In its third episode, titled “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” the new Cosmos reboot, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, tells the story of the discovery and publication of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion. Almost three centuries after Newton’s death, these laws, which offer a unified framework for calculating and predicting the movement of a projectile on earth as well as the planets in the heavens, remain a fundamental contribution to our understanding of the physical world. In them, Newton laid the foundations for centuries of scientific exploration, including humanity’s voyages into space in the twentieth century.
This is an amazing achievement. It’s right to celebrate it. But Cosmos does more than simply celebrate Newton’s achievement. For Cosmos, Newton’s discovery “decoupled the motions of the heavens from their ancient connections to our fears.” Throughout the show, religion is affiliated with fear, superstition, and a reliance on authority. Science, on the other hand, is presented as a curiosity-driven enterprise that expands our knowledge of the universe. Scientists proceed by questioning received truths and testing all ideas experimentally. According to the show, scientists are those who “question authority.”
Comets prove handy for demonstrating these points. The show suggests that prior to Newton’s discoveries, people around the world feared comets, seeing them as apocalyptic harbingers of plague and war. Newton’s laws could be used to calculate the orbits of comets and predict when they would become visible in the night sky—Edmond Halley used Newton’s laws to identify and predict the return of the comet now known as Halley’s Comet. Comets thus became objects of awe and wonder, rather than fear. Post-Newton, they offer us the opportunity not only to marvel at the order and beauty of the universe, but also at ourselves: aren’t we amazing? We humans figured this thing out! Driving this narrative home, Cosmos begins and ends with an image of a baby staring up at space. With Newton’s laws in place and comets now understood, Tyson tells us, the baby has begun to learn to walk.
Now, in one sense, all this is true. It is amazing that we, using telescopes and our brains, can figure out fundamental laws that govern motion across the entire observable universe. For many, comets have long ceased to be an object of fear; they have been stripped of their supernatural import. The Cosmos story also reflects a common modern experience: that of being brought up in a religious context, only to later abandon religious belief as superfluous when exposed to scientific modes of knowing.
But, in another sense, this story gets science all wrong. Science is a body of knowledge, but it’s also a human activity. Like religion, science does not exist in a vacuum and is not immune from cultural influences. Cosmos does pretty well with science as a body of knowledge. Yet it misunderstands how science works as a human activity, creating a narrative that ultimately fails everyone who marvels at the wonders of the cosmos.
To understand why, we need to go back to the history of science. In the seventeenth century, as Newton was working out his laws of motion, science was tangled up with religious belief and could be used as an argument for religious belief. Cosmos suggests that Newton’s discoveries reduced, even eliminated, the need for religious belief; it is not the first to do so. But the show would not find much agreement with this proposition among the scientists of Newton’s time or the broader society of which they were a part.
In Newton’s time, Europe was a place of both deep religious belief and intense religious conflict. Almost from the moment Martin Luther published his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, waves of religious violence washed over Europe. Protestants and Catholics, as well as various sects of Protestants, were frequently unable to resolve their theological and political differences peacefully. On the Continent, this violence culminated in the Thirty Year’s War (though religious differences were not the sole cause of the Thirty Year’s War, they were a major factor). From 1618-1648, armies marched back and forth across Europe. Cities were burned to the ground; the countryside laid waste; plague and famine were daily companions. Britain experienced its own related conflict, with a period of Civil War and unrest that engulfed England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland between 1640 and 1660.
Contemporaries came to see not religion as a whole, but religious “enthusiasm” as one cause of their distress. Religious enthusiasts were those who claimed a direct link to God through personal revelation. Acting on what they believed was God’s will, they sought to overturn existing power structures, either through active rebellion or by refusing to participate in civil society. In mid-seventeenth-century England, the Quakers were one such group. Believers in radical equality, they were widely persecuted for (among other things) refusing to doff their hats to social superiors. Similar groups existed across Europe, often persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics because rulers were not interested in keeping around those who posed a threat to the existing social order.
As the seventeenth century wore on, and the Thirty Years’ War wound down, individuals—and their governments—grew exhausted of religious war and religious enthusiasm. In England, this led to much contested efforts to find a new basis for civil society, one that would be broadly Protestant but would depend neither on personal revelation nor on the reconciliation of differences between divergent Christian sects (an impossible task). Instead, it would depend on the authority of the secular government, which included, in some sense, the Anglican Church, given that the monarch stood at its head, too. In this context, using astrology (and the appearances of comets) to predict the downfall of kings and the rise of plagues fell out of favor, at least among the educated elite. Astrology was too much like religious enthusiasm: its predictions were grounded in claims of personal access to things unseen and they tended to fuel civil unrest.
This is where science comes in: as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer established in their book The Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, the founders of England’s Royal Society, the scientific fellowship of which Newton was a member, thought that scientific knowledge could form the basis of the new shared social order. These natural philosophers (the term “scientist” didn’t exist yet) aligned themselves with England’s king, seeking (and obtaining) royal support and patronage. They sought to work within the reward structures of their day, not to challenge them. This was reflected in their scientific methodology as well as their interpretations of some of their results.
The fellows of the Royal Society agreed to deal only in matters of fact, things that could be proved by experiment. When they met to discuss scientific subjects and published their findings in Philosophical Transactions, their journal, they left what they defined as religious speculation at the door. Why? In the face of religious enthusiasm, the Royal Society classified spiritual knowledge as the opposite of matters of fact. Because it depended on interior perceptions of the divine, it was unsusceptible to proof in the way that matters of fact were. And only a body of knowledge that rested on facts had the hope of being a sound foundation for social order.
But by no means did the fellows of the Royal Society give up their Christianity. In some ways, in searching after matters of fact, natural philosophers were looking for a God who would transcend the religious differences that fueled civil war and unrest. They believed that natural philosophy, in revealing the underlying mathematical order of nature, provided evidence of God’s designing hand at work in the cosmos. Though Cosmos (the show) suggests otherwise, Newton’s laws by no means eliminated the eighteenth century’s need for a designer: rather, they were largely taken as evidence of one. Perceptions of design in nature also tended to reinforce social order: for many of Newton’s contemporaries, it was a short leap from divine rational order in nature to divine rational order in the social world, with God ordaining kings and parliaments to rule the people wisely and justly.
Indeed, if the invention of modern science cured humanity of “mysticism,” someone forgot to tell Newton: even as he was developing his landmark scientific insights, he secretly spent a great deal of his intellectual energies on correlating the history of the world with Biblical prophecies. The show mentions Newton’s “mystic” preoccupations, but doesn’t acknowledge the trouble they pose for its thesis. Ironically, as Sara Schechner discusses in Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology, Newton also affiliated comets with the supernatural, believing that when their orbits swung them by the sun, they fulfilled a divinely ordained purpose of recharging a solar system which otherwise, according to his calculations, would lose energy and wind down.
So, in early modern Europe, the development of science as a body of knowledge and as a human activity was one strand in the long history of moving through and resolving (albeit partially) the political and religious conflicts engendered by the Reformation. This process was driven more by religion, and religious violence than by science. Scientists themselves interpreted the truths they discovered in terms that accorded with their religious and political beliefs.
But why does any of this matter?
It matters because the Cosmos narrative makes it more difficult to develop public understanding of science as a human activity, a foundation for true scientific literacy. The narrative that Cosmos creates doesn’t really acknowledge the ways in which science is shaped by society (or, if it does so, it dismisses them). It assumes that scientific ideas persuade by their truth, and that, because scientists pursue the truth rigorously, the truth of a scientific idea, once arrived at, is obvious. Yet there are plenty of people down into the present day who deny one scientific truth or another, for all kinds of reasons, religious or otherwise. Moreover, science itself is fraught with conflict: in many cases, it’s not immediately clear where the truth lies. In Newton’s day, the truth and, beyond that, the meaning of his discoveries were disputed across Europe.
To close on one prominent contemporary example, human-induced climate change has been the subject of much controversy in the United States. Although the vast majority of scientific studies now agree that it is a real phenomenon with serious consequences, over the years, scientific research and reasoning have been marshaled to support various positions: that it’s happening, and humans are causing it; that maybe it’s happening, but it’s not clear if humans are behind it; that it’s not happening at all; and that it’s happening, but it’s not clear what actions, if any, should be taken against it. If you believe that truth persuades simply by being true, and that the truth should be obvious, it might be difficult to navigate these waters. On the other hand, if you understand science as a human activity, one that interacts with the broader society in which it takes place, it becomes possible to begin to disentangle the lines of money and power that can affect scientific research and its public dissemination and reception, particularly when the research concerns a subject like climate change, where scientific truth has big economic and political consequences. So, insofar as Cosmos promotes scientific literacy: yes. Insofar as it obscures science as a human activity (truths persuade solely by virtue of being true): no.
Elizabeth Yale is an historian of science and adjunct assistant professor at The University of Iowa Center for the Book.