Science and the Sacred Cosmos: The Ideological Rhetoric of Carl Sagan

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Author: Thomas M. Lessl
Editors: Jeffrey W. Hunter and Deborah A. Schmitt
Date: 1999
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,136 words

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[(essay date May 1985) In the following essay, Lessl examines elements of religious discourse and rhetoric in Sagan's television program Cosmos. According to Lessl, Sagan's Cosmos provides "a mythic understanding of science which serves for television audiences the same needs that religious discourse has traditionally satisfied for churchgoers."]

A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion now must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive . . . . You anarchists should make it clear that you are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation. But how to get that appallingly absurd notion into the heads of the middle classes so that there should be no mistake? That's the question . . . . A bomb in the National Gallery would make some noise. But it would not be serious enough. Art has never been their fetish . . . . But there is learning--science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow. It is the sacrosanct fetish.

--Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent

The sanctity of science in modern society is perhaps greater than that observed by Conrad's fictional anarchist seventy years ago. Like the archetypal Sky Father of primitive religion, who in his union with Earth Mother brought forth the sustenance of life, science as the great modern provider is likely to be deified by the society reaping its benefits. But like other sacred objects, science is a symbol of both hope and despair. American society wavers between regarding modern science as Prometheus and as Pandora.

Although science's privileged status may result from the material benefits it affords, in many situations scientists find it expedient actively to promote their status. In such cases the intermingling of scientific and cultural symbols produces a rhetoric often more characteristic of religious than scientific discourse.

A particularly useful example is the popular television series Cosmos, written and narrated by Carl Sagan, professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University. Cosmos does not easily fit any of the descriptions previously set forth in the science-as-rhetoric literature. Clearly targeted for nonscientists, it seems to have only minimal concern for maintaining scientific integrity. While it bears marks of science journalism, Cosmos also seems not to be bothered by journalistic standards of neutrality; it is at times plainly polemic. While in the genre common to previous expeditions into science education by public television, Cosmos is a hybrid generic form; it sets the instructional elements of the series within a larger mythical framework reminiscent of numerous works of science fiction. This presentation of science, I believe, creates a mythic understanding of science which serves for television audiences the same needs that religious discourse has traditionally satisfied for churchgoers.

Science is often carefully distinguished from religion, but this differentiation is much more the consequence of the history of the conflict between scientists and the church than a conflict inherent to science and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100004052