Facts and Faith

November 27, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Marco Rubio was asked in a GQ interview, “How old do you think the earth is?”  Rubio, who came to national prominence at the GOP convention, didn’t answer the question. 
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.
Rubio seems to think that if you admit that you’re not a scientist, then science doesn’t matter and that the age of the earth is not a matter of scientific fact.  Instead, it is “a dispute among theologians.”  The fallacy of that position – faith determining facts – should be obvious.*  But what about his second point - that believing in a geological falsehood is irrelevant to having an effective economic policy? 

Alex Knapp at Forbes disagrees. 
Large parts of the economy absolutely depend on scientists being right about either the age of the Universe or the laws of the Universe that allow scientists to determine its age.
The age of the earth is important.  If the earth is only 9,000 years old, you couldn’t be reading this right now. Knapp explains why, starting with a galaxy 13 billion light years away.  Light from that galaxy took 13 billion years to reach Earth.
Marco Rubio’s Republican colleague Representative Paul Broun, who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology, recently stated that it was his belief that the Universe is only 9,000 years old. Well, if Broun is right and physicists are wrong, then we have a real problem. Virtually all modern technology relies on optics in some way, shape or form. And in the science of optics, the fact that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum is taken for granted. But the speed of light must not be constant if the universe is only 9,000 years old. It must be capable of being much, much faster. That means that the fundamental physics underlying the Internet, DVDs, laser surgery, and many many more critical parts of the economy are based on bad science. The consequences of that could be drastic, given our dependence on optics for our economic growth.
This sounds convincing at first.  But I think I agree with Rubio.  You can be ignorant or even deliberately wrong about earth science and still make good economic policy.  Alexander Hamilton didn’t know how old the earth was, and he probably didn’t believe in evolution either.  In fact, even today, most of us, most of the time, could get by thinking the earth was flat.  For the daily commute and even a long drive to Thanksgiving with relatives, we don’t really need to consider the curvature of the earth. 

The real trouble comes when policy-makers base policy on what they would like the facts to be rather than what they are.
* I hope it’s obvious.  If not, try this analogy:
   “Do you think texting while driving is dangerous?”  “I’m not a highway engineer, man.  That’s a dispute among drivers.”   or
  “Do you think that smoking causes cancer?”  “I’m not a physician, man. I think that’s a dispute among tobacco users and corporations.”

The GQ interview has gotten a fair amount of attention.  The right-wing blogger response (see Breitbart.com for an example) is to ignore Rubio’s evasive answer and instead to focus on the question.  Their response is to ask, "How dare the liberal leftist media ask a Republican this question?"  Presumably, these Rubio defenders would have the same reaction to the texting and smoking questions.


Todd Krohn said...

Re Broun, make sure you check this out, if you hadn't heard already:


Number is closer to 5,000 votes including surrounding counties. A small but significant strike back against the anti-science crowd.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks Todd. I especially like, "Darwin was not a properly certified write-in candidate."