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.
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