The Ongoing Fight for Truth

Americans stubbornly refuse to believe scientific and political facts.

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."

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I’ve been watching the beautifully shot, gracefully written and flat-out fascinating series “Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey,” and it’s a refreshing change from much of what we see on screens large and small. “Cosmos” makes me feel better about American popular culture, about science, and about the willingness and ability of brilliant astrophysicists to make a complicated topic not only understandable but so gripping you will struggle to stay awake so you can watch episode after episode without having to wait another day.

I am heartened that it's a joint effort by Fox and the National Geographic Channel, not generally two outlets one thinks would team up together. I love that one of its executive producers is funnyman Seth McFarlane, reminding us that entertainment doesn’t have to just appeal to our base humor (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but can appeal to our curiosity about ourselves, the universe, and our tiny place in the universe. And most of all, I love the inspiring story of chief narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson, a star in his own right who still is charmingly humbled by the memory of the late, great Carl Sagan, who hosted the original "Cosmos" in the 1980s.

Tyson met Sagan when he was in college, and was treated to a visit to Sagan’s lab. When the snow fell while Tyson awaited his bus from Ithaca back to New York City, Sagan told him, here’s my home phone number. If the bus doesn’t make it, call me and you will stay in my home tonight with my family.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

“Cosmos” is detailed and smart, but is accessible even to those of us who haven’t paid much attention to science since school. How, then, to deal with an AP-GfK poll showing that half of American don’t believe the Big Bang really happened? Despite (more) recent evidence that the universe indeed began with a big bang, some 51 percent of Americans just aren’t convinced. The AP noted:

Those results depress and upset some of America's top scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners, who vouched for the science in the statements tested, calling them settled scientific facts. "Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts," said 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine winner Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley.


Are we surprised? There is still a big chunk of the country who thinks President Obama was born in Kenya, or is a Muslim. We have political candidates who do not understand the basic facts of human reproduction. We have other political candidates who will make up resume items or statistics – things easily disproved – because they know, horrifyingly, that there will always be people to whom facts are just a mere annoyance, a sideline to the more important drivers of ideology and bigotry. In the information era, facts have become almost meaningless, since people will simply summon the “facts” that support the end conclusion they desire.

A recent poll showed that only one in six Americans could locate Ukraine, even though two-thirds said they had been following the dire situation there pretty closely. That’s tragic and embarrassing enough, but what’s worse is that there’s no bliss in that ignorance. The less people knew about Ukraine or where it was, the more likely they were to advocate a military strike, the study said.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Ukraine-Crimea crisis.]

With all the scientific advances we’ve made in the last few centuries, there persists a stubborn refusal to see the truth – the convenient ones as well as the inconvenient ones. Worse, anti-intellectualism has not only been tolerated in policymaking, but celebrated, as though it’s more democratic to have people make laws while they’re sticking their fingers in their ears and going "nah nah nah nah, I can’t hear you."

I admire the scientists who continue to study and work and enlighten despite the aggressive ignorance of others. In 1600, Italian Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake after the Inquisition was threatened by the fact that Bruno said everything does not literally revolve around us. He had a chance to repent, and he wouldn’t do it, showing extraordinary courage, and, one might think, faith that his martyrdom would keep the focus on real science. Four hundred years later, we’re still fighting that fight.