Marco Rubio and the media’s curiously inconsistent approach to science

Marco Rubio and the media’s curiously inconsistent approach to science November 20, 2012 wonder if any of our readers have read Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. I’ve been reading the reviews and they’re fascinating. The New Republic review says Nagel, a devout atheist, has “performed an important service with his withering critical examination of some of the most common and oppressive dogmas of our age.”

From Alvin Plantinga’s review “Why Darwinist Materialism Is Wrong” in The New Republic:

ACCORDING TO a semi-established consensus among the intellectual elite in the West, there is no such person as God or any other supernatural being. Life on our planet arose by way of ill-understood but completely naturalistic processes involving only the working of natural law. Given life, natural selection has taken over, and produced all the enormous variety that we find in the living world. Human beings, like the rest of the world, are material objects through and through; they have no soul or ego or self of any immaterial sort. At bottom, what there is in our world are the elementary particles described in physics, together with things composed of these particles.

I say that this is a semi-established consensus, but of course there are some people, scientists and others, who disagree. There are also agnostics, who hold no opinion one way or the other on one or another of the above theses. And there are variations on the above themes, and also halfway houses of one sort or another. Still, by and large those are the views of academics and intellectuals in America now. Call this constellation of views scientific naturalism—or don’t call it that, since there is nothing particularly scientific about it, except that those who champion it tend to wrap themselves in science like a politician in the flag. By any name, however, we could call it the orthodoxy of the academy—or if not the orthodoxy, certainly the majority opinion.

The eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel would call it something else: an idol of the academic tribe, perhaps, or a sacred cow: “I find this view antecedently unbelievable—a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. … I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Nagel is an atheist; even so, however, he does not accept the above consensus, which he calls materialist naturalism; far from it. His important new book is a brief but powerful assault on materialist naturalism.

But it was another review of the book, which was also quite favorable to it, that really surprised me. I’ll just give the beginning and closing words from the review in The New Statesman:

Thomas Nagel is widely recognised as one of the most important analytical philosophers of his generation. In both the philosophy of mind and moral philosophy, he has produced pioneering and influential work. This book inherits many of the virtues of that work. It is beautifully lucid, civilised, modest in tone and courageous in its scope…

But I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of “intelligent design”, who will not be too bothered about the difference between their divine architect and Nagel’s natural providence. It will give ammunition to those triumphalist scientists who pronounce that philosophy is best pensioned off. If there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.

Yes, the worst sin isn’t even supposing that a prevailing view might be questioned but, rather, giving comfort to creationists. Dunh dunh dunh!

But that’s the media environment we’re in (this is straight up Kellerian philosophy that the New Statesman reviewer Simon Blackburn offered).

I thought of all this when reading the response the mainstream media had to an interview Marco Rubio gave to GQ. In only the second paragraph we get this prophetic bit from reporter Michael Hainey:

Rubio smiles a lot and likes to put people at ease. But he also speaks with the restraint of a guy who knows everything he says will be parsed and, most likely, used against him. “I’ve learned the hard way,” he says. “You have to always be thinking how your actions today will be viewed at a later date.”

You don’t say. I mean, this is obvious. You can’t have had a pulse for the last few years (much less the decades prior to that) and not have noticed that some politicians have to be particularly careful in dealing with the media. There’s a certain freedom that politicians on the left have in dealing with the media that politicians on the right don’t have. When was the last time you heard a pro-choice politician asked why he thought it should be legal to kill an unborn child just because she’s female. Never? That is correct. (Which is just astounding!) When was the last time you heard a pro-life politician asked about exceptions for rape? An hour ago? Probably.

The GQ interview is wide ranging, if by wide ranging you mean questions about Rubio’s favorite Afrika Bambaataa songs, his three favorite rap songs, whether there is a song he plays to psych himself up before a vote in the Senate and whether Pitbull is too cheesy. It’s obviously incredibly fluffy.

Here are two questions asked from the middle of the interview (in order):

GQ: You were obviously very moved by your grandfather’s dignity and your father’s dignity. What are the qualities that would qualify for a man to have dignity?

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?

What the what?

Rubio gives a fairly standard political answer:

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.

Oh no he did-unt!

Then a bunch of media outlets all lined up to freak out. This smugtastic Slate piece, which had to run a correction about whether sociology, linguistics, anthropology, and other sciences indicate that the Earth is billions of years old, was definitely my favorite.

I guess my problem with the whole scenario is that I don’t trust the media here. It’s not like we have a media where we see routinely tough questions asked about science as it relates to human life and dignity. You remember all of the outrage over opposition to stem cell research that destroys human embryos, don’t you? The cover stories, the factually inaccurate pieces condemning ethicists as anti-science? I do. Why don’t we see the same deluge of stories about embryonic stem cell research now? Do you have any ideas? Is it because embryonic stem cell research kind of turned out to be a bust whereas stem cell research that doesn’t destroy embryos is going gangbusters?

We don’t have a media that questions all sorts of scientifically questionable thinking so long as it comports with a particular agenda.

Instead we have a group of people who have very unscientific ideas about when human life begins (or, at the very least, never even have the thought of asking that question to politicians who support abortion on demand) act outraged.

You know who was the last “journalist” to ask President Barack Obama when he believes human life begins? It was that Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Warren. Do you remember Obama’s response? At the Telegraph: Tim Stanley has thoughts on this:

More importantly, if it’s okay for Barack Obama to say that abortion is “above my paygrade” and refuse to offer a guess as to when life begins, why is it not okay for Rubio to dodge a bullet when asked a question about the origins of the Earth? Considering that the question posed to Obama back in the 2008 election had serious moral consequences and Rubio’s does not, I can’t understand why Obama’s evasion is heralded as a victory for common sense but Rubio’s is treated like a declaration of war on science. The hysteria and hypocrisy are tiring at best.

I don’t care when the world began and I don’t care if my elected officials know either. I’m far too worried about a stagnating US economy and its spiralling debt. And yet, in these strange and worrying times, how “sciency” someone is seems to have become a litmus test for office – regardless of where they stand on the things that they can actually do something about.

It’s the miserable philosophy of a materialist liberalism gone mad – a systematised worldview that prefers to wallow in inconsequential data rather than explore profound questions about life and death. Note to the mainstream media: abortion is a more important issue than the age of the Earth. It personally affects a lot more people.

The hysteria and hypocrisy are getting to me, too. I find the whole thing ridiculous.

Note: I’m sure we all have our own political, theological and scientific responses to Rubio’s comments. I know I do. But while there are many places on the internet to express those views, this site is reserved for a discussion of media coverage. Please keep comments focused on media coverage, which still gives us a lot of room to have fun.

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35 responses to “Marco Rubio and the media’s curiously inconsistent approach to science”

  1. Obama’s question is not directly comparable. He was asked “at what point does a baby get human rights”. That’s a rather tricky ethical matter. Science can only tell us facts that inform the decision.

    This rubio guy was questioned on a fairly straightforward scientific fact. Earth being billions years old is a fact, in these sense of “it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent” (love that Stephen J Gould definition). If someone disputes that, says a lot about them. We have this scientific process very successful in describing reality, that has changed our world so much, yet it’ll get aside when it clashes with ancient mythology.

    What is smug about phil plait’s blog piece? How do you non-smugly point out scientific facts?

    • Oh you’re right! Which means that no one has ever asked the question and that Rick Warren still asked the toughest journalistic question about human rights I can recall.

      Anyway, I’m not condemning the question on it’s own so much as reflecting on the context of the interview in which it’s utterly bizarre and the media environment in which it exists.

    • Ummm… Sorry to burst your bubble, but the Earth being billions of years old is in fact *NOT* a fact. It’s theory at best and really more likely just an elaborately propped up speculative hypothesis than that, and there are more than one of such things floating in the ether. You clearly have not understood what was pointed out throughout most of this article and instead chose to hone in on something you halfway understand w/ which you have an axe to grind. You are buying wholesale into precisely what this article is critiquing w/out even bothering to consider the critique, if that’s all you care to say…

      • Having said that, I’m not suggesting that scientific consensus thus far is wrong about the approx age of the Earth, but there is a huge diff between fact and theory and hypothesis. Besides, if you really know how science works, you won’t want to be too dogmatic about what we (seem to) know thus far. And that’s what’s being pointed out in the article, but much of the media and liberal educators prefer to gloss over such vital minutiae and make grand proclamations to support their agendas instead. Not saying the other side(s) are never guilty of such either, but if you wish to at least pretend to be objective in front of an intelligent audience, you’ll need to try harder at it me thinks…

        • Excuse me. I really have to address the concept of science and theory and evidence in your comment (and, as you note, in mollie’s article above). You’re right. There’s is “a huge diff between fact and theory and hypothesis.” But that doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means.

          In science, a theory doesn’t mean ‘guess’ or ‘notion’. It means an explanatory scheme that has survived a great deal of testing, accounts for a broad range of data, and continues to provide testable questions to drive further research. (Note: it’s still called the ‘germ theory of disease’.)

          Then there’s the question of scale. If the Earth is only 6,000 years old, that means the “scientific consensus thus far” is off by a factor of 750,000. To help put that number into perspective, that’s about like saying that science currently thinks North America is about 2,000 miles across, but it’s actually only as wide as a lane of traffic.

          The hypothesis that the Earth is only 6-10,000 years old has been falsified decisively. Yes, science does get things wrong, and models do change over time, but as Isaac Asimov once put it, “[W]hen people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was [perfectly] spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

          Stoo was absolutley correct to state that, “it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent” that the Earth is over four billion years old. Finding oil is a very high-stakes issue for oil companies. Trillions of dollars are riding on it. When they look for the most likely spots to drill, do they use Flood geology, or mainstream? Which one actually delivers the goods?

          Here are some questions I never see journalists ask of creationists and their sympathizers: Are you willing to put together an investment fund, venture capital for things like oil and mineral rights? If “Flood geology” is really a better theory, then it should make better predictions than standard geology does. The profits from such a venture could pay for a lot of evangelism. Why is no one doing this?

    • “What is smug about phil plait’s blog piece? How do you non-smugly point out scientific facts?”

      Well for one, he could act like an ACTUAL scientist (rather than a moderately well-read science jouralist) and acknowledge that the +/- 50,000 years we’re currently opperating on is a form of “I don’t know” as in we have some good ideas that indicate a certain range of possible ages of the earth but we don’t know the exact date. OR he could make it clear that the only way the scientific community would consider something a “fact” is if it observable and repeatable (ie, some cosmic scientist outside the earth counting the days to see how long it is, and then another scientist going back and doing the same thing to make sure he didn’t make a mistake on the fisrt count.) Basically the observable and repeatable bit is not possible when it comes to anything in the field of cosmology or geology (as the earth and the cosmos are well outside the scope of acurate human observation.)

      • the +/- 50,000 years we’re currently opperating on is a form of “I don’t know” as in we have some good ideas that indicate a certain range of possible ages of the earth but we don’t know the exact date.

        Plus or minus fifty million years, but who’s counting? The thing is, Plait is making the point that 6,000 years is well outside the “range of possible ages of the earth”. Even if you don’t know “the exact date”, you can still be sure some dates are not consistent with the evidence.

        OR he could make it clear that the only way the scientific community would consider something a “fact” is if it observable and repeatable

        That’s a popular misconception, but it’s not actually the case. The key point is if something is falsifiable. For example, if someone showed you a chair that was supposedly made in a New England town in the 1700s, you could check the chemistry, match the tree ring patterns in the wood with other wood from the same region, look for anamolous glues or dyes, etc.

        (Mollie, if her comment is legal, so’s this one. If you disagree, email me and explain why so I can fit your expectations in the future.)

        • All future conversation that is not laser-focused on media coverage will be deleted.
          There are plenty of places to discuss the many surrounding issues to this incident, but our specialty is media coverage.
          I have had to delete quite a bit but most of what’s present is doing a pretty good job.
          But keep laser-focused on media coverage. And let’s try to move beyond the standard of “here’s my opinion and at the end of my comment I’ll add a note about how I wish the media would mention this” that we sometimes fall into.
          But thanks for the lively conversation, everyone.

        • Well, given that this isn’t the right venue, I won’t get into the whole debate about what counts as good science vs what counts as scientific fact… but I do want to clarify my first point, which I think you misunderstand.

          My point is that, in the context of asking a fair journalistic question, and then fairly rehashing a person’s answer, it is relevant that even science could not answer the question “how old is the earth?” without at least a little wiggling, to the tune of 50 million years (thx for correcting, typo on my original). I agree that there is a range of acceptable answers, and a range of unnacceptable answers, and still a lot of valid scientific dispute around the boundaries of those ranges. But the reporter did not ask him if the earth was 6000 years old, nor did they ask if he believed it was created in literally 6 days, they asked him how old the earth was. Yes, Rubio went on to say some dumb stuff (that he didn’t have to say and I still wonder why he did), but my beef with the Plait article is that he holds even the “I don’t know” part as an unacceptable answer. If we’re going to be critical of people believing an incorrectly large margin of error, we need to be equally critical of those who have an incorrectly small margin of error, as both hurt true scientific understanding. I’m willing to put a politician who sayas they don’t know, or don’t have an exact answer, on par with a scientist who qualifies a number with +/-5%.

  2. As Mollie pointed out politicians on the right have to be oh-so-careful about what they say while those on the left know anything they say or do or have in their skeleton closet that becomes embarrassing to them may be reported once or twice, then dropped in news stories in print or on TV. Meanwhile a conservative politician becomes a pin cushion for descriptive “voice of God”” news” jabs. Like did we ever stop hearing in various shades and hues of green and in many creative very negative ways about Romney’s wealth. But when any uber-wealthy Kennedy runs their piles of money and family fortune are treated overall as a positive.(Even though it originated in illegal boot-legging whereas Romney’s money came from legal business transactions).

  3. Wow that business insider peice was hard to read. So journalism is now: 1) take one mildly questionable response to a ridiculous question, 2) equate it with every other scientifically questionable thing said by entirely different people only remotely connected to each other (by party affiliation) 3) Include a few lies implying that there aren’t any studies anywhere that might support a claim you don’t like (rather than taking them down SCIENTIFICALLY). And BINGO: All republicans fit the narrative of misogonist, illiterate, bible-thumpers without having to look at the character of each person individually. Sounds fun!

  4. The two questions were not equivalent. One is clearly a religious question with no scientific explanation (acquisition of the soul) and the other derives directly from science and has huge ramifications for public policy (eg: energy, global warming). Apples to oranges. Obama has also been upfront in his support of keeping abortion legal, even when it would have been politically expedient to do otherwise. We know this from media coverage. Rubio is more of an unknown quantity; his positions and the rationale behind them have yet to be elucidated.

    • Sari,
      I’m sorry — I’m not familiar with what question you’re referring to. When did someone ask someone about an acquisition of a soul?
      That would be interesting, although I don’t see the political relevance of such a question.
      As was pointed out earlier, Obama was not asked about that but, rather, about human rights.

      • Human rights are afforded to human beings, mollie. The question of when life begins has always been tied, at least in religious circles, to when the unborn become endowed with souls.

        It was you who brought up Rick Warren’s, question and Obama’s answer, not me. I am no fan of media’s science coverage, but it seems that your real complaint concerns the media’s attempts to discern where Rubio stands on issues relevant to public policy.

  5. Thinkling – Are you suggesting that there’s a significant social and political controversy regarding the mass of the neutrino, and journalists are ignoring it or have picked sides?

    • Oh, and you don’t think science questions are appropriate for a Senator that sits on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee?

      • My thoughts were very clear to those with eyes to read:

        Briggs’ hypothetical was 1) probably not practical; 2) but very revealing.

  6. Yes, media actually asking questions of the left about when life begins would be uncomfortable. But the basic pro-choice argument is not that there’s an absence of life. Many of us feel of course the fetus is alive and it is morally wrong to kill, but we’re pro-choice anyway. Why? Because given where we are now politically, trying to take away the choice would have greater negative effects than simply trying to reduce abortions via free choice.
    So to the “how old is the earth” question, and other litmus tests for judging one’s balance of science and religion: there’s a cringe factor that occurs when a pol gets too Biblically literal. Lots of folks who consider themselves believers get worried about a person who seems sooo religious, especially if their doctrine seeps into their public policy stances. And the age of the earth question is about the best one possible to flush out literalists. That’s because while average people are correctly skeptical about science and fully expect the scientific consensus to change, and fully expect there to be idols in the academy, these average folks know the earth isn’t 6000 years old.
    So, yes, the media is trying to embarrass pols by asking the earth age question, trying to make the center cringe. However, asking a pol about when life begins or if a fetus has a soul wouldn’t elicit the same type of cringe response from the center. Why? Because the center struggles with abortion. Hearing a pol dodge, as did Obama, makes them seem like a politician, not like someone who weirdly clings to ancient stories.

  7. Rubio gives a fairly standard political answer:

    I don’t find his comments to be a “fairly standard political answer” unless saying that a politician’s answer is typically that he’s ignorant about how science works. Anyone with a decent education these days should know how science works. If he’s being honest, he’s missed part of his education. If he’s being dishonest and pandering to a certain demographic, that’s also important to know.

    There’s also typically a false dichotomy in areas such as this between the non-religious and those that disbelieve in the results of using God’s gift of intelligence. Perhaps there’s a survey out there that asks a decent set of questions across the spectrum including “the universe is an accident”, “God is Who. Science is how” and “The Bible is literally true. Science is wrong.” But I can’t think of such a survey offhand.

  8. Friends, many comments are straying far afield from media criticism.
    If you want to talk about Rubio’s answer, feel free to do that at one of the eleventy billion other places on the internet where you can do that.
    Keep comments focused — rigorously — on media criticism.
    And yes, I’ve started deleting as the leash was apparently a bit too lax.

  9. Not being a journalist, I wonder why, when asked such a candle-apple red herring of a question, the interveiwee cannot question the journalist in turn? “Why do you ask?” “How meaningful do you think any answer would be in this context?” Or, the old Mark Twain standby, “What do *you* think?” IOW, why is the press permitted the privilege of establishing the rules of the game to their own satisfaction? It’s become more of a Kabuki theater piece than an apparent attempt at gathering and presenting the truth.

    • Rubio did, in fact, have that option. But it’s apparent to me (and many others, as Mollie has shown) that he chose to be evasive instead.

      If I were interviewing Rubio, asked him that question, and he responded “Why do you ask?” – I wouldn’t have had to struggle for long. I might have said something like, “The age of the Earth and related issues are the subjects of widespread and ongoing political and social controversy. Since you sit on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, your position on this seems relevant to how you will carry out your duties on behalf of your constituents.”

      In other words, it doesn’t seem like a “red herring” (“intended to be misleading or distracting”) to me. In fact, even the evasion he engaged in seems revealing.

      • “Since you sit on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, your position on this seems relevant to how you will carry out your duties on behalf of your constituents.” Having known and worked with a number of damn fine engineers who ranged the gamut from atheist to fundamentalist (and comprising, in their beliefs, an assemblage of Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Jews, and the odd Pagan), I find one’s approach to cosmology of little relevance to the actual application of Commerce, Science, ad Transportation.

        • I disagree, South Coast. Those who subscribe to an absolute, literal understanding of Scripture often self-limit. Pew studies, Gallup polls, and academic research all reflect an inverse correlation between degree of religiosity and level of academic achievement. There are always outliers, but one cannot research without acknowledging certain basic premises (eg: evolution, basic geologic processes, quantum physics-which require their own leap of faith).

          Journalists have the right, maybe even the obligation, to ask the tough questions. How else can the public make informed decisions? Politicians who are careless when interviewed deserve what they get.

  10. Science journalism apart, I have seen very little media coverage of Chaos Theory, which is a pity, because it provides a form of Rubio’s “natural providence” straight out of “scientific naturalism.” A system with an external energy flow through it will naturally, scientifically, providentially develop increasingly complicated configurations — like the first primitive molecular life on a theretofore lifeless planet. Alas, the mainstream media journalist, unless s/he is a math wonk, doesn’t know how well founded is the framework Rubio imputes to journalism.

  11. Hi Mollie, thanks for the link to the book review…
    Human beings, like the rest of the world, are material objects through and through; they have no soul or ego or self of any immaterial sort. At bottom, what there is in our world are the elementary particles described in physics, together with things composed of these particles.
    When I explain materialism to my kids I tell them “you are a box of rocks” and they say “What???”

    They’re just kids; they have a hard time believing it, but it does have policy implications.

    I wish Rubio would better prepare for these questions. He, and others, seem to get sucked into BFF answers. Which works, if your interviewer is covering for you:

    It reminds me of Obama being asked by Letterman about the size of the national debt; he did not know it was 16 trillion. Which is a big number. With policy implications.

    If someone asked me the age of the earth, does it matter whether I say 5 billion or 50 billion? How about: it’s very old.

    What about the second question, GQ: You were obviously very moved by your grandfather’s dignity and your father’s dignity. What are the qualities that would qualify for a man to have dignity? Was this nosing around about “human dignity”? I didn’t realize that “dignity” is in the GQ lexicon.

  12. Interesting post. I read arstechnica regularly, and while you justifiably complain about media ignorance of religion, they justifiably complain about media (and general) ignorance of science. Both are painfully obvious most especially in the comment section of the two sites. Both Obama and Rubio are dodging, but I think Obama’s question is a more relevant question to ask a politician, since the state determines personhood and the rights endowed. On the other hand, TBH, to believe that the world is less than a few billion years old is something akin to believing that it is flat, and frankly beyond the pale. But that points more to the general ignorance of science in our culture and how science, religion and politics have embraced one another in a foolish death spiral.

    On a side note, while I have not read Nagel’s work, it appears to be dealing with some of the philosophical issues with science, particularly reductionist neo-Darwinism (espoused so strongly by Dawkins, but largely discarded by most other evolutionary biologists). I would recommend Coner Cunningham’s “Darwin’s Pious Idea,” for a look at a similar critique from a Christian point of view. He points our quite rightly and quite eloquently that ID is not simply bad science, it is bad theology.

  13. Some day some brave journalist will ask a politician,
    “Is time travel possible and if so what are the moral and political ramifications?”

  14. I would prefer the media focus on providing the public an insight into a politicians ability for rational thought, creative idea generation, and their ability to achieve pragmatic compromise – we need them to solve issues. Our politicians are elected to think through problems, analyse available information, make informed decisions, and attempt to turn those decisions into actions through compromise.
    In the absence of testing politicians in formal and standardized way, the public has to rely on their answers to media questions and their own public discourse, and their actions.
    Questions such as “earth age”, “when does life begin”, and “does god talk to you” matter as they highlight HOW a politician thinks and processes readily available information. George Bush said he talks to god, if he had said he talked to god through his desktop stapler, we would have a different opinion of his thought processes.
    The media could ask actual policy based questions and get real answers, but the public’s eyes would glaze over and they would not be engaged media consumers (revenue producers) – its a shame, but its a numbers game and low hanging fruit sensationalist questions pay the bills.