Friday, March 21, 2014

Sticks and Stones For the First Episode of Cosmos

The internet has been alive with comments about the new version of Cosmos, hosted by Neil De Grasse Tyson and not all of it has been positive.  At issue, it seems, is the very weird detour that the series made in profiling the life of monk Giordano Bruno, who, according to the show, was burned at the stake for his non-canonical views on astronomy.  As several have pointed out, this is a stretch at best and a lie at worst.  As Becky Ferreira put it:
But the truth is that Bruno's scientific theories weren't what got him killed. Sure, his refusal to recant his belief in a plurality of worlds contributed to his sentence. But it's important to note that the Catholic Church didn't even have an official position on the heliocentric universe in 1600, and support for it was not considered heresy during Bruno's trial.

On top of that, his support for Copernican cosmology was the least heretical position he propagated. His opinions on theology were far more pyrotechnic. For example, Bruno had the balls to suggest that Satan was destined to be saved and redeemed by God. He didn't think Jesus was the son of God, but rather “an unusually skilled magician.” He even publicly disputed Mary's virginity. The Church could let astronomical theories slide, but calling the Mother of God out on her sex life? There's no doubt that these were the ideas that landed Bruno on the stake.
Peter Hess writes:
But Cosmos makes Bruno out to be a martyr who died heroically in the defense of early modern science, and this is a role he certainly did not play. Jole Shackleford details this nicely in his exploration of the myth that "Giordano Bruno was the First Martyr of Modern Science" in Ron Numbers' edited volume Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion (2009). 
The question being raised is why, for a series that is an attempt to deliver the best modern science to the public, would they take an obscure monk and mangle his history only for the sake of showing how misguided and vile the medieval Catholic church was?  Cosmos writer Steven Sotor argues that it was Bruno's ideas of the cosmos that were the important aspect of the piece.  If this is so, however, why drag the Catholic church  into the story at all?  Why not just focus on what Bruno's ideas were?  Why camouflage the fact that his ideas were rejected by other astronomers of the day and elevate him to the status of martyr for science when, in fact, he was burned for his religious ideas?  I doubt anyone is going to give the Catholic church a pass for how they treated him, but the idea that he was a brilliant scientist of his day and the church was “anti-science.” doesn't hold up here.

Also, without a disclaimer of sorts, it also smacks of holding the church accountable for actions that it took hundreds of years ago, actions that are now universally held as contemptible and myopic.  Nothing is said of how the church has grown in its acceptance and willingness to contribute to modern science.  Its a cheap shot and it mars the otherwise noble aspirations of a show that should be devoted to science. 


  1. Jomar4:04 AM

    More here, written by the Australian historian Tim O'Neill:

    Cartoons and Fables - How Cosmos Got the Story of Bruno Wrong
    Written by

  2. Anonymous7:18 PM

    "it also smacks of holding the church accountable for actions that it took hundreds of years ago, actions that are now universally held as contemptible and myopic."

    It's holding the church accountable to their own beliefs - that they have a direct line with the true god and creator of the universe and blah blah blah. The church believed that back then just as they do now.

    Why are those actions now held as comtemptible and myopic? Has God changed his mind?

    1. No, it is misinterpreting the bible. It is not holding the church accountable for their own beliefs. Nowhere in the bible did it say to burn anyone at the stake for their understanding of astronomy.

  3. There is a series of comments at the ASA site:
    You'll have to join the ASA to comment, I think, but that would be a good idea anyway. :)