Stop the Science Snobbery: What We Can All Learn from "Cosmos"

Science people are snobs.

And we love being snobs.  I say "we," because while I have no real education in the meat and math and chemistry of the stuff, I'm a science groupie.  Oh, just in that dumb, surface way that all artsy intellectuals think they are listening to our Radio Lab, watching our MythBusters, reading our Brief History of Time on the bus* to look smart and whatnot. But I love sorta-sciency books and podcasts and shows and at the end of a long day, I seek them out as a break from the other side of my brain.

Science guys get such a hadron for this collider.
Case in point: I went to see Particle Fever a few weeks ago, a documentary about the large hadron collider in Switzerland.  DON'T STOP READING THIS YOU GUYS I PROMISE THAT'S THE MOST BORING SENTENCE IN THIS POST.  Anyway, it was largely over my head but still pretty awesome because the filmmakers did this crazy good job of getting the audience super invested in the really difficult, hard-to-understand, infinitesimal, particle-physics stakes at issue in the search for the Higgs boson particle.  I mean, like, really invested.  Like the end of Rudy invested.  And I loved it.

But when I left, I started to think about how there were like three people in the theater to see Particle Fever, and Noah playing next door made $43 million dollars its opening weekend.  This doesn't surprise anybody, right?  But why doesn't it?  Because we science-y types and by that again I just mean the type of nerd who pays for a weekend ticket to Particle Fever get off on being exclusive.  We revel in being snobs.  The three of us in the theater exchanged these deeply knowing, disdainful nods that perfectly communicated: we're better than those mushy Bible-blockbuster-goers who came to the movies for a cheap thrill; my brain is going to WORK here!

Click the image see a bigger version or click here to go to the movie's website so you can check out the disclaimer at the top. I don't recall a little move called Weird Science having any damn disclaimers!
Here's the problem: there are a lot of really serious, really important social debates going on right now about science. And a lot of the time, it's Congress who's debating the issues and making really significant, really devastating laws to regulate science and to control funding and testing and experimenting and curing and inventing and discovering. And all of the people who should be out there fighting for science in the populous, who should be out on the streets handing out I don't know, dinosaurs or stem cells or something are too busy being self-congratulatory, patronizing elitists to share what they know.  Science and its fans (me included) relish belonging to a smart little club of a like-minded minority.  The problem is, if we stay this way, we'll always be the minority.

Look where science got Jesse! Okay bad example.
Because you know who doesn't have a problem spreading messages and reaching out to all kinds of people, not least the downtrodden and uneducated and tired and poor and huddled masses?  Religion, that's who. And this post is not about bashing religion or critiquing religion or about religion at all; it's saying that people who feel passionately about science, people who understand that science is this huge, beautiful, miraculous adventure, people who want other people to know about evolution and volcanoes and disease pathways and comets and fossils and the universe, could take a lesson from the "come on in, we'll take you" attitude of religion. We could be nicer, and we could be more open, and we could be less hostile and more explanatory, and we could try to get to learnin' some more peoples about science, y'all.

The great thing for me is that this little thought-piece doesn't have to end with some vague call to action because someone is already implementing this precise philosophy. The new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, is this magnificent, universally (OMG PUN HAH!) engaging television show.  It's a sort of sequel/follow-up to Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage of the 1980s, and is written in part by Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, and his mentee and general badass, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Cosmos is so wonderful because it's so accessible: it has great graphics, this great The Magic School Bus-style plot, and it simplifies and clarifies difficult concepts without ever condescending or compromising on the science.  It's wonderfully unapologetic, too there's no "some people believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old," no kowtowing to myth or lore or "Intelligent Design" or other made-up bits of psuedo-science. It's just Earth, just facts, just what we've learned about our world. It's not belligerent with this information, either, but friendly and captivating, and Neil deGrasse Tyson's voice makes you feel like you're drowning in a velvet-lined pool filled with melted butter and you don't even care because it's delicious!

I will confess that even though I'm obsessed with Cosmos, it took me a little while to get past my pathetic, hipster-y protective instinct about Neil. My first reaction was to pout: "How cute that you like Cosmos; I really prefer his early stuff." Or, "You've never heard of Star Talk? You don't even know him!"  And that's exactly the wrong reaction.  I should have been thrilled people know Neil, thrilled that Neil is achieving such deserved but bizarre, elusive pop-culture fame, thrilled that he's sharing information and making people think.

So: watch Cosmos.  Be more like Neil (I wish).  Those of you who have more knowledge and degrees and credentials than I do: open yourself up to sharing what you like about stars or chimps or fossils or quarks or cells or freakonomics or psychosis or the Mesozoic or the Galapagos or whatever.  You never know who's listening. 


*  I've never ridden a bus.


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Anonymous
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May 7, 2014 at 10:29 PM delete

Well, while Particle Fever wasn't the most exciting documentary for those of us following the Higgs Boson particle discovery, Noah was by far the worst movie I have seen in a very, very long time. Nice blog - thanks,
Laura Beaty

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Anonymous
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May 29, 2014 at 1:01 PM delete

Awesome article!!

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