"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" premiered yesterday night.* This reboot is an update on the original series, which was produced by (possibly) the most beloved astronomer of the 20th century, the late Carl Sagan. The series initially ran in September of 1980, and Sagan subsequently turned it into a book. This was all 34 years ago. Even now, the words Sagan etched into his book are continuously shared across various social media outlets, which is a testament to truly how awe-inspiring the presentation was, and still is.
However, anyone who is familiar with science knows that it progresses at an amazing speed, so while Sagan's series isn't what one would call "inaccurate," there is a lot of information that is missing or out-of-date. As such, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson signed on to be the presenter for an update (or a continuation, if you will) to the series, which is meant to cover the same material as the original series, along with including the plethora of new knowledge that is based on the advances that we've made over the last three decades.
Tyson, along with Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, has been attempting to create a remake of the series ever since Sagan's death in 1996. However, producers and TV executives believed that the series would not appeal to modern audiences. This is a rather alarming belief, especially when one considers that the original Cosmos remained one of the networks highest rated program for nearly a decade. Consequently one is forced to wonder:
Has society really changed that much since the original premiere?
In recent times, erotic fantasy shows like "True Blood" have dominated the airwaves. Moreover, "reality" TV shows, which generally focus on love triangles and boozy arguments (which are themselves scripted and edited beyond any semblance of reality), are consuming more and more of the most popular time slots. Moreover, belief in pseudoscience ("claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility" source) is relatively widespread. In Europe, studies indicate that 53% of people think that astrology it is "rather scientific" (it is not scientific, not at all).
Consequently, it is hard to deny the lack of investment that most modern individuals seem to have in the sciences, or the lacking amount of knowledge that people have about the scientific method (see this post for further proof).
Still, there are areas where it seems that science is alive and well. The Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters" is one show that comes to mind. Premiering in 2003, this series uses aspects of the scientific method to debunk or confirm many of the world's most popular myths, "memes," and fantastic news stories (such as "do cell phones interfere with airplanes?" and "can a person cling to the top of a speeding car?").
Still, the Discovery Channel hosts a number of shows that are decidedly not about discovery. Amish Mafia and Sons of Guns are two reality shows this spring to mind. These shows focus more on drama than discover. And what about the Science Channel, which is owned by Discovery Communications, the same company that runs the Discovery channel? Mega Shredders is another show that seems to have lots of crunching and (sadly) little science.
Co-executive producer of the Cosmos series, Seth MacFarlane (from TV's Family Guy), states, “We’re obsessed with angels and vampires and whatnot, when there are many more exciting and very real and much more spectacular things to be excited about, that are right in our own planetary backyard.” Things like Jupiter and black holes and the tiny tardigrade. But, unfortunately, it seems that "real science" has little sway with modern audiences.
Last night, 13.3 million tuned in to the launch of ABC's "Resurrection," a show about the dead returning to life, while the "The Walking Dead," another show about the dead coming back to life (with a lot more bloods and guts), aired in the same time-slot. The ratings haven't been made public yet, but the number certainly surpassed 10 million viewers (the ratings-powerhouse manged to surpass the closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics by a large margin) Whereas, Cosmos held the third ranking with just 5.8 million total viewers.
Ultimately, it seems that people care about sensationalism, not science.
This is something that I have noticed with my own writing. Just the other day, this article was posted about the amount of water on Europa and the search for alien life (an article that is not particularly heavy on science to start with). It was posted along with the below image:
Over the course of an hour, it got 60 shares on Facebook. As a little experiment, I decided to repost the image in "meme" form, by adding a little text. I kept the title, text, and everything else about the post and article exactly the same. The only change I made was adding text to the image.
The result? In 2 minutes the image had 34 shares on Facebook. In 10 minutes it had almost 100 shares.
Of course, the number of views on the website increased dramatically. So, it seems that's it. The facts are hard to deny. If scientists want their work to be seen by anyone, they need to package it up in a pretty little bow (or send it out with explosions and much fanfare). If science writers want to disseminate information, they need to ensure that it is presented in an exciting and enticing way--they need to use memes, and more memes, and sensationalism to ensure that the work is actually read. Everyone invested in science is forced to walk the thin line between science and sensationalism, between disseminating information and making memes.
Trust me, friends, it is not a fun line to walk.
Official Trailer for "Cosmos:"
*The premiere of Cosmos will re-air tonight at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel and include some extra material on the making of the show. Check out some real science.