Why "Cosmos" Can’t Save Public Support for Science

tags: Cold War, Science, technology, Cosmos



 Audra Wolfe is a writer, historian of science, and the author of Competing With the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America.

...If the conversations on Twitter (#cosmos) and science blogs are any indication, though, people seem to want more from Cosmos than quality edutainment. The New York Times’ Dennis Overbye wonders if Cosmos can solve the fracking debate. Clara Moskowitz, an editor for Scientific American, hopes that Tyson’s series can reeducate the quarter of Americans who think the sun revolves around the Earth. In a taped lead-in to the show, President Obama suggested that the show could play a role in the future of American innovation, urging viewers to “Open your eyes, open your imagination,” because “the next great discovery could be yours.”

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. These are high hopes to pin on a television show, even one as glorious as Cosmos....

Sagan’s Cosmos first aired on PBS in 1980, a moment when Cold War tensions were heating back up. This is critical, because so much of postwar funding for American scientific research depended on an implicit bargain with the military-industrial complex. The federal government supported research in science and technology, and, in exchange, scientists offered their expertise should it be needed in times of war. Public support for science was an easy sell, in part, because so much of the Cold War rivalry depended on high-tech weaponry built on cutting-edge science....



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