Tony Norman: The right won't let science get in its way

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The reboot of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" as a vehicle for exploring the frontiers of science comes at an awkward time for scientific literacy in America.

With the amiable, but brilliant, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson replacing the late Carl Sagan as host, the show has undergone a dramatic face-lift since the 1980s, but the centrality of science remains the same.

The show's ratings on Fox and National Geographic are respectable, but not great. Still, critics are unanimous in their praise of Mr. Tyson's earnest, yet accessible, approach to explaining difficult concepts from the Big Bang to electromagnetism to the role of plate tectonics in Earth's history to the evolution of the human eye.

Even so, Mr. Tyson is facing a far more skeptical and politically polarized audience than his mentor and predecessor ever did. According to recent polls, a slight majority of Americans now doubt that the universe is billions of years old, while growing numbers aren't so sure about evolution or global warming, either.

Last week, columnist Charles Krauthammer, arguably the conservative movement's most influential public intellectual, commented on the White House's newest report linking extreme weather conditions and man-made global warming. He likened the report to superstition and a Native American rain dance.

Not to be outdone by the know-nothingness of intellectuals of Mr. Krauthammer's stature, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., chimed in. "I don't agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what's happening in our climate," he said.

"I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. And I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy," the likely contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination added.

As if anticipating the outbreak of just this kind of anti-intellectual political expedience, Mr. Tyson addressed climate change opportunists like Mr. Rubio and his Republican cohorts in a recent episode:

"We just can't seem to stop burning up all those buried trees from way back in the carboniferous age, in the form of coal, and the remains of ancient plankton, in the form of oil and gas. If we could, we'd be home free climate wise. Instead, we're dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate the Earth hasn't seen since the great climate catastrophes of the past, the ones that led to mass extinctions.

"We just can't seem to break our addiction to the kinds of fuel that will bring back a climate last seen by the dinosaurs, a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on the environment and our ability to feed ourselves.

"All the while, the glorious sun pours immaculate free energy down upon us, more than we will ever need. Why can't we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us? The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What's our excuse?"

It is views like this that have enraged many of Mr. Tyson's critics on the right, who view his very entertaining presentation of the scientific worldview as a threat to tradition, morality, capitalism and the authority of the Bible.

Still, this is a country that has been content to let itself sink in the world rankings when it comes to our students' performance in math, engineering and science. Climate change deniers and politicians who claim evolution is "a lie straight from hell" hold major science committee chairs in the House of Representatives, which says a lot about the quality of our politics and our science.

The ideology of the free market unencumbered by concerns about the present or the future always trump science based on observable reality. This is why we have a major political party that finds it a problem to admit that man-made climate change is real or that the Earth is billions of years old.

If everyone took the lessons of "Cosmos" to heart, it would have an immediate impact on the kind of political and economic decisions we make. Ignorance of real science is an asteroid we can all see coming.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631 Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.

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