Marco Rubio’s Statement about Earth’s Origins Isn’t Much Different From Barack Obama’s.

The state of the universe.
Nov. 20 2012 4:10 PM

Who Said It: Marco Rubio or Barack Obama?

Willful ignorance of science is a bipartisan value.

Sen. Marco Rubio and Pres. Obama.
Sen. Marco Rubio and Pres. Obama.

Photos by Mark Wilson/Getty Images and Jack Kurtz/Getty Images.

By now you've heard the outrageous quote from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on his doubts about the origins of planet Earth. When asked to give its age, he replied: "I'm not a scientist, man. … 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."

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

He's not a scientist—no, indeed—and his comments have brought on a slew of finger wags and face-palms from the godless left. The answer was "so confused and error-riddled," wrote Phil Plait in Slate, "it's difficult to know where to start." We all should understand the age of Earth is not a matter of opinion, but a scientific fact: Our planet formed 4.54 billion years ago. If Rubio suggested otherwise, it's because he's uninformed or stupid.

Of perhaps he's talking to his base. Writing in the New York Times, Juliet Lapidos points out that 58 percent of Republicans believe in creationism, as do 46 percent of all Americans. "Mr. Rubio probably figured that these same Republicans have no truck with geologists," she says, "and so there was no advantage to stating clearly that the earth is 4.54 billion years old. But if his response was more proof of cunning than idiocy, it was still ludicrous." By arguing that every viewpoint has a claim to truth—that the geologists and theologians are each entitled to their own opinions—the senator gave up on dealing with reality at all.

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I've no doubt that these critiques of Rubio are sound. But I'm hesitant to let the crown prince of the Tea Party be singled out for blame. His shameless dodge and pander on the matter of the Earth's creation don't mark him as a radical, nor even as a soldier in the war on science. They mark him only as a mainstream politician.

Beware, for thou that judgest doest the same things: Members of both parties have had to squiggle through elections by appealing to a hazy sense of geo-history. In fact, the Antichrist himself—Barack Obama—has had a tendency to get a little soft with science. Let's compare Rubio's offending quote to one that came out of Obama's mouth four years ago, when he first campaigned for president.

Here's Rubio, in his interview for the December 2012 issue of GQ:

Q: How old do you think the Earth is?

A: 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.

And here's then-Sen. Obama, D-Ill., speaking at the Compassion Forum at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. on April 13, 2008:

Q: Senator, if one of your daughters asked you—and maybe they already have—“Daddy, did god really create the world in 6 days?,” what would you say?

A: What I've said to them is that I believe that God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it … it may not be 24-hour days, and that's what I believe. I know there's always a debate between those who read the Bible literally and those who don't, and I think it's a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I'm a part. My belief is that the story that the Bible tells about God creating this magnificent Earth on which we live—that is essentially true, that is fundamentally true. Now, whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible: That, I don't presume to know.

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.

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