Folmsbee: Rapper B.o.B.’s flat earth feud exposes scientific illiteracy


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Last week, rapper B.o.B. posted a series of messages online arguing the earth is not a spheroid, but instead is flat, using a series of photos showing a seemingly non-curved horizon. In response, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson commented on these photos with scientific explanations of the true curvature of the planet.

Eventually, this discussion diverted into what may be the most science-based rap feud of all time, with B.o.B. releasing a track called “Flatline” that directly confronted Tyson, and ending with Tyson’s nephew Stephen Tyson performing a rebuttal song, defending the scientific theory, titled “Flat to Fact.”

Overall, it is refreshing to see science defended so passionately on such a mainstream level. But it has also been distressing to see so many dismiss the story as simply the out-of-touch rantings of an ill-informed celebrity — an anomaly to be ridiculed. Instead, it actually should serve as an excellent lesson for the world’s collective scientific illiteracy. Although most of us understand the earth is not flat, each of us likely believes some kind of pseudoscience with just as much fervor.

If someone told you that the earth was flat, would you know the science behind the geometry of our planet well enough to confront them? Would you be able to confidently explain what forces crafted the spheroid-shape of our planet? Most of us would just not be prepared to answer them. We may have the resources to find their answers, but that moment of hesitancy should provide us with insight into our personal gaps in knowledge, and suggest that we may think we know more than we actually do.

You may laugh at the silliness of B.o.B. thinking a single photo can refute centuries of scientific data, but the majority of scientific rejection is as insidious as it is prevalent. Almost everyone disagrees with some aspect of science, be it out of prejudice, fear, politics or some conflicting belief system.

Do you think vaccines cause autism? Do you think genetically modified food is dangerous? Do you think humans have had no effect on climate change? Do you reject the theory of evolution? If you believe any of these, you are guilty of rejecting the scientific evidence.

When we meet people who reject science, we must not simply call them ignorant. Intelligence by no means is the distinguishing factor. Even in medicine, there are huge numbers of physicians who have undergone decades of education and yet still do not understand science. I’ve written before on the popular use and risks of dietary supplements, as well the so-called complementary and alternative medicine associated with Northwestern’s own Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. Being smart does not make you immune to scientific illiteracy. In fact, it may instead grant a false sense of security and authority over what you may think “science” should be.

The real solution is a fundamental one. It is not about reading more books or even learning more scientific facts. It is about changing our worldview. It is embracing scientific skepticism, not just as a philosophy, but rather as something inherent to our sense of reality. It is about being comfortable saying that you may not know something, but still have the tools to find those facts. It is about being willing to change your opinion based on new and better data. Sometimes, it is about taking an unpopular or even ideologically incongruent stance.

A healthy relationship between science and your inherent belief systems is absolutely essential. It can be tempting to see the world how we would like based on our own biases and values, but we cannot let them influence the cold, raw facts. Science will always tell you what is true, or at least the closest thing to truth that we have available. We all must be able to be comfortable in witnessing the flat line of the horizon and appreciate both that the earth is round, and that perhaps we are just too small to ever see it.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.