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Nov 23 2012

How US politicians answer questions about science

I wrote recently about Republican Florida senator Marco Rubio hedging an answer to the question on the age of the Earth.

Q: How old do you think the Earth is?

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.

He was widely ridiculed for either believing in a young Earth or for cowardice, trying to avoid offending young Earth creationists and hurting his presidential ambitions, and even some Republicans have labeled his comments as ‘strange’ and said that “We’ve got to be a kind of pro-science and pro-technology party.”

But as Daniel Engber points out, in 2008 then-presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama also hedged his answer to a similar question, saying:

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.

Engber compares the two answers in detail and concludes, “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.” He adds that serious politicians with national ambitions by now have all learned to say the same thing is response to questions about science: “Well, you know, that’s a complicated issue … and who am I to say?”

Engber points out that in Obama’s favor, he has on occasion said that he believes in the theory of evolution although there too he seeks to mollify the religionists by hastening to add that he believes science is compatible with Christian faith and that it actually strengthens his faith.

I share Stephen R. Walt’s hope that “maybe one of these days we’ll have a serious presidential candidate who openly proclaims her or his faith in science and reason and rejects allegiance to any unseen superhuman entity.”

We are long overdue for such a candidate. It is quite incredible that in the US in the 21st century, no aspirant for high elected public office can say unequivocally that he or she accepts the verdict of science that the age of the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    slc1

    I rather like Vice-President Biden’s response when he was asked his take on Intelligent Design. He responded with a two word answer: “Its malarkey.”

  2. 2
    composer99

    My only quibble is over:

    [M]aybe one of these days we’ll have a serious presidential candidate who openly proclaims her or his faith in science and reason and rejects allegiance to any unseen superhuman entity.

    This hypothetical candidate doesn’t need to proclaim faith in science. There’s plenty of evidence that it delivers the goods.

  3. 3
    sunny

    I agree: I wish we would drop the words “faith” and “belief” when we talk about science. To the religious it automatically sounds like the claims of just another religion.

  4. 4
    Christoph Burschka

    faith in science

    Yeah, I have to agree with the above comment. Not having faith in science is the point of science. Creationists have picked up on this. The I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I arguments “it takes more faith to be an atheist” or “atheism is a religion” are squarely aimed at it.
    Replacing faith in religion with faith in science is at best a half-measure.

  5. 5
    B-Lar

    I believe that one day we will not need to use words like belief in conjunction with science.

  6. 6
    Shawn Mann

    This illustrates what education goals the GOP has set for industrial and technical nation building. Belief is easy with a candle and just one book.I for one, embrace my personal Savior having pet dinosaurs. It make science more fiction and religion more like a really bad 50s “B” movie!

  7. 7
    Frank

    It’s the problem of words having multiple senses (cf. evolution: “It’s only a theory”). I have “faith” in science because it generates reproducible results and technological advances that are readily apparent. The religious person has “faith” in his or her god irrespective of evidence (you know, the “faith is a virtue” type).

    I try to avoid using the word “faith” when talking about science because of the second sense, but is there a better word for “confidence based on previous experience”? “Confidence” itself might work, but it still seems a bit weak to me. Any other suggestions?

  8. 8
    Frank

    Clarification: comment was intended for 2. composer99. Apparently when you log in after hitting “reply,” the comment field reverts to the main thread.

  9. 9
    thewhollynone

    The trick of winning in democratic politics lies in the art of offending as few people as possible while charming everyone. As LBJ said, “Before you can become a statesman, first you have to get elected.” I doubt that anyone who is a real scientific thinker could get elected in this country, or could govern if he/she got elected. The best that we can hope for is a candidate who likes science and who trusts scientists, to a point anyway.

  10. 10
    jamessweet

    I think the one area where the Rubio quote is a lot worse than the Obama quote is that the former gave a nod to the “teaching multiple theories” nonsense — so his political cowardice has potential policy ramifications as well.

    Still, if you had taken the Obama quote and told me it was a tea party senator, I’d be furious.

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