Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Marco Rubio and lines in the sand

In the post election fall out, no story has hit me as personally as the new media kerfluffle over Marco Rubio's "age of the earth" comments.  For those of you still trying to tune out, here's the recap.  Rubio, a Republican Senator from Florida, got asked in an interview with GQ how old he thought the earth was.  His reply heard round the world:
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. 

This immediately caused cries of how scientifically ignorant he was, as the correct answer is apparently 4.54 billion years.  Rubio has been accused of putting religion ahead of science, and this has sparked a general conversation about how religious orthodoxy and science are incompatible.  In fact, Phil Plait over at Slate put it this way:

I got a chill when I read Rubio’s statements, “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.”
Perhaps Senator Rubio is unaware that science—and its sisters engineering and technology— are actually the very foundation of our country’s economy? All of our industry, all of our technology, everything that keeps our country functioning at all can be traced back to scientific research and a scientific understanding of the Universe....Senator Rubio is exactly and precisely wrong. Science, and how it tells us the age of the Earth, has everything to do to do with how our economy will grow. By teaching our kids actual science, we can guarantee the future of this country and its economic growth. By hiding it from them, by equivocating about it with them, by providing false balance between reality and wishful thinking, what we guarantee is a future workforce that can’t distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t.

(Highlight in the original)

Now, I agree with Plait.  Science is critical to our understanding of the world.  I started this blog in part because it makes me incredibly sad exactly how little most people know about math and science, and how malleable most people believe facts are.  I think scientific literacy is one of the biggest gifts we can give our children, and obviously I spend a decent amount of my free time trying to promote more critical interpretations of popular facts....and that is where I disagree with Phil Plait and the other Rubio critics.

I think drawing a line in the sand over one specific issue like this is wrong.

I am not a young earth creationist....but I was raised by them.  I'm not talking about my parents either, I'm talking about the 13 years of Christian school education I received, including 7 years of strict Baptist teaching in middle school and high school.  Every science or math class I took for my entire pre-college career was taught by a young earth creationist (or at least someone who had been willing to say they were one).  In this environment, any science class not taught by an avowed Christian was immediately suspect.  When I announced my intention to go to a secular university and to study engineering, I fielded question after question about how I would be able to stay true to my faith while being taught science by those terrible atheists.  I was encouraged to change my choice of school or my choice of major, to change anything, because of the constant assaults on my beliefs I going to have to withstand.  I was told horror story after horror story of Christian kids singled out and flunked for standing up for what they believed in.  A friend's mother actually cried while talking to me about it.  For a time I reconsidered, but in the end I didn't change my mind and I went to college ready to face the fire.

Well, the fire never came.

In four years where I barely left the math/science buildings, in four years of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics and engineering classes, I was never, not once, asked how old I thought the world was, how we all got here, or if I thought there was a place for God in any of it.

It's not just that no one asked, it's that it never came up.  I mean, I'm pretty sure in one of my biology classes there was a passing reference to "this is an evolutionary adaptation", but other than that, no one raised the subject.   We were too busy learning about how to multiply numbers in a matrix or how objects move on frictionless surfaces.  In fact the only time it came up was either when people found out I went to a Baptist high school ("oh, so you were taught the whole earth in six days thing? what was that like?) or when I'd run in to Christians who would want to grill me on how I was being treated.  Ironically, many of these Christians were in the psychology or sociology departments, both of which had professors FAR more critical of fundamental Christian beliefs than anything I encountered.

Over time, I came to be fairly critical of the particular high school I had gone to and the attitude of religious fundamentalism.  It was science, really, that set me free.  The ability to review evidence, to think critically, to decide what is and isn't a valid source, and a healthy sense of skepticism all moved me away from those people who claim religion mostly so they will always feel sure about everything.  I like feeling unsure.  I like admitting I could be wrong.  I like saying there's some ambiguity, and that I'll look in to it independently and form a conclusion. I will always love science for this.

However, when people use science to do the same thing to others that I feel religion was used to do to me, I get upset.  Science should be used to open people's minds to the idea of evidence based investigation, not to make fun of people because they repeat something they were raised with.  To set the bar at the age of the earth, to say that no one who even questions the 4.54 billion year number is allowed to come in, well I think that ensures that fewer people of faith will even bother trying to enter the sciences.  This needlessly perpetuates hostilities on both sides.  If religion throws down a gauntlet on one side, it's up to science to sit back and say "no problem, come on in, take a look around for yourself and see how you feel after".  Science is not an excuse to shove a conclusion down someone's throat.  Science is a process of teaching people how to reach a good conclusion to begin with.

Getting back to Rubio and his detractors....this is why I can't criticize the man.  Rubio's a Catholic, a lawyer, and a politician.  I doubt he's seriously sat down and studied geology, astronomy or anything else that would help him understand the age of the earth debate.  Additionally, his Catholic faith tells him that many conclusions could be valid (Catholics are not required to be young earth creationists).  So when he was asked a question outside his comfort zone, he said what he knew, admitted his limitations, and said what he didn't know.  To me, that's science.


  1. This was a gotcha! question to attempt to label Rubio as a crazy Creationist/what have you. I would have had Rubio say this was an interesting question. I would have had Rubio also handle this by asking the reporter what HIS scientific background was. [Most reporters have scientific backgrounds confined to HS Trig- if that- and "Physics for Poets" in college- if that.]Or what the reporter thought the age of the earth was- and on what he based his answer. Or WHY the reporter considered this an appropriate question for politics.

    Disclaimer: I have a STEM background. My only religious affiliation was to belong to LRY in high school. [snicker, snicker. Time for Unitarian jokes.]

    1. I kind of hate the term "gotcha question". I want a different name for it.

    2. What about "trap question?"

    3. I think my issue with the concept is that I too often hear it applied equally to questions that politicians don't *want* to answer vs questions they shouldn't have to answer.

      I mean, if Rubio had been asked "do you support evolution being taught in public schools" and he had answered poorly, that to me feels valid. We have a right to know what his feelings on policy are. However, the way the question was asked was about his personal beliefs and may or may not influence how he crafts policy.

      I just think the "gotcha" term gets thrown out too often when what people really mean is "I support an unpopular thing, but I don't want you to know about it".

      I guess maybe I like the Bill Clinton response "oooooh, that's a good one". Maybe we should just call them "good ones".

  2. It does seem that certain advocates of science-as-something-opposed-to-religion take a very religious attitude towards the subject.

    Almost as if any deviation from the orthodoxy that they espouse should be attacked. Not with scientific questions, but with the fervor that religious authorities would use against apostates or infidels.

    (I, too, was taught mostly young-Earth Creationism. Several things brought me to question that. I had a similar experience in science classes at the University level. And I discovered, on my own, that several major thinkers in the history of Christianity were comfortable with a non-literal interpretation of the Creation story.)

  3. I think that a truly "correct" answer from a scientific viewpoint would have been -- "current evidence points to an age of about 4.54 billion years." Science is constantly revising it's conclusions as new evidence comes to light. This highlights the fact that science is a process, a methodology for asking questions and weighing evidence for answers. It really is not a body of 'facts' about whatever.

    I believe I know the school of which you speak having grown up in the Church that founded it. I spent a year in a bible school after High School. I wasn't questioned about science, but my choice of the (Christian) college where I was to pursue my BA was qestioned because the Psychology department was suspect.It seems that this department made too great an allowance for psychological theory and not enough for scriptural counseling. And I wasn't even aiming to study psychology. So I empathize with your experience.

    Rubio's answer seems reasonable and circumspect to me. I think Mr. Plait is simply picking a fight.

    1. The most amusing part of the "take down" to me was when he pointed out that this is required knowledge for HS graduation according to someone.

      Guess what, it was a different number when I graduated high school, and it was most certainly different when Rubio graduated. Get some humility science, mkay?

  4. Thanks for your defense of Rubio. I heard there was blowback from his comments and it bothered me but I could not have articulated it as well as you did.

  5. Nice job with this.
    Leaving the faith because of belief in 6D creationism has been a self-fulfilling prophecy for fundamentalists. They chose a ridiculous place to make a stand, because they wanted to preserve their culture more than they wanted to pass on the faith. It's bad science and bad theology.

    That said, most people criticising the fundies over this are no better. None of us has the knowledge to prove or disprove any theory that complicated. We believe on the basis of who we believe. I believe in evolution because it fits with other information as I encounter it in a dozen areas that I know a little something about, linguistics, genetics, geology, physics, psychology, and others. But in none of these could I do more than suggest outlines of evidence.

    Neither could Darwin, nor can Dawkins now. All have been dependent on the collective work of other scientists. There's no shame in that - the collective weight is what makes the theory believable. But that doesn't get the journalists and "gotcha" guys off the hook. They know nothing and believe the environmentalists for accidental cultural reasons, just as the fundies do.

    Plait falls into that group. He knows what his cultural group is supposed to believe, and tries to make it a question of science ability. Writers for Slate, are not, frankly, generally skilled in science. They are skilled in reading culture. Creationism may be wrong, but there are creationists who do just fine in science all the way through, even becoming doctors (I know two). At advanced levels one has to do some intellectual gyrations that I think are foolish, but they are still plenty smart. Because we all have areas where we do intellectual gyrations to protect ideas.

    The evolutionary psychology people would say that most of the social scientists like to believe in evolution only to kick the Christians. After that, they shy away from all the evolutionary conclusions about human biological diversity.

    1. Your internet "good job" is like hearing you laugh at a joke in person. I know you wouldn't say it if you didn't REALLY think it, so it gives me warm fuzzies every time.

  6. What they really wanted to ask Rubio was "When did you stop beating your wife?", without being quite so obvious.