Rubio’s Scientific Ignorance

Rubio’s Scientific Ignorance November 24, 2012

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was recently interviewed by GQ magazine and he was asked if he knew how old the earth was. I’m not sure why he was asked that; if you read the interview, it’s kind of an abrupt and out-of-the-blue question. But his answer was predictably nonsensical:

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.

First of all, he didn’t ask you how the universe was created. He asked you how old the earth was. And the answer to that is simple and precise: 4.5 billion years old. There aren’t “multiple theories” about that, there is a mountain of evidence and hundreds of well-confirmed and concordant dates on one side and a raft of religious nonsense on the other. But as Russ Douthat points out, this isn’t really meant to be a serious answer, it’s meant to be a politically safe one — and it reveals a lot about the GOP:

First, this is pretty plainly a cautious politician’s answer, not a true-believing Young-Earth Creationist’s. The question has a “gotcha” edge: It drops out of the blue in the midst of the interview, and it’s clearly designed to get Rubio to either take a swipe at the 40-plus percent of Americans and majority of Republican voters who doubt the evolutionary narrative about human origins (though some percentage of those doubters, it should be said, probably believe in an older-than-10,000-years Earth) or look like an anti-science rube. His answer attempts to avoid doing either: Rubio tries to be simultaneously deferential to the authority of scientists, the authority of scripture, and the authority of parents to teach their kids as they see fit. The result is a something of a muddle, but that’s hardly unusual coming from a risk-averse politician, and especially a politician facing a questioner who’s clearly deploying a “conservatives vs. science” framework that’s itself flawed and partisan and incomplete in various ways.

However: The fact that the “conservatives vs. science” framework is frequently unfair doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist, or that Republican politicians should just get a free pass for tiptoeing around it. No matter how you spin it, Rubio’s bets-hedging non-answer isn’t exactly a great indicator about the state of the party he might aspire to lead.

Or the state of the country, for that matter. The larger problem is not that Rubio gave the wrong answer but that the wrong answer is politically useful in this country. And did I mention that Rubio is a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee?

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