US Senator from Florida Marco Rubio gave an interview to GQ recently. Rubio was asked a question that Republican politicians simply hate to field: How old is the earth? (Hat tip: Talking Points Memo.)
Why is this a difficult question? It isn’t because the science hasn’t been disseminated; this is a part of any middle or high school earth science course. It isn’t because of any ambiguity in the science; an age of about 4.5 billion years has been current for years, with relatively small adjustments for precision. The reason it is a difficult question is that answering it without quibble will annoy the 40 to 45% of the US population who have consistently answered the Gallup poll question on this subject by saying that the earth is about 10,000 years old. That demographic also happens to provide Republican politicians with their consistent voting bloc, so annoying them is the absolutely last thing such a politician wants to do.
So let’s have a look at how Marco Rubio did respond when the question came up in the GQ interview:
GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?
Marco Rubio: I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.
This is a troubling thing for a powerful politician to say. Its sole purpose can only be to give comfort to the biblical literalist voting bloc. Why is it troubling? Let’s go through the response piece by piece.
I’m not a scientist, man.
This is baloney, pure and simple. You don’t have to be a scientist to answer this question on Jeopardy, or in a GQ interview. It just requires that you actually know what the answer is.
I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.
We do not know that Rubio can tell us what history, the Bible, or science says, because he never actually gave any of the different numbers that are used to answer the question. We’re just supposed to accept that Rubio could give those numbers, if he were so inclined. If he can’t do so in the low-pressure context of a GQ interview, though, I doubt that we will hear them from him elsewhere.
The “dispute among theologians” clause is also baloney. Yes, theologians do dispute the age of the earth, but they aren’t the only people who have weighed in on this topic. Rubio’s disclaimer that he isn’t a scientist does indicate that he is aware that science has an answer, but Rubio is here also implicitly disclaiming that science’s answer has any priority in the discussion.
Then there is Rubio’s assertion that the question is without consequences for our economy. This is, of course, hogwash. The manufactroversy over the age of the earth does have consequences. One of the most important consequences is the widespread distrust of scientists and the findings of science that are propagated when religious interpretations are promoted as putting scientific findings into question. Children who are taught that science is in a conspiracy are less likely to accept other things that science discovers and are less likely to themselves take up careers in science and technology. Our gross domestic product, our economic growth, and even our ability to field ever more sophisticated military technology is critically dependent on maintaining an edge in science and technology. How can disputing even the simplest and most basic scientific findings, like that of the age of the earth, possibly do anything but make it less likely that the USA will succeed in its race to keep pace or keep ahead of science progress in the rest of the world?
I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow.
The age of the universe has some pretty direct consequences for how scientists view critical cosmological constants. Those constants feed into equations of behavior of matter and energy in the here and now, so, yes, the age of the universe has a part in the operation of science and technology in the here and now, and, yes, it makes a difference for our economy, as explained just above.
I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that.
As noted before, you don’t have to be a scientist to know the answer. It seems that Rubio should not be a contestant on Jeff Foxworthy’s “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?”
At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all.
Senator Rubio should know that people can talk about whatever conjectures they want to. That’s what free speech is for. But Senator Rubio should also know that we teach curricula by subjects for a reason. Accountable science is the only thing that should be taught in science classes. For theological concepts in the public schools, there would need to be a course on philosophy or comparative religion. It has been a consistent feature of evolution versus creation dustups that biblical literalists have no interest in having their concepts compared and contrasted with those from other religions in an even-handed way in comparative religion courses; they want their unevidenced, unaccountable, untestable conjectures taught as if they were science, and as if they had the same scientific stature as accountable science.
I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says.
They are able to do so, Senator Rubio. Parents can and do teach theological concepts at their churches, their religious private schools, and in homeschooling. They should, but often do not, teach the relevant science in religious private schools and homeschooling.
Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.
Ignorant people can’t answer it. People committed to obfuscation won’t answer it. But that doesn’t mean that there is not an answer. It is not a mystery. It is a matter of record in a well-developed, accessible scientific literature, with popular treatments readily available, and treatments in textbooks as well.
Rubio is replaying “Roman Catholic Church v. Galileo”. He should refer to that to see how obscurantists have fared. The RCC eventually came to the realization that the anti-scientific interpretation they had committed themselves to was not a necessity to faith. That realization is still in the future for many concerning the age of the earth, but they will eventually have to come to the same conclusion.