Cosmos: Too Soon to Judge, But…..

This past Sunday marked the premier of the Cosmos reboot, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane and the Fox Network’s remake of Carl Sagan’s classic science mini-series.  Fox did everything it could, so it seems, to make sure as many viewers as possible tuned in to the first episode, capping off the promotional blitz leading up to the premier with a statement from President Obama, and then airing the first episode on a myriad of channels.

While I do not believe this version of Cosmos has any chance of reaching the significance of Carl Sagan’s version, I also do not believe that is even a fair criticism.  The television landscape has changed more than most of us can even comprehend since the original airing of Cosmos.  Science fans, and those of us who mourn the day reality shows took over channels such as National Geographic will no doubt tune in each week.  For most of us, Cosmos will be a review of fascinating things we already know.  For me, the question is how many of those for whom this is new information will choose this over the other seemingly infinite entertainment choices?

For a series such as this, one episode is far too small of a taste to give a fair review.  I will definitely be tuning in next week, but that really isn’t saying anything.  With the lack of documentaries, especially astronomical/cosmological documentaries, now that shows like Amish Mafia dominate, Cosmos would have had to literally claim the Earth was 6000 years old for me to stop watching after one episode.  While I feel it is too early to pass judgement on the show, there are a few things I want to point out.

Hitting the positives first, the effects are awe-inspiring.  I have no doubt that Cosmos is going to feature some of the most impressive effects ever seen.  Hopefully they will draw people in who will stay and learn from the science.  Neil Tyson a rockstar.  He is the only science communicator who I think could fill the Carl Sagan role for the reboot, and this far in I think he is doing a fine job.  The most memorable part of the first episode, for me, was his snowy bus stop story of meeting Sagan.  I was already familiar with the story, but that didn’t stop it from bringing a tear to my eye.

Now a couple negatives….

First off, I think Fox really dropped the ball by not finding a sponsor willing to let them present the first episode either commercial free or with limited interruptions.  Maybe a block of ads right after the title sequence or something?  I know that ads are what pays the bills and allows shows like this to be made in the first place, but I find it hard to believe, with the amount of channels they were airing the premier on, that they couldn’t have found a sponsor or two willing.  The amount of commercial breaks was jarring and made it seem much more like just another documentary and less like the start of a special, 13 week event.  Of course, I can’t lay this criticism at the feet of Cosmos.  This ball was dropped by Fox.

The next issue I had though is all Cosmos, and I fully expect that most people will accuse me of picking nits over it.  And perhaps I am.  Of course, with a science documentary, the most important thing in my mind is getting the science right instead of reinforcing misconceptions.  Yet twice during the trip through the solar system the visual designers chose to either pick artistic license or popular misconceptions over reality.  First, by portraying the asteroid belt as described in multiple sci-fi flicks instead of astronomy textbooks, and then doubling down later in the trip by having the space ship weaving through a flock of trans-Neptunian objects when they came to the Kuiper belt.  Now I completely understand that showing the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt as they are would make a much more boring shot than what they went with.  (The vast majority of both belts is empty space.)  That being said, by showing the belts as they really are, Cosmos could have helped fix a major misconception people have about the asteroid belt.  Instead, they chose to reinforce it.  Here, from Phil Plait’s first book, Bad Astronomy:

Astronomer Dan Durda puts it this way:  imagine a scale model of the solar system where the Sun is a largish beach ball a meter across.  The Earth would be a marble 1 centimeter in size located about 100 meters from the Sun.  Mars would be a pea about 150 meters away from the Sun, and Jupiter, the size of a softball, about 500 meters out.

If you collected all the asteroids in the main belt and balled them up, they would be in toto about the size of a grain of sand.  Now imagine crushing that grain of sand into millions of pieces and strewing it all over the hundreds of thousands of square meters between Mars and Jupiter in the model.  See the problem?  You could tool around out there for months and never see an asteroid, let alone two.

 

So am I nit-picking here?  Perhaps, and if that is the only bit, to borrow Phil’s phrase, of bad astronomy we see in Cosmos (not going to mention the space ship making a sound as it passed by us in space, not going to do it….) I won’t hold it against the series as a whole.  It does worry me though.  What other bits of artistic license are we going to see them take?

I hope the viewers are tuning in, and I hope this Cosmos is a huge success.  I for one, want more things like this on the air, and less dynasties that involve the instruments of fowl genocide.

 

 

ABC Decides to Kill a Couple of Kids for Ratings

Are they going to feed them into a wood chipper?  Unleash a pack of rabid dogs on them?  Force them to watch endless hours of Extreme Weight Loss, The Bachelorette, and Celebrity Wife Swap until they can’t take it anymore and commit suicide?

Nah, they are just going to make Jenny McCarthy a co-host on The View.  You see, Elisabeth Hasselbeck decided to leave The View for a spot on Fox and Friends, Fox New’s insanity filled morning news show, which apparently opened up the “hot blond with crazy opinions” spot on ABC’s morning talk show.  Now while Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s crazy opinions were your garden variety right wing conservatism that you can find all over the TV dial, Jenny McCarthy’s crazy opinions are a bit more dangerous.  Jenny believes that vaccines cause autism, and has been an outspoken champion for the anti-vax movement.  She has appeared on Oprah to spout her insanity, appeared at anti-vaccine rallies, wrote for anti-vaccine websites, supported disgraced “researcher” Andrew Wakefield even after the truth of his “study” linking the MMR vaccine to autism was exposed; Jenny McCarthy is the celebrity of the anti-vaccine movement, and she has dedicated a large amount of effort to promoting a link between vaccines and autism and questioning the safety of vaccines in general.

And Jenny is free to have these views.  If she wants to believe that vaccines caused her son to grow an invisible third arm out of the top of his head, that is her right.  And that belief would have about the same scientific backing as her belief that vaccines are harmful and cause autism.  This is not an open scientific question.   There is no debate in the medical community.  On one side you have Jenny McCarthy, discredited “researchers” like Andrew Wakefield, and a few people either out of their area of expertise, or with very questionable conflicts of interest.  On the other side, you have the rest of the medical community and all published research.

And yet, Jenny has these views.  And now she will have a national television audience, and she will use her platform on The View to express these views, because she has used every other possible platform to express them in the past.  And even if the rest of the co-hosts argue with her and say that vaccines are safe and do not cause autism, it will still have the appearance of an open debate, not the closed scientific question that it actually is.

And some people watching will listen to her.  And they will not vaccinate their children because of what she says.  Why would they listen to her?  *shrug*  They will.  As ThinkProgress writes:

It’s easy to dismiss the idea that McCarthy’s work on autism and vaccines has an impact–celebrity activism often gets accorded outsized importance or treated with utter contempt, when it’s a much more complicated phenomenon. But a University of Michigan survey of parents found that 24 percent of them were willing to place some trust in figures like McCarthy on the question of the link between vaccines and autism, which is a much higher level of credibility than the average person’s going to be able to elicit from the general public.

And even if it is only a small number of people who listen to her and make that choice because of her, well….

And even a small number of parents who decide not to vaccinate on the word of someone like McCarthy, or Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who wrote the initial paper linking autism and vaccines, and has since been banned from practicing medicine in the UK, can have significant public health impacts. California saw a spike in whooping cough in 2010 that resulted in a number of deaths. Wakefield’s work contributed to a rise in measles cases in the United Kingdom. And fears of vaccines in general have lead to suspicion of the HPV vaccine, which is a critical way to help girls reduce their risk of certain kinds of cancers.

Some children will get measles, and whooping cough, and other vaccine preventable diseases because their parents decided not to vaccinate them due to baseless fears sowed by Jenny McCarthy.  And those children will give those disease to children who are either too young to be vaccinated, or who can not be vaccinated due to compromised immune systems or allergies.

And some of those children will die from those diseases.

And some of those children who die will die because ABC decided to give Jenny McCarthy a national platform for her anti-vaccine lunacy.

Which leads to the title of this post.

Way to go, ABC.

I’ll close with this from the ThinkProgress article:

But while it’s possible to debate many sides of many issues, one of the benefits of medicine is that there’s actual evidence that some ideas and right and others are wrong. McCarthy’s are wrong, and continuing to defend them with that other standby of people who like to advance conspiracy theories without evidence, that she’s just raising questions, doesn’t make her decision to stick to her discredited ideas any more admirable. And it doesn’t give The View cover, either. This is not a vital debate in American society in which McCarthy’s position has been historically underrepresented, or a polarity along which it’s important to have multiple perspectives in order to make for a lively conversation. It’s a hoax, on par with McCarthy’s original belief, before her son’s autism diagnosis, that her son was an “indigo child,” a New Age theory that tries to comfort parents of children with autism and learning disabilities by convincing them that their children actually represent a new stage in human evolution.

Maybe Jenny McCarthy has a range of other opinions that ABC, which airs The View, thinks will be valuable to its audience. But the company is a news organization in addition to an entertainment company. And ABC should consider the damage McCarthy’s done to the public interest against whatever else she might have to offer.