Will ‘Cosmos’ Miss the Big Bang in Science Communications?

March 12, 2014

Neil Degrasse Tyson. Image credit: John Roling/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

The reincarnation of Carl Sagan’s TV series “Cosmos” — which debuted Sunday night on Fox — was being called the last best hope of science communications even before it aired, as well as a chance to kickstart a “national, or even global, conversation about science and the scientific method.”

So what did you think of it? Did you even watch it?

If you didn’t, you’re not alone. Only about 6 million people saw the first episode on the Fox network and its ancillary channels, even though it received nearly universal acclaim from critics. (To be fair, the network says that figure could stretch to 40 million once you include international audiences.)

Of course, mere eyeballs alone aren’t the sole measure of success for a series like “Cosmos,” which is being hosted by astrophysicist and master science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson. While the original “Cosmos” enthralled tens of millions, it also anecdotally spurred many on to careers in science — including Tyson himself. On Sunday night, there were tons of tweets from parents about how enraptured their children were by the show.

But while it’s too early to judge the direction and impact of the new “Cosmos,” it’s not too early to talk about the revolution in science communications and how people consume ideas in the 35 years since PBS first aired Sagan’s classic — and why those trends might make it more difficult for the new “Cosmos” to succeed.

That’s a revolution, by the way, that’s largely left behind the way we still communicate conservation science as well.

Consumption of Science and Ideas Today: Narrativized, Personal, Social

Sagan’s “Cosmos” was langorous, poetic, personal and pedagogical. It occurred in a world where The Book of the Month Club and The Dick Cavett Show and The Great Books Series were still supreme expressions of intellectual life for middlebrow America. TV was regarded as a wasteland, and self-help literature unspeakably lowbrow. College was still for elites, and university lecture courses were only beginning to become available on tape to the masses. And the Cold War drove high levels of U.S. science funding

Today’s landscape of ideas and learning would be almost unrecognizable to the Sagan of 1980. The model of intellectual discourse now is not the university lecture or a Gore Vidal/Norman Mailer debate, but the TED talk — a single idea told in an 18-minute narrative with great graphics.

Our consumption of ideas is now inherently conversational, social, batted around on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, which make and destroy memes with unnerving speed and contagion.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are also sweeping the country, making learning theoretically available to many more.

And, most crucially, the most popular ideas are now often tied to self-improvement. The discipline everyone is paying attention to now — neuroscience — is hot not just because it’s cool, but because we are all trying to use its findings to glean an edge in our careers, our personal lives, our aging. There’s a reason why most TED talks focus on brain science, education and leadership — not on conservation or space exploration.

Based on the first episode, the new “Cosmos” has been updated mainly through whiz-bang animations and the silver spaceship Tyson uses to travel through the universe (and, in future episode, into microcosms), which looks a bit like the planchette from a Ouija board.

But the new “Cosmos” retains the same pedagogical bent as the original. And, like the original, the opening episode lacked narrative drive. Instead, Tyson presented astronomy as a “cabinet of wonders,” pulling out planet after pulsar after photon and saying after each: Isn’t this amazing?

Again, that’s only one episode. But if it continues, can this approach work to reboot a widespread appreciation for science today?

Back to School Doesn’t Work for Most People

Joanne Manaster, a blogger for Scientific American, gives us reason to be skeptical. She cites a 1996 study that shows that our experience of science in school shapes how receptive we are to absorbing science when presented on television — and that three out of the four possible readings are unfavorable. It turns out most people don’t like any whiff of school and turning learning into a task. As the study puts it: “[T]here is no single, ideal way of presenting science. Different strategies must be adopted for different publics. For some people, the mediation of a television host or reporter is essential, protecting them from an unfamiliar world. For others it is unacceptable. A clearly defined didactic situation where the knowledge differential between the viewer and the scientist or the TV host is underscored can be happily accepted by one category but rejected by another.”

“[T]here is no single, ideal way of presenting science. Different strategies must be adopted for different publics. For some people, the mediation of a television host or reporter is essential, protecting them from an unfamiliar world. For others it is unacceptable. A clearly defined didactic situation where the knowledge differential between the viewer and the scientist or the TV host is underscored can be happily accepted by one category but rejected by another.”

That’s not to say that “Cosmos” can’t be valuable, especially in inspiring younger generations to become interested in science and the natural world. But science on TV itself and the pedagogical approach Tyson seems to be taking might present serious barriers for many people.

In addition, the “cabinet of wonders” approach cuts against three major trends in intellectual consumption: the expectation that ideas will come in short, easily consumable narrative packages; that non-specialists can discuss and challenge those ideas; and that they should somehow help one live a better life.

There is an edge of advocacy to the new “Cosmos”: Tyson, producer Seth McFarlane and the writers of Cosmos have slipped in unsubtle motifs about our smallness in the universe as well as about the superiority of science to religion when making decisions. But neither of those fit into “assume a power pose” model of TED talk self-improvement. The message from Tyson et al. is that thinking will make you better. Most of us today simply want the Gladwellian secret to getting where we want to go faster.

We might regard such biases as self-centered, lacking in patience and perspective and respect for the authority of knowledge. But our contempt doesn’t dismiss the fact that these are also major trends in intellectual life, and that we swim against them at our peril.

Indeed, conservation science communications has relied heavily on the “cabinet of wonders” approach about biodiversity, has cloaked itself in heavy morality and only recently made stabs at seeking relevance to people’s lives. We have a lot of retooling to do.

You can never step in the same river (or space-time continuum) twice. And there can never be another “Cosmos” in the way that the original transformed a generation’s appreciation for science — our attention and the media are too fractured today for that. The future of science communications now rests on millions of positive interventions every year, not a single series watched by a few million people.

But the dream of a populist uprising for science dies hard. Here’s how Audra Wolfe puts that sentiment in an interesting analysis in The Atlantic (about how science funding in Sagan’s time was much more directly tied to military preparations for WWIII than his series): 

As is so often the case with science communication, the assumption seems to be that public understanding of science — sprinkled with a hearty dose of wonder and awe — will produce respect for scientific authority, support for science funding, and a new generation of would-be scientists. If only Americans loved science a little more, the thinking goes, we could end our squabbling about climate change, clean energy, evolution, and funding NASA and the National Science Foundation.

The new “Cosmos” seems to be a great show for kids as well as a singular chance to watch Tyson chew up the scenery, which is always a treat. I hope that its future episodes show a little more potential to speak to today’s adult audiences and how they’re now consuming ideas and science. But there isn’t going to be a savior for science. That’s everyone’s job now.

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.


  1. I feel like I should note that Seth MacFarlane posted on his Twitter account that Cosmos pulled in 12 million viewers total in the US. (I hope this code below works, if not, find MacFarlane’s Twitter account)

    Numbers are in: 12 million Cosmos viewers in the US alone, 17.5 million with DVR! Thanks to you all!— Seth MacFarlane (@SethMacFarlane) March 11, 2014

    1. Adam, the LA Times reported that all Fox networks pulled in about 8.5 million viewers for Cosmos — 6 million on Fox alone. I’ve corrected the number and added a link.

  2. I haven’t seen it yet, but I imagine it will be hard to compare to the original. Nevertheless much has been learned since its first run. I have to say I remember a lot of the imagery from that show when I watched it when I was six.

  3. They would’ve had 40 million if it was streamed online. Until then, I’ll have to wait.

  4. Sad to say, I was underwhelmed. The gee-whiz approach may appeal to younger viewers, but it hammered a bit much. The ads were hugely annoying, especially since I don’t have a recorder. We’ll give this another week, but may just skip or become very casual viewers.