How do these quotes stack up? It seems to me that they're exactly in agreement on four crucial and dismaying points:
1) Both senators refuse to give an honest answer to the question. Neither deigns to mention that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old.
2) They both go so far as to disqualify themselves from even pronouncing an opinion. I'm not a scientist, says Rubio. I don’t presume to know, says Obama.
3) That's because they both agree that the question is a tough one, and subject to vigorous debate. I think there are multiple theories out there on how this universe was created, says Rubio. I think it's a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I'm a part, says Obama.
4) Finally they both profess confusion over whether the Bible should be taken literally. Maybe the "days" in Genesis were actual eras, says Rubio. They might not have been standard 24-hour days, says Obama.
In light of these concordances, to call Rubio a liar or a fool would be to call our nation's president the same, along with every other politician who might like to occupy the Oval Office. If a reporter asks a candidate to name the age of Earth, there's only one acceptable response: Well, you know, that's a complicated issue … and who am I to say?
That's not to argue that Obama and Rubio are identical in mind-set (although it's hard to tell what either thinks on the basis of his cagey public statements). It's clear enough they differ on some scientific policies. At the same 2008 event in Pennsylvania, Obama went on to give this caveat:
Let me just make one last point on this. I do believe in evolution. I don't think that is incompatible with Christian faith, just as I don't think science generally is incompatible with Christian faith. I think that this is something that we get bogged down in. There are those who suggest that if you have a scientific bent of mind then somehow you should reject religion, and I fundamentally disagree with that. In fact, the more I learn about the world, the more I know about science, the more I am amazed about the mystery of this planet and this universe—and it strengthens my faith as opposed to weakens it. [APPLAUSE]
So Obama believes in evolution, and presumably he'd like to teach it in the nation's public schools, while Rubio suggests that "multiple theories" should be given equal time. But even so, both men present the science as a matter of personal opinion. Obama doesn't say, Evolution is a fact; he says, I believe in it.
What about Rubio's assertion that the age of the Earth "has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States"? That's the claim that gave Phil Plait "a chill," since science is "the very foundation of our country's economy." At Forbes, Alex Knapp declares that "this economy, at its root, is built on a web of scientific knowledge from physics to chemistry to biology. It's impossible to just cherry pick out parts we don’t like." If we get it wrong on Earth's creation, these critics say, the United States will fall apart.
Will it really? It seems to me that Rubio is right. Lots of basic scientific questions have no bearing whatsoever on the nation's short-term economic growth. We can even go much further: Lots of scientific questions don't matter all that much when it comes to other scientific questions. It's possible—and quite common—for scientists to plug away at research projects without explicit knowledge of what's happening in other fields. And when a bedrock principle of science does need to be adjusted—a not-so-unusual occurrence, it turns out—the edifice of scholarship doesn't crumble into dust. DVD players still operate. Nuclear plants don't shut down.
President Obama knows this fact as well as anyone. In 2009, he appointed Francis Collins, the brilliant geneticist, to head the National Institutes of Health. Collins is a thoughtful Christian who happens to believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection. "There's nothing inconsistent with God on rare occasions choosing to invade the natural world in a way that appears miraculous," he told Time magazine in 2006. "If God made the natural laws, why could he not violate them when it was a particularly significant moment for him to do so?" This man runs a $30 billion program in biomedical research, and he runs it pretty well.
Politicians aren't scientists and they aren't pastors, either. Instead they've learned to follow a different set of laws—those that dictate what to say, not what to think. That's why Rubio and Obama sound so much alike. They're taking notes from the same textbook.