Exclusive: Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us all about his flat-Earth rap beef

On Monday, rapper B.o.B started tweeting that he thought the Earth was flat. Never one to back down from a challenge, astrophysicist (and friend of Popular Science) Neil deGrasse Tyson began tweeting with Bobby Ray that the planet is, in fact, round, and soon the two were in a rap beef, having each dropped a diss track aimed at the other; B.o.B. called out Dr. Tyson in a song called “Flatline,” and Neil’s was performed by his rapper nephew.

On last night’s The Nightly Show, Tyson called out B.o.B., and then he dropped the mic. Because gravity exists. The full video is here.

We spoke with Dr. Tyson this morning to get the inside scoop.

So how did the appearance on The Nightly Show come about?

I don’t ever reach out to anyone, for any reason, at any time. I live in Manhattan, I am an easy date for these shows. They — the show — thought it up. My contribution was the sandwich. The mic drop was the show’s idea, but originally, Larry was going to walk the mic over to me at the end, hand it to me, and I would drop it. I said, ‘I said no, just give me the mic to use and I’ll drop it in situ.’ So there were some modifications, but the concept was their concept.

Were there changes to the message?

Well, what they had originally written should have been a little more loftier than it initially was. We should reach for higher ground, so whatever it came across as, it was much more in the trenches in their earlier edits. But that is the comedy writing process. I applaud what they felt was a sense of urgency to bring this into a segment, and I see myself as a servant for the public’s appetite for the universe. And I am a servant of artists who want to fold science into their craft, art with a capital A.

Well, you mentioned on the show our society’s apparent anti-intellectualism. Do you have any further thoughts on this spread?

I don’t know I have the right answer. But I have an observation, what I thought about when I thought about it. I think how people view intellectualism, if you want to call it that, it is a two way street. If the intellectuals in our society never leave the ivory tower, and when they do, they use a lingo that no one understands, or they have an attitude in their approach to this that makes you feel stupid in your presence, it is a big turnoff. You don’t want them to represent you politically, no one wants to be your friend. I think the educated and educator class, if I can call it that, shares that responsibility.

Now, if you look at the school system, somewhere in there, many people are missing the urge to explore, and to learn more tomorrow than you know today. That’s something that any kid has, and we lose it through middle school and through adulthood. The people who retain it become scientists. We are just kids that haven’t grown up. We say, ‘Oh what’s that? Let me find out.’ That is the kind of curiosity not everyone has an adult, but I don’t see why couldn’t all still have it? I know we all had it as children. Then someone who is the egghead intellectual will never be so remote from you and the curiosity transcends the personalities of who might be delivering you the information.

It is a two-way street: How can we instill the love of learning in school in a way that we retain it until adulthood? And how can the intellectual class make themselves accessible, so that it becomes something people would want to be, rather than something people want to explicitly reject.

With social media, though, the ivory tower is less remote than it used to be.

You’re right. In spite of my Twitter numbers, there are a dozen people in different fields doing exactly what I am doing. That is a change within the last five years, and what enables that, and I can only speak from my field, and I trace this to Carl Sagan, over the years we learned the value of someone doing that which Carl Sagan accomplished. People thought he should have been in the lab, and it completely ignores the fact that so much of what we do is funded by tax-based sources. We have an obligation to share our craft with the public because they, in the end, are paying for it. This realization has relaxed what in another generation would have been criticisms logged against spending time in that way.

So in terms of conspiracy theories like a flat earth…

That is a problem. They don’t know how to think about information and data. It’s an educational problem. This was rare, my stepping out to confront B.o.B. because it just isn’t what I do. I don’t pick people out who have weird ideas and then debate them. As an educator, I see my duty to train people how to think about nature, the world, and the forces of biology, chemistry, and physics.

If I can train you to think in a scientific literate way, you become inoculated against the possibility of thinking things such as the Earth is flat. And you are less susceptible to conspiracy movements, where the data is cherry-picked because they believe they already know the answer. They don’t fully understand how evidence works. They understand enough to think they are doing it right, but not enough to realize they are doing it wrong.

So is that why you went on The Nightly Show?

I don’t chase people, but I chased B.o.B. because his fanbase started directly tweeting at me. It shouldn’t take a Ph.D. astrophysicist to give convincing arguments that Earth is round. I never want my credentials to lead my statements. Also, he has 2.3 million Twitter followers, and in his tweets, he was saying, ‘This is simple physics. This is physics and math that’s giving me these results.’ The moment he called out physics and math, people are thinking he is actually doing it correctly, rather than just having a crazy idea. He crossed a line there. He is hugely influential, he is doing it in the name of science, and he is so wrong.

I said, ‘In a free country, you can think what you want. But if you have influence over other people, then these simple thoughts can actually become dangerous.’ I don’t normally do this, and it isn’t my preference to do this. And I have plenty of colleagues in the skeptics community. Bill Nye debated the head of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. I choose not to do it. I prefer to spend my time getting people to think straight in the first place so they can then make an informed judgement. And that is more empowering.

The Internet is great for spreading conspiracy theories, finding niches and bubbles where you can share thoughts with like-minded people. Do conspiracy theories like this, then, ever go away?

No, but we have to make sure, as sensible voters and citizens, that people who are not plugged into reality are not the ones ever put in charge. Otherwise, do and believe what you want. It is a free country.

How do we improve science literacy?

Well, I am currently working on that, and it may come out as a book one day, but it is still in the oven. Count it as half-baked, literally and figuratively. I have thoughts on promoting and improving science literacy, but I am not ready to go public with them.

The speech used at the end of his song–what was the context of that speech?

It was a 92nd Street Y onstage interview with the host of Radiolab, Robert Krulwich. We were talking about what is the largest mountain in the world, and I said, ‘Do you mean the mountain farthest from the center of the Earth? That is different mountain than the highest mountain above sea level.’ That freaked him out, he wanted to know why, and then we went into that whole conversation.

Did B.o.B. reach out to you?

No, and in fact, he took it down. TMZ asked coming out of The Nightly Show if I had my lawyers take down the song. I don’t have people take stuff down. The Internet is just whatever it is.

So what about your nephew’s track?

He told me about B.o.B.’s track, and I asked him about B.o.B. My nephew raps, and is an academic educator. He is getting his master’s on the role of hip-hop transforming cultures in the inner cities. So I asked my nephew whether he could make a diss track in response, and could he do it fast? He got right on it. He created it, and I voiced two of my tweets in case he wanted to use them in his diss track, and he did. He led off with one and ended with it. I thought it was fun to stay in the language of that exchange. Fire with fire, water with water. I felt privileged to be able to handle it in that way.

Watch Neil’s NSFW appearance on The Nightly Show on Comedy Central and above.