Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has been the recipient of a seemingly bizarre political backlash — after the conservative magazine National Review penned a takedown cover story on the "Cosmos" host last week depicting him as a smug, intellectual bully.
The story struck many as odd given Tyson's gentle, geeky presentation style. Comedian Bill Maher had Tyson on his HBO show over the weekend, trying to make sense of the backlash.
"You're a scientist, and a black one, who's smarter than [conservatives] are," Maher quipped.
The line got laughs, but it's worth remembering that Tyson served the George W. Bush administration as a member of the Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond in 2004. Conservatives have no problem harnessing Tyson's intellect.
No, the danger Tyson brings to the political structure, as he gains an increasingly large foothold in the popular culture, is the threat of an informed populace.
"When you're scientifically literate, the world looks different to you," Tyson wrote in 2011. "It's a particular way of questioning what you see and hear. When empowered by this state of mind, objective realities matter. These are the truths of the world that exist outside of whatever your belief system tells you."
That may not sound radical, but the promise of a large, nerdy, young voting block that subscribes to Tyson's sentiment is a threat to the political status quo — certainly Republicans, but Democrats as well.
Imagine if millions of young Tyson fans stopped searching for facts to confirm their personal biases, or ceased prioritizing using their education to leverage personal wealth, and instead sought the most sound solutions to identifiable problems for the betterment of the species. If the rising generation of young voters actually starts demanding rational, evidence-guided leadership, few in our current crop of elected officials would survive the political fallout.
Consider this: In 1995, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment — a nonpartisan panel of scientists and researchers assembled to offer objective technical guidance to Congress on scientifically complex issues — was stripped of all funding, effectively shutting it down. (Officially, it still exists on paper.) It has remained unfunded ever since. (Thanks, Newt Gingrich.) An attempt in May to provide a paltry $2.5 million to the office was stymied by House Republicans.
In a world where advanced technology has infiltrated nearly every corner of our lives — raising a litany of technical, ethical and legal challenges — our government is willfully scientifically illiterate.
The reason this status quo has been allowed to persist is that the general population isn't much better. Conservatives continue to fight any attempts to combat climate change, while many liberals are refusing to vaccinate their children over fears of a nonexistent link to autism. It wouldn't be hard to predict a liberal backlash against Tyson, similar to the one we're seeing from conservatives, if he were to speak more prominently about his endorsement of genetically modified foods — one of the more scientifically unfounded banner arguments of the left.
Tyson is a threat to this cone of ignorance and self-interest. He's a champion of knowledge and the human potential. He brings the fundamental belief that our species is destined for something greater than the interminable squabble between self-interested individuals and rival nations and dwindling resources — that our collective efforts can be applied to the pursuit of knowledge, ultimately paving the way for our exploration of the galaxy.
That's a vision people can get behind. It's also one that could potentially upend everything we know.
Matthew Fleischer is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @MatteFleischer.