Evangelizing the Cosmos: Science Documentaries and the Dangers of Wonder Overload

Any fan of popular science would be excused if they felt as if they were currently experiencing “wonder overload.” The concept of “wonder” has become omnipresent across the science and entertainment landscape but it has particularly found a home in contemporary science documentaries. Wonder certainly plays a central role as a framing device for the recent Cosmos re-boot presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Indeed, we are told in the series that deGrasse Tyson’s “spaceship of the imagination” is “fueled by equal parts of science and wonder.” There are also many scenes in the new Cosmos where deGrasse Tyson reminds us that we need to be humble and stand in awe of nature. My colleague at the University of Manchester, physicist Brian Cox, has hosted a series of highly rated science documentaries in the UK over the past five years that also focused on “wonder” with the not-so subtle titles of Wonders of the Solar System, Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of Life. Wonder has proven to be a useful means of attracting casual viewers to a science documentary, but such a deep association of science with wonder is problematic; not least ways because of the historic connection between notions of wonder and religious conceptions of nature.

Neil deGrasse Tyson gazes at the wonders of the universe from the “spaceship of the imagination” in Cosmos.

Historically “wonder and awe” are the ways in which Christian theologians would describe their experience of the natural world; that they are standing in wonder at the complexity of God’s creation. The Cosmos re-boot definitely projects an attitude towards nature that could easily be mistaken for this religious sense of wonder. As one TV critic put it the “new ‘Cosmos’ series is like evangelism for the wonders of the universe.” Cosmos’ co-writer Ann Druyan, who also co-wrote the original series, believes that wonder is an essential component to the series’ appeal, “In order for it to qualify on our show it has to touch you. It still has to be rigorously good science—no cutting corners on that. But then, it also has to be that equal part skepticism and wonder both.” Similarly, deGrasse Tyson ascribed a spiritual dimension to the way wonder is deployed in the series claiming, “Cosmos can influence you not only intellectually but emotionally, and with its good doses of awe and wonder, it can even affect you spiritually.” The series, in fact, frequently utilized religious metaphors to help explain scientific ideas such as associating DNA with the phrase “Holy Scripture” and referring to the physical laws that govern the universe as “commandments.”

Cosmos categorizes the response of pre-scientific cultures to unexplained natural phenomena as “helpless wonder.”

But, the co-option of wonder and awe as a framing tool in Cosmos and other recent science documentaries is not an acknowledgment of any spiritual dimension to our relationship to nature. In reality, many recent science documentaries portray the religious sense of wonder as an ineffectual means by which to approach nature. Science documentaries like Cosmos depict religious wonder as one of inaction where a person can only stare helplessly at God’s creation with the implication that we are unable to understand the world of the Creator. In the Cosmos episode “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” for example, the religious notion of wonder in the face of nature is explicitly referred to as “helpless wonder.” (Although Christians might argue that this sense of wonder is not “helpless.” It is a wonder that leads to actions like worship and reverence for God, evangelism, and an understanding of humility.) deGrasse Tyson’s was also quick to secularize and minimize his claim of affecting audiences spiritually by saying he considered it “spiritually with a small “s” — the awe and wonder of looking up.” Likewise, Druyan’s recent comments about how important “wonder” is to the series are not meant to conjure in any way a spiritual or religious sense of wonder. In fact she has explicitly claimed in the past that this religiously based sense of wonder is holding society back.

In Cosmos’s framing of history Michael Faraday’s Christianity was irrelevant to his work as a scientist.

A reliance on “wonder” also seems out of place in Cosmos in light of the combative stance that the show takes regarding religion (or at least to any claims religion makes on scientific thinking). The show certainly lives up to historian Jon Roberts’ observation that thinking of science and religion as a never ending conflict is “the idea that wouldn’t die.” In fact, many evangelical Christian commentators railed against the series’ more subtle attacks on religions relationship to science as well as the series’ many not so subtle attacks on Biblical literalists and creationists whose scientific reasoning falls back on “because the Bible says it’s so.” In the episode “The Clean Room,” for example, Tyson overtly addresses creationists’ reliance on the Bible for their science by stating that the only useful book for aging the earth is the one “written in the rocks themselves.” There were certainly no real attempts at reconciliation between science and religion in Cosmos. At its extreme the series twists the history of science in an attempt to create a scientific martyr out of Giordano Bruno who historians consider more of a “martyr to the cause of religious freedom” than a champion of scientific thinking over religious belief. The series does pay some lip service to the idea that science and religion can co-exist, but it is a co-existence predicated on religion taking a backseat to science when it comes to understanding the natural world. In Cosmos Michael Faraday may have been a good Christian but he was an even better scientist because he checked his Christianity -along with its conception of “helpless wonder”- at the lab door.

In essence, these recent science documentaries represent one of the ways that the scientific community is attempting to wrest away from the religious community the notion of wonder as a way to frame of our relationship to the natural world. But, it is the polysemic quality of the word “wonder” that is important for these science documentaries. Wonder not only means to “marvel” but also to “ponder.” Unlike the “helpless wonder” of religion, recent science documentaries portray science as an “active wonder” where at least some humans can do something with their awe of nature in addition to marveling at it. In Cosmos and other recent science documentaries we are certainly meant to marvel at the natural world, but we are also meant to be even more in awe of scientists’ ability to pose and answer questions about the physical laws governing this complexity. These documentaries try to conceptualize the late Carl Sagan’s belief that science does not destroy our sense of wonder but that our ability to understand the universe leaves us with “undiminished wonder.” For example, in the episode “Hiding in the Light” from the Cosmos re-boot we do not lose our awe at the notion of an infinite universe, instead we gain a new sense of wonder at our ability to “see all the way back to the birth of our universe.”

So, in Cosmos and other contemporary science documentaries audiences marvel at the CGI enhanced wonders of nature, but they are asked to stand even more in awe of the wonders of science and the heroic scientists who wield this tool. The danger with this “secular wonder,” though, is that wonder still has its spiritual connotations and these recent science documentaries are merely transferring the object of reverence from nature to science and scientists. The sense of “helpless wonder” that the documentaries consider an ineffectual approach to nature has been shifted on to the audience who can now only sit and marvel at the work of scientists. The deployment of wonder in this way is meant to foster an appreciation for science and the work of scientists, but the risk is that appreciation for science turns into the worship of scientists.

An over reliance on wonder in science documentaries gives the false impression that scientists are never wrong and that uncertainty is not an integral part of the scientific process. The danger for the scientific community is that an overdose of wonder can lead to disillusionment when science inevitably proves to be fallible. Reverence, rather than appreciation, for science leads to situations like the one in Italy in 2012 where six scientists were put in jail because their scientific predictions turned out to be incorrect. Reverence for science can also lead to a public that is hesitant to challenge scientists. Just like with religious figures, if the public is too in awe of those in authority then they do not feel comfortable challenging their pronouncements or actions. In my opinion the real wonder of science is that despite being a product of flawed human societies it has allowed us to understand and engage with our world in a meaningful way. I doubt, however, that our future science documentaries will take that as their narrative framework.

  3 comments for “Evangelizing the Cosmos: Science Documentaries and the Dangers of Wonder Overload

  1. sarah r d
    January 28, 2015 at 11:30 am

    Thanks for this, David – really interesting and thought-provoking. I’m reminded of Jane Bennett’s work on wonder and enchantment. She argues that we live in a world that does, in particular moments and sites, remain enchanted, and that the experience of wonder and enchantment can lead to ethical generosity and an enhanced ability to look beyond ourselves. I’m wondering (hah!) how this relates to these science shows? It sounds as though this explicit and directed stimulation of wonder is actually not directed at opening up the viewer’s experience to diverse perspectives on the world, but rather to producing trust in a particular authority…

    • January 28, 2015 at 12:54 pm

      Thanks for the comment Sarah. I think Bennett’s sense of wonder as “enchantment” is exactly how these documentaries want the viewer to think about their deployment of wonder: that enchantment with the universe can be maintained even if we understand the physical laws underlying these natural phenomena. But, the problem is that science documentaries are never content to leave it at a sense of wonder/enchantment for the natural phenomenon itself. They inevitably resort to saying that we can be even more in awe of these phenomena because we understand how they work or can at least contemplate how they work. The wonder/enchantment is always re-directed away from the thing itself and towards our ability to understand the thing. This actually contrasts a bit with natural history or wildlife films. Those films often allow viewers to marvel in the spectacle of nature without having to constantly remind viewers about how much we can know about nature.

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