On ignorance, ISIS, and the greatest beef of the 21st century

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Ben Roden

Ben Roden
Asst. Arts & Culture Editor

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is many things; a prominent astrophysicist, a pop culture icon, and for many, a lovable mascot for the seemingly vague and inaccessible scientific establishment. This week, Tyson added another impressive and unprecedented bullet to his CV when he became, at least to my knowledge, the first scientist ever to be the subject of a diss track.

Tyson’s attacker is rapper Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr., better known by his stage name, B.o.B.

Georgia-born B.o.B. took to twitter last week to alert his 2.2 million followers to a shocking and (literally) unbelievable truth: that the world is not roughly spherical, as indicated by common sense, rudimentary observation, and thousands of years of vetted, empirical evidence, but rather a flat, spinning disk at the center of all existence, hemmed in on all sides by an impenetrable wall of ice.

Take a moment. Read it again. B.o.B., a real human adult, actually believes this, and alarmingly, he’s not alone. Google “flat earth” and prepare to be amazed. Or appalled. Or – if critical thinking isn’t your bag – enlightened.

For B.o.B., such a claim isn’t anything special – his twitter account regularly careens between self-promotion and conspiracy-fueled tirade – but the situation caught fire when Tyson decided to wade into what can only loosely be described as a debate.

Like some sort of affable, Harvard-educated Lorax, Tyson seems intent on speaking for science. He’s tackled everything from the inaccurate placement of stars in James Cameron’s “Titanic” to the myriad physics issues with 2013’s “Gravity.” On this most recent occasion, Tyson swooped in – and damn if he doesn’t love a good swoop – to point out the glaring issues with B.o.B.’s flat earth “evidence.”

Not one to be punked by an astrophysicist, B.o.B. immediately hit the booth, unleashing such scathing bars as “Neil Tyson need to loosen up his vest / They’ll probably write that man one hell of a check.” For those willing to question the status quo and peer behind the shadowy curtain of a 60 year conspiracy, the full track, “Flatline,” (ha ha, get it?) is available on Soundcloud. Check it out, sheeple – but be warned that it’s more Meek than Drizzy.

This story is worth talking about not just because it’s maybe the funniest thing that’s ever happened, but because it reflects the extent to which Internet culture accepts, and even empowers regressive anti-intellectualism. A medium by which almost anyone in the world can access an unprecedented volume of information is being used, not as a fountainhead of knowledge, but as a virtual venue for meetings of Crackpots Anonymous.

As far as silly notions go, flat earth is intrinsically pretty harmless. Espousing such a viewpoint might keep you from getting a job or skew the ratio of left and right swipes on Tinder, but flat- are neither as morally risible as holocaust deniers nor as tangibly irresponsible as anti-vaxxers.

The real problem with all of these ideas, though, isn’t the direct harm they cause, but the potentially catastrophic state of mind they evince. When I surrender my rationality in service of conspiracy or dogma, when I reject critical thinking in favor of internet apocrypha, or when I begin to believe that – to borrow Isaac Asimov’s parlance – “my ignorance is as good as your truth,” I am laying the groundwork, in some small, mundane way, for ideological extremism.

I’m not saying that listening to B.o.B. will lead you to join ISIS, I’m just…no wait. That’s exactly what I’m saying. IF YOU LISTEN TO B.O.B. YOU ARE JOINING ISIS. No, I don’t have a shred of valid evidence, but I believe, and these days, that’s all that seems to matter.