“I’m Not A Scientist, Man”

More than two years ago I suggested that a simple test of rationality for political candidates would be this question:

How old is the Earth?

An alternative question, should the politician want to dodge that one, would be this one:

Were the biblical Adam and Eve real people who lived less than 10,000 years ago?

In my mind, how politicians answer either question reveals something important about them, in terms of their appreciation of the methodology of science, which is the best way we humans have of understanding the world.

And as I responded to a commenter:

I do demand my representatives cross the basic threshold of intelligence, which is to acknowledge that the universe (not just the Earth) is more than 6,000 years old…I have found if someone believes that the Earth was created in six days about 6,000 years ago, they believe all kinds of other crazy stuff, like Fox “News” is fair and balanced.

So, there is something to learn from asking a politician about the age of the Earth, beyond finding out where he or she likely goes to church.

That brings me to the GOP’s Hispanic hope for the future, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Michael Hainey of GQ ask Rubio the question I suggested should be asked of all politicians:

How old do you think the Earth is? 

Here was Rubio’s answer:

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.

No, it’s one of the great mysteries why there are still so many folks who talk like that.

Here are my objections to Rubio’s claims:

1) There is no real “dispute amongst theologians.”  Most theologians, and even some creationist-friendly evangelical apologists, believe the earth is very old. And besides that, most theologians are not scientists, so why is their opinion even relevant to this question?

2) Rubio is in fact “qualified” to answer the question, “How old do you think the Earth is?” He was asked for his opinion as a politician, not as a scientist. In other words, he was asked whether he respects, enough to believe it, the methodology of science.

3) The Earth was not “created” either in “7 days” or “7 actual eras.” It was formed 4.5 billion years ago from a cloud of interstellar dust and gas, remnants of other stars and, possibly (Allah only knows), other civilizations. Thus, the age of the earth is not “one of the great mysteries” for the simple reason it is not a mystery at all.

The point of all this is that Marco Rubio, one of those Republicans being discussed as a “great right hope” for that party’s future, sits on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He specifically sits on the Science and Space subcommittee, which, among other things, has responsibility for:

science, engineering, and technology research and development and policy; calibration and measurement standards; and civilian aeronautical and space science and policy. The Subcommittee conducts oversight on the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

A man who can’t answer a simple question about the age of the Earth, who attempts to pretend that there is a “mystery” about it, who essentially denies the validity of the science that has removed that mystery, is simply not fit to sit on that important subcommittee, especially since it claims, with devastating accuracy, this:

Advancements in science and technology are vital to the nation’s continued economic security, innovation, and competitiveness.

If those advancements are vital, then it is also vital to have members of that subcommittee who believe in science.

And if one day Marco Rubio ever seriously thinks he should be president in a 21st century America, he should first disavow his Iron Age ignorance and stop pretending that science and faith give us equally rational answers about the age of the Earth or anything else.

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5 Comments

  1. Duane,

    A few years ago I had a discussion group on Amazon asking for proof that god exists. One respondent turning out to be a real down and dirty evangelical/fundamentalist. When the discussion turned to the age of the earth, the fundy went with the Creationist story. I countered with how dating is determined by radiological methods, but he was having none of it. Finally, in total frustration, I wrote this:

    “On the radiometric dating issue, I would again urge you to get some education on the subject. In any event, you’re still just using information that only supports your position, which, again, is only your opinion. Of course, if you feel that strongly about the inaccuracy of radiometric dating, maybe you should go to that local college I mentioned above and into the geology class to tell them how wrong their science is.”

    Didn’t effect him one bit. But I felt good just the same.

    Herb

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    • Herb,

      Way back when the Internet was just taking off (at least as far as I was concerned), I entered a discussion group on Slate. I think the platform was called The Fray. It had a “God thread,” which I found fascinating, mostly because it featured all kinds of people with all kinds of arguments.

      There were your typical fundies, of course, but there were some very smart people involved in that discussion. At the time, I was still a believer, and I came down on the side of those who were defending theism on rationalistic grounds (I always believed in science, though. Wouldn’t think of questioning radiometric dating, like so many did then and do now.)

      In any case, as a believer I tangled with this very smart (atheist) guy who simply stood his ground and would not bend on the issue of proof for God’s existence. We had a lot of exchanges, and I read his exchanges with others on the thread. He depressed me at the time, mostly because it was very difficult to defend my theistic position against his attacks. But I remember that I actually thought I got the better of him at the time! I didn’t, of course, and I have often thought of that encounter (which lasted a couple of months, as I recall) and remind myself that we all tend toward confirmation bias and it is something we have to always guard against.

      If I were to run into him again, I would simply say, “You win. I can’t prove God exists, nor can anyone else. At best I could only prove that I think he does, despite there being no evidence for it.”

      Duane

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  2. Read the Rubio Story before I came here. I thought of you.

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    • I heard someone on Fox today wondering what all the fuss on the left is about. After all, who really knows or cares how old the earth is?

      Sometimes I wonder if we’re gonna make it.

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