An age-old question

Let me start out by saying “!#%%$#@!!–I’ve been scooped!” It’s bad enough that it happens in science, but for a blog?

Having watched a good deal of news on the idiot box recently–something that happens every 3-4 years in our household as we despairing watch how tragedy unfolds in the middle-east–I was also privy to parts of an interview with an “up and coming rising star” in the Republican party named Marco Rubio.

One must understand that the Republicans are in tatters after this election; for many the proverbial shoe has dropped, and there is a realization that American demographics and attitudes are changing. Many now see marriage rights for gays as the new civil rights battle of the 21st century. However, there is a strong backlash against progressive Republicans, with the claim from Tea Party and their ilk that the moderate Republicans and their overly liberal attitudes are responsible for sinking the Republican ship. And then there’s Mitt Romney, whose statements about Hurricane Sandy causing him to lose the election, and claims that Obama won the election by handing out gifts to certain ethnic groups. Completely clueless. Well, good luck to them all in picking up the pieces and bringing the hyper-conservatives, moderates and clueless under one roof for the next election.

But back to Marco Rubio and the age-old question. He was interviewed by someone from GQ magazine (it took me ages to find out that this stands for Gentleman’s Quarterly–and a brief foray to their website assured me that I have no reason to return), who suddenly asked him “How old do you think the earth is?

While I was searching for the transcript to post his exact reply, I found that New York Times writer Ross Douthat beat me to the punch with an article entitled “Marco Rubio and the age of the earth.” To avoid being influenced by his comment, I will read his article only after I have posted mine. But I have a sneaky feeling that we are likely to have similar views about Rubio’s answer to the question.

And what was his answer? Well the correct answer is about 4.5 billion years. Marco Rubio’s answer was as follows:

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.”

Rubio says he doesn’t think he’s qualified to answer that. I’ve read that he has a degree in law, but not economics. Does that disqualify him from taking a stand on tax reform and other economic issues? Apparently not. He doesn’t hold a degree in international affairs, and he hasn’t served in the military. Is he still able to discuss world affairs and national defense issues?

This cop-out type of answer is a dangerous harbinger of the new style of attack on science. Whereas the loony Tea Party has been identified and shelved in the corner, along with their respective young-earth creationists and supporters, they at least are frank enough in their anti-science rhetoric so that the general public can view them for what they are: people who want to drag us back to the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries. Or farther.

On the other hand, the Rubio approach, which combines a more subtle technique that appears not to directly attack science, is probably infinitely more dangerous to science and scientists. “I don’t know.” “I’m not a scientist.” “It’s not my business.” “Let everyone teach and believe whatever they like.” “It doesn’t matter.” These types of supposed middle-ground views tend to resonate better with the uninitiated. But make no mistake–they are as brutal an attack on the validity of science as those positions put forth by Tea Party members and young-earth creationists.

I really don’t know how the Republican Party plans to get its act together, but the American people will clearly benefit from two educated and sophisticated parties who unequivocally embrace science and scientific evidence as the basis for technology and advancement in the modern world.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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3 Responses to An age-old question

  1. When I did the “I’m a scientist..” schools science thing in the Summer, we got asked a lot of questions in the online chats about the origins of man, or the earth, or the universe, and quite a few of them were phrased in ways that suggested kids who’d heard religious creation stories.

    Admittedly, they had the excuse, not available to Sen. Rubio, of being between nine and fourteen years old.

    I read the GQ interview with Rubio, and it was scary, juxtaposed against all the stuff about him being a front-runner for 2016 if the Republicans were aiming to woo the hispanic vote.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Unless the GOP “modernizes” their platform, and embraces science and technology- along with tolerance for different world views, I don’t see them winning in 2016. It’s not enough to add a Latino to the ticket.

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