham about the theory of evolution. Tyson and Nye also joined Obama at the White House Student Film Festival last week, where a preview of “Cosmos” was shown.  

While the show is certainly clear enough for children to follow along, Tyson said it is just as much for the grown-ups.

“I’m a little fatigued of adults saying, ‘We got to worry about the kids', and these are the same adults that don’t know science and are running things and wielding resources and legislation,” he said, also on the media call. “The message of ‘Cosmos’ is for everyone.”


The show is airing on Fox along with National Geographic, and the irony has not been lost on reviewers that Fox’s corporate sister station – Fox News – is also the source of much of the politically-charged doubts about climate change and other discussions in the scientific community. According to Tyson, it was the idea of co- executive producer Seth MacFarlane – the creator of "Family Guy" and other hit animated comedies, who has his own special relationship with Sagan – to take the series to Fox.

“I realized Fox had more cultural demographics crossing their roads in their portfolio than any other station I could think of. I realized that if ‘Cosmos’ appeared on Fox – however remote that possibility was at that moment in my head – if it did appear on Fox, it would have the greatest distribution of any science programming there ever was,” Tyson said.

Druyan adds that, unlike some of the other networks interested in the show, Fox offered her complete creative control, and Fox TV executive Peter Rice was willing to order the season’s 13 episodes right off the bat.

“'Don’t you want a pilot?’ I said,” Druyan said, “And he pointed to the original series and he said, ‘That’s your pilot.’”