Can we all agree that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the man? Yes? Okay.
The science beast got into a battle of wits recently with rapper B.O.B. over the shape of our planet. B.O.B.’s adamant belief, in the face of overwhelming evidence, in a flat Earth led Tyson to deliver an epic response on “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore.”
Here’s my favorite part:
"There's a growing anti-intellectual strain in this country that many think may be the beginning of the end of our informed democracy. In a free society, you can and should think whatever you want. And if you want to think the Earth is flat, go right ahead. But if you think the Earth is flat and you have influence over others, as would successful rappers — or even presidential candidates — then being wrong becomes harmful to the health, wealth and the security of our citizenry.”
Between Trump winning over voters with no platform outside of thinly veiled racism and a host of experiences on the personal level as of late, I see what Tyson means.
We are in the Information Age; we have the answers to most any question within the reach of a few keystrokes. No one with the means to access the Internet has an excuse for being ignorant anymore. We can’t really say “they just don’t know any better," because "knowing better" now takes less effort than it ever has.
The scariest thing about this trend of anti-intellectualism is the sense of pride people seem to take in it. Remaining in the dark intellectually is now a choice one makes; it’s hard to avoid information. And those who make the choice to “stay stupid” seem so pleased with themselves, as if there is weakness in knowledge. As if we lose our identity by absorbing facts and adjusting our opinions accordingly. Have we truly become so fragile?
In the past year on social media, I have defended arguments with basic, searchable, known facts and figures. Stuff that would be considered common knowledge in most circles. In some cases, constructive arguments broke out. Other conversations were less productive. In one instance, someone called me “enlightened.” They meant it as an insult.
In the face of proof and statistics, their jab seemed to cry: So, what. You know stuff. You think you're better than me?
It is this kind of mental insecurity that stands between the United States and measurable progress: fear of learning we are wrong and the painful process of adjusting our point of view. Any attempt to educate someone else is seen as personal criticism: a ploy to make them “look stupid.” In response they dig in deeper, take even more pride in avoiding the truth. Some politicians, noticing the trend, have decided to fan the flames instead of raising the level of a conversation on which they have a large influence. They speak in sound bites without substance and tout their own simple-mindedness while underselling their experience and intelligence. I'm just like you, they say, stroking their constituents' fragile egos.
It’s always nice to end a post like this with some kind of suggestion for fixing this problem. Today, at least, I am at a loss. I have tried being gentle; I have tried being forceful. I have tried being funny and compassionate and direct and indirect and all it ever seems to do is make the strong and wrong ever stronger and wronger.
I don’t know how we, as a country, can overcome this obstacle any time soon. So I’d like to speak to my age group and those who come after: the current and future parents of America. Encourage curiosity in your children. Teach them to ask questions and hunt for answers. Instill in them a healthy skepticism and a sturdy bullshit detector. Read to them.
In the meantime: let’s make 2016 the year we no longer suffer fools. Instead of rolling our eyes at the Strong and Wrong disciples among us, take them to task. Ask questions; present reasonable arguments. Even if they dig in and get defensive, their friends and followers might absorb a little something and carry it forward.
To play on Queen Bey’s latest: let’s get information. And let’s give it, too.