Open Letter to Senator Marco Rubio

November 20, 2012

Dear Senator Rubio:

Recently you gave an interview to GQ magazine, in which the following exchange occurred:

GQ: 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.

Much as I love Ghostbusters, Peter Venkman is not a good example of a scientist to draw on.

Now I get a couple of things: you’re referencing Ghostbusters, so we should give you a tiny allowance for humorous rhetoric. I also get that in today’s Republican Party, there is a conflict between secular conservatism—which cares little for theological debates, in favor of and a powerful Christian fundamentalist element that won’t throw support behind anyone who doesn’t take a literalist view of Genesis. You’re trying to have it both ways.

However, the age of Earth is not a matter of opinion, so there is no “middle ground” for discussion. Whether there’s a dispute among theologians or not is, frankly, irrelevant. The age of Earth (4.54 billion years, which you find if you type “age of earth” into Google search) is not a controversial issue, and hasn’t been for many years in the scientific community. The evidence from the radioactive decay of certain elements found in rock strata and meteorites (as well as Earth’s Moon) strongly comes down on the side of an Earth that is neither young nor infinitely old, as some non-Christian theologies and philosophies believe. Any theologian who doesn’t accept the scientific consensus on Earth’s age must reject this evidence; at that point, they may as well be debating the number of angels dancing Gangnam Style on the head of a pin.

You hedged your bet by claiming that the age of Earth is irrelevant to the economy. However, as Forbes science and technology writer Alex Knapp wisely pointed out, “I say that because the age of the universe has a lot to do with how our economy is going to grow. That’s because large parts of the economy absolutely depend on scientists being right about either the age of the Universe or the laws of the Universe that allow scientists to determine its age.” Knapp is correct: Earth’s age is not an independent fact, isolated from the vast framework of modern science. Our planet’s age is determined by a branch of science—nuclear physics—built on quantum mechanics (which allows all of modern technology to exist) and relativity (which shows among other things the relationship between mass and energy). Knapp rhetorically imagines the consequences of these theories being wrong, but he’s honestly being too generous. If these theories were as severely wrong as would be necessary to allow for a young Earth, I couldn’t even be typing this on my computer. The modern world as we know it couldn’t exist.

Senator Rubio, you don’t need to be a scientist to know all of this. Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman aside, scientists don’t as a rule pull rank and declare their sources of knowledge off limits to others. Many of us would be happy to spend time explaining to you and your Senate colleagues exactly how we know the age of Earth, without jargon. It’s not complicated: I’ve taught it in astronomy and physics classes on many occasions. It’s not mysterious! You can trust scientists, not because we have arcane knowledge inaccessible to anyone else, but because our knowledge can be learned. I won’t tell you to back off, man.

In fact, let me say this: I don’t care if you don’t have the specific age of Earth memorized (4.54 billion years, so you don’t have to scroll back up). That number is a fact: something so well known and well established as to be boring; you or your aides can look it up very quickly thanks to modern quantum technology. Your misunderstanding is more fundamental than that. Scientific knowledge is based on how we know facts, frameworks of understanding called theories. By equating non-scientific and scientific perspectives on the age of Earth, and concluding that we’ll never know the real answer, you are actually taking an anti-scientific position—an especially concerning one, given that you are rumored to be a 2016 presidential candidate.

To quote Knapp again: “this doesn’t mean that our representatives to the Congress and to the Senate should be scientific experts. But if they hold ideas about the world around us that are fundamentally at odds with scientific evidence, then that will ultimately infringe on their ability to make reasoned judgments about a host of issues where the economy touches technology.” Aside from the economy (and trust me, as someone looking for work, I know how bad the economy is right now), knowing and trusting how science works is part of being an informed citizen of the United States, and the world.




Matthew R. Francis
Physicist, science writer, educator

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26 Responses to “Open Letter to Senator Marco Rubio”

  1. 1 marksackler November 20, 2012 at 09:36

    The Republican Party is doomed to a slow and painful death if it does not change its views on science and women.

  2. 4 Kay HInckley November 20, 2012 at 13:29

    Hubris at it’s best, and I don’t mean Marco Rubio.

    • 5 cactusren November 20, 2012 at 13:41

      Are you saying that having a basic understanding of science and being willing to share the information (and the processes by which we learned that information) with others is an example of hubris? If so, may I suggest you consult a dictionary.

      • 6 Kay HInckley November 20, 2012 at 14:06

        I did, The OED, in fact. One can neither prove a negative nor disprove one. Science isn’t in danger here. It is a wonderful discipline upon which basis I live my life. Check “hubris” again. Wordiness proves nothing. Back to basics here, neither side is provable.

      • 7 cactusren November 20, 2012 at 14:35

        I’m still not quite sure what you’re trying to argue for–but I’ll respond to your statement that “neither side is provable”. There is plenty of evidence showing that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. And no, science doesn’t “prove” things–it tests hypotheses, and those that are held up by evidence over and over again become theories. If you’re saying that scientific theories are equal in weight to stories which have no evidence backing them up–that we simply can’t choose between the two which one is valid–then you are not acutally basing your life on science. You may be reaping the technological benefits, but you are not thinking scientifically.

      • 8 November 20, 2012 at 15:19

        Cactus, that’s a very measured and polite response. I don’t have nearly that amount of patience when it comes to disregarding critical thinking.

    • 9 Torbjörn Larsson, OM November 20, 2012 at 16:41

      “One can neither prove a negative nor disprove one.”

      Creationists shouldn’t comment on science. It is hilarious to see.

      The observed age of the Earth is a well tested fact. And it happens to sit a few tens of millions of years from one of the really precision observations of astronomical objects: the age of the solar system, now observed to within ~ 160 000 years! That is a precision of ~ 0.004 %.

      (When I started to study astrobiology, the precision was a mere ~ 0.5 %. But that was ancient times, 3-4 years ago.)

      As an empirical fact, it is untouched by philosophical ruminations, which are no better than theology in the first place. Empirically we don’t “prove” things, we test them.

      And we have many tests that rejects negatives, such as signals traveling above the universal speed limit or temperatures below the universal temperature limit. Similarly we have many tests that accepts positives, such as the existence of objects traveling below the universal speed limit or temperatures above the universal temperature limit.

      Observations are not a problem. People rejecting universally accepted observations are a problem.

      • 10 Torbjörn Larsson, OM November 20, 2012 at 16:46

        Note that I mean the faux “negatives” and “positives” of philosophy here, not the actual negatives and positives of statistical observation.

      • 11 Kay HInckley November 21, 2012 at 02:03

        Empiricism is not certainty. Hume and Locke recognized it’s shortfall.

  3. 12 cactusren November 20, 2012 at 15:47

    Thanks, LoudGuitr. It’s a skill I’ve acquired from grading papers. It can be challenging to stay civil when you see the same logical fallacy in every damn lab report, but if you’re going to teach people anything, it helps a lot if they don’t hate you because you were too mean :)

    • 13 Kay HInckley November 20, 2012 at 17:43

      I’ll add sophistry to hubris. You can pile as many experts as you want, millions if you wish, indeed, they might be right. Numbers don’t prove anything is right, they prove only that numbers think they are right. I have no quarrel with the earth being ____ years old; you supply the numbers, give or take a billion or so. It’s a little like asking how many “scientists” can dance on the head of a pin.

      You sorely misjudge many who believe in a divine source of wisdom and knowledge. We hold no scorn for paleo-sciences, nor for healthy debate. I have lived just long enough to see elegant houses of scientific cards crumble with some newer principles which replace them, be they Polkinghorn’s unproven speculations, or a sub-atomic particle which proves unpredictable–even our latest string theories.

      To sum up, God is not provable nor disprovable. That he has or hasn’t created this little world is neither provable nor disprovable. That scientific methods have produced elegant and wonderful advancements and replicable results which have benefited mankind is provable–desirable, in fact.

      I might even suggest the irritant might be political instead of scientific. No amount of bullying or bludgeoning by unbelievers will prove or disprove belief. Belief is not necessarily ignorance, a fact that might come as a real surprise to some. However, if having a coterie of sycophants and janissaries is soothing to the irritated mind, may you move forward in your task.

      • 14 Kay HInckley November 20, 2012 at 17:59

        p.s. The stereotyping all who believe in a divine source of creation is the height of narrowness and rigid thinking. Why not be welcoming and broaden the scope of discussion. Your beliefs, I am sure, will not be corrupted by an atom or so of respect for others whose beliefs happen to be diametrical to yours. As for seven days, seven years, seven billions of years, you might be surprised how many people of faith agree with you. So leave Marco Rubio to his devices unless, of course, you are in fear that he might run for high office in the future. In that case, you are welcome to fire the initial volley of the 2016 campaign. Just be truthful about your motives, which I suspect, are well limned in the rage of your diatribe.

  4. 15 John Hentges November 20, 2012 at 17:28

    Just playing devils’ advocate here: the earth was instantiated, along with the rest of the universe, six thousand years ago. At that time the Earth’s age was set, by the god these people worship, at 4.5 billion years.

    Oh, and the dinosaur fossils were put there by that god to give man a reason to doubt so more of them would go to hell.

    In the wing-nuts’ minds there need not be a conflict between the two ages stated.

    On the other hand, it is also true that the entire universe, and time itself, was created NOW. We were instantiated with fake memories of the past, and the universe with fake causality chains going back to the beginning of the universe billions of years ago.

    NONE of these creation-date conjectures can be tested for: ALL evidence we CAN discover can only determine the billions of years old dates. ANY creation date that doesn’t match the experimentally discoverable billions-of-years date is PHILOSOPHY, not science, and comparing them is pointless.

    SO IS TEACHING THEM. Keep your philosophies out of my school.

    Btw, the universe demonstrates a solid causality chain going back 13.75 billion years+, but if your god is outside time it could have been instantiated whenever you want.

    Also: humans started using spears five hundred thousand years ago.

  5. 16 Matthew R. Francis November 20, 2012 at 18:01

    While it’s possible we’ll revise our numbers on the ages of things (unlikely, but possible), it’s impossible we’ll revise our numbers to the extent that we’ll shrink 4.54 billion years to 6,000. That’s not a small adjustment, but a fundamental change that can’t happen.

    I wrote a post earlier this year that seems appropriate to bring up, about the questions of faith and scientific knowledge:
    Briefly: to believe Earth is young, you have to believe that scientists are all dupes or devils.

    • 17 Kay HInckley November 21, 2012 at 00:26

      Mr. Francis, no one believes the collective you to be dupes or devils. You are simply trying to prove the unprovable. 6 million zeroes are still zero. 6 million non-believing scientists can still be wrong. You are all saying the same thing. Repetition does not prove verity, only more of the same. It is amusing that those who are so sure of their scientific knowledge are so threatened by those who choose not to join them in their non-belief but do believe in the scientific method insofar as it sticks to what it can prove.

      I can’t prove God exists, and you can’t prove he doesn’t. One-million words later, this will still be the case. Even Dr. Polkinghorn in his search for the “God particle”, as elegant as it is, cannot prove God exists. Nor can you, no matter your intelligence, cannot prove he doesn’t and that he didn’t design the earth exactly as scientists have discovered. Ooh, scary thought, he might even delight in science’s feeble efforts to prove he isn’t there. One might accidentally overturn a stone and find Him there saying “boo.”

      In the end, you can’t prove he doesn’t exist, and I can’t prove he does. I have read works of world-renowned scientists, and some are believers and some are non-believers. This doesn’t discredit their work as long as it is replicable and bears scrutiny and stays in the realm of science, which is, really, only one realm among many.

      Have fun tilting at windmills. The wind is not threatened. KH

      • 18 Loudguitr November 21, 2012 at 07:01

        While there are different ways to debate this, the argument you make, Kay, holds no water at all. To suggest that repeatable results might be invalid in the face of a supernatural answer is an unreasonable argument. No amount of data could ever convince you. This is called dogma. Next time you have an infection, try going to church and see how that works out.

  6. 19 Kay HInckley November 20, 2012 at 21:09

    Okay, guys, this has been great fun. You have waged a valiant campaign, leapt into the fray with courage, you have followed your vaunted leader. I concede you have won. You have built a marvelous straw man, and you have killed him. Sleep well, and have a blessed rest.

    • 20 Ann Wells November 20, 2012 at 22:43

      Okay, I realize that this probably won’t change anyone’s mind (or even open any minds up, just a little) but let’s try.
      I am a Christian. I believe that what’s in the Bible is what God told some humans, about 6000 years ago. But this was God explaining what He did, in ways that they could sorta-kinda understand. And these were humans that did understand about sharp edges, but they hadn’t even invented SCISSORS yet. So He told them that He did it in 6 days. But did God say that His days were slightly more than 24 hours long? How could He, when an hour had not been defined for humans at that time? And He probably didn’t even state it as that He did it in 6 steps, with a collection of related tasks in each step. He just did it, created the universe. And does it matter really, how He did it? What’s important is that it was done. I think that it’s good to honor Him for doing so, also, but that’s just me. Opinions differ on who/what we should call the Creator, but that’s okay- if such a name really matters to Him, He will let us know, unmistakably. In the meantime, May the Blessings of the Lord be upon you, all of you.

      • 21 Loudguitr November 20, 2012 at 23:05

        Ann, you could change all of our minds if you had anything resembling reason or evidence. What you have presented is an ancient myth invented by people who thought sin causes disease, the earth is flat, and had no idea where the sun went at night. You are unlikely to change many minds with that. The thing you might consider about thinkers is that they are open to changing their minds by continuing to learn new things, digesting the information, and drawing logical conclusions based on the data. The problem with religion is it will not consider new information, and claims to have all the answers. It’s nice to compartmentalize this type of dogma, but I will point out that very few Christians go to the priest when they get sick, need technical help with a device, or to address any other need that requires actual knowledge and wisdom. What a sad state of affairs that they disregard their thinking brain regarding the really important questions. Not having all the answers is much more wonderful than making them up.

  7. 23 Aaron Rhodes November 21, 2012 at 00:08

    I like the letter, but I don’t think its really effective for changing the opinion of the Senator.

  8. 24 voice_of_reason November 25, 2012 at 20:21

    Thank heavens that we all live in America, where we are all free to believe whatever we want to, and indeed to share that belief with other people. How about we all accept the fact that we can all believe different things and still co-exist peacefully?

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