Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cosmos Review: "The Clean Room" - Everything Changes

Scientists play the villains on "Cosmos"

One of the greatest misunderstandings of science today surrounds the nature and purpose of science.  Far too many people view science as a collection of facts that can be refuted by “facts” from religion or other scientists.  But the truth is that science is not just a collection of facts.  It is a process: one that encourages, demands, and requires questioning and honesty.  What “The Clean Room” shows us is that anti-science (that is, anti-process and anti-questioning) opposition doesn’t come solely from the religious, but from the political as well.

Host Neil Degrasse Tyson has received a lot of criticism from the right (and praise from the left) for his apparent antagonism of religion throughout Cosmos.  But “The Clean Room” lays out Tyson’s view of science perfectly and shows how it is not religion that is the problem, but the insistence by some on using “God did it” as the ultimate answer to all questions and to shut down further exploration.  Take, for example, last night’s discussion of James Ussher, the Anglican archbishop who, in the middle of the seventeenth century, purported to calculate the creation of the earth as October 23rd, 4004 BC. 

While a 6,000 year-old planet has been accepted by Young Earth Creationists as the ultimate “truth,” Tyson does not have any scorn or resentment toward Ussher.  Rather, he seems appreciative of Ussher’s inquisitiveness.  The man wanted to answer a question and he used all of the tools available to him at the time: the Bible and other historical texts.  Tyson even compares him to early geologists who, while more scientific in their exploration, used a similar tactic as had Ussher.  Whereas the priest counted “begats,” the geologists counted layers of sediment.  Neither was right, but being right is beside the point.  For Tyson, science isn’t about being right; that’s just a side effect.  For Tyson, science is about process and exploration and constantly questioning what we think we know.  This distinction is, perhaps, the single most important facet that Tyson can highlight in Cosmos.

For far too many people, science is just a collection of facts, and facts can be disputed and even, occasionally, refuted.  So Young Earth Creationists can put their “facts” up against science’s facts and claim that each set of facts is equally worthy of discussion, therefore we should “teach the controversy.”  Vaccination opponents can put their “facts” up against science’s facts and claim that parents should be allowed to choose which facts they want to believe.  Climate change deniers can use their “facts” to prevent us from taking any measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  Or, as “The Clean Room” showed, corporations can hire their own scientists to produce their own “facts” in order to claim that leaded gasoline is not polluting the environment.

When science is portrayed this way, it is easy to refute, but Tyson is doing a marvelous job of showing that science is not just the destination; science is the journey.  We know that the earth is 14.5 billion years-old (give or take a few million years) not because we “discovered” it, but because 450 years ago James Ussher, and others like him, started asking the question.  Their methods and results may have been wrong, but their results were the starting point for others to build on. 

This brings me to the other Big Idea that Tyson has been making throughout Cosmos and which really came into focus in “The Clean Room”: scientific discovery is not linear.  Many people think that science works in a straightforward, linear progression, with Discovery A leading to Discovery B leading to Discovery C and so on.  Given this interpretation, negative results are treated as failures.  In reality, science is more of a branching tree (similar to the evolutionary Tree of Life), in which negative results may lead to dead ends, but which can also spawn new, long-lived branches of research. 

Clair Patterson, the primary subject of “The Clean Room,” did not set out to rid the world of lead additives; nor was he trying to revolutionize decontamination protocols.  He just wanted to figure out how much lead there was in a few rock samples.  All of the developments that came after, while unintended, were a natural result of the scientific process, which generally allows for the expansion of tangential ideas.  Alexander Fleming was studying staphylococcus when he discovered penicillin.  Percy Spencer was working as a radar engineer when he discovered that microwaves could melt chocolate.  Many scientific discoveries have been the result of accidents or tangential research.  That is why a proper scientific method is so important.  It doesn’t cut off discovery by saying “God did it” or by withdrawing funding because the results of the research may be potentially harmful.

It is this final bit that receives the bulk of Tyson’s ire.  He is willing to forgive early religious scholars who had only ancient texts for evidence.  Their ignorance is based in evidence rather than intent.  Instead, Cosmos reserves its deepest scorn for those scientists who should know better, but who are so recalcitrant in their beliefs that they are unwilling to accept the possibility that other scientists could prove them wrong.  The oil companies of the 1960s could just as easily have been the sulfur dioxide producers of the 1970s, the chlorofluorocarbon manufacturers of the 1980s, the tobacco companies of the 1990s, or the greenhouse gas producers of today.  All of them are (or were) having negative impacts on the environment and all of them denied it to their dying breaths, often with scientific research in tow.  It is these scientists, who should understand the process but choose to ignore it for political or financial reasons, who are the most deplorable according to Tyson.  They should be encouraging new avenues of scientific exploration, but they instead stifle it due to non-scientific forces. 

“The Clean Room” is, by far, the best episode of Cosmos to date because it clearly states every purpose the series has.  First, science intends to have a meaningful impact on our lives.  The most esoteric research into the age of the earth can affect day-to-day humanity, even in inadvertent ways.  Second, science is meant to encourage innovation, not to stifle it.  What hindered Ussher and the geologists who followed him was their methods, not their ideas.  New ideas should always be encouraged even as old methods are discarded.  Finally, what most harms science is the appeal to authority.  That authority can be God or it can be other scientists.  But no new evidence should be beyond honest questioning.  The reason we readily accept today that smoking causes lung disease, or that lead additives cause health problems, or that greenhouse gasses cause global climate change is not because we believe these things to be true.  It’s because there is a preponderance of evidence pointing to these conclusions and no new evidence has been effectively presented to refute them.  It is not religion that obstructs science, but an unwillingness to accept new data that is the true enemy of science and mankind.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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