The media are not as egregious as the general public. It’s true, however, that guys like Larry King, who’s now retired, have given quite a bit of passage for people who have made careers pedaling pseudoscience. Especially, perhaps, with those who claim that they can speak to the dead, King took this sort of dispassionate view: ‘I’m just the interviewer here and people are coming in and making these claims, and you evaluate.’ Well, okay, but somebody decided to give these people a seat on your show. You can’t claim an absence of responsibility. If you’re a journalist, then you’ve got find out: Is this person speaking truth? What’s the evidence in support of it? Your neutrality is not “everything is equal.” Your neutrality is: I’m going to ask hard questions, no matter who it is, and if they crumble under the line of questioning, that’s because they had a house of cards to begin with. If journalism doesn’t bring that out, it’s bad for society, because you only have a strong democracy if those who vote people into office are informed and have the capacity to think intelligently about topics and issues—especially in the 21st century, with so many science issues in front of us that require informed judgment and informed leadership. The news media are a fundamental player in this. You can’t say you’re not in the position of power to shape that dialogue, because you are.
Sagan had his share of fan clubs, but he didn’t have the power of social media. How does that change the equation for you?
I tweet random thoughts I have. I don’t have a lesson plan. In fact, people say, ‘Can you tell me the latest on this discovery?’, and it’s like, no, that’s not why I’m tweeting. I occasionally will reflect on a discovery, but I’m not your news service. The 140 characters are giving you access to how my brain is wired in any day of my life, how I see things. Like my tweet when Mitt Romney suggested that we cut PBS’s budget to reduce the deficit. I said that’s like deleting text files to make space on your 500-gigabyte hard drive. That’s by far the most retweeted tweet I’ve ever put up. So my tweets have resonated with people, and I’m charmed by that, so I continue.
The original Cosmos was set against the backdrop of the Cold War. With Sagan’s subtle references to mushroom clouds and self-destruction, there was this underlying message that great scientific power comes with great responsibility. Are there similar events today that set the stage for the new Cosmos, or scientific progress in general?
The original Cosmos came out in 1980, and of course it was layered with implicit and explicit references to the hazards of total thermonuclear exchange. The Cold War shaped what the messages were and how they were delivered. We’re not in the Cold War anymore, and that allows us to focus on other issues that might have been important back then, but now they can come to the fore. You know, there was climate change going on in 1980, but you’re not worrying about climate change in 50 years if you’re going to be annihilated in 10. But our carbon footprint affects many aspects of culture and society, from real estate, through sea-level rise, to agriculture, through drought. We’ll be covering topics such as the use of energy and sustaining natural resources. Cosmos, at its best, looks not only at the universe—just ’cause it’s a really cool place—but at the intersection between Earth and the universe; and Earth not simply as a place we live, but as a planet and a system. You become a different kind of citizen for having watched the show—more enlightened. Empowered by the knowledge of the interplay of the laws of physics on Earth and in the universe, it compels you to alter your behavior in ways that are for the greater good of yourself and others. That’s why Cosmos has been remembered for so long and risen above the din of most documentaries.
To what extent is science coverage in the news media helping society grapple with some of the big issues of the 21st century?