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Do You Have to be an Expert to Understand Science?

I find it very troubling when noted politicians seem to be OK with being ignorant.

Here is an excerpt from a recent GQ interview with Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida):


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.

There are so many things wrong with this response; it’s hard to know where to begin. 

That this statement comes from a nationally recognized politician with possible presidential aspirations is appalling.


Why don’t we first take on the issue of whether you need to be a scientist to answer this question? 

The answer to that one is clearly – NO.

Anyone can open a science textbook and get the answer – 4.5 Billion years.

The next question you may have is why should we trust what is in a science textbook?  Isn’t that like getting received wisdom from a religious text like the Bible?

Once again, the answer is no.

Anyone can independently go back to the relevant technical papers used to come up with the reasoning behind the answer that the earth is 4.5 Billion years old. If you cannot digest technical papers, there are a number of books that explain how scientists discovered the method of radiometric dating and came up with this number. One such book is Ancient Earth, Ancient Skies, by Brent Dalrymple, which anyone with a high school education should be able to read.  In the back of the book are all the research papers used to support the text.

I also have a book on evolution called “Optical Allusions”, which is in the form of a comic book and does a great job of explaining the evolution of the eye. Again, all the relevant technical literature is cited at the end, but any 6th grader could read the book and understand the scientific underpinnings of evolutionary theory.

That’s the beauty of science – anyone can look at the data used to come up with answers such as how old the earth is or how the eye evolved.

Science is not received wisdom.  It may seem like that when you read or watch popular media, but when you get down to it; science is knowledge based on experimentation and/or observation that anyone can take the time to evaluate.

It’s also my opinion that the popular media suffer the same problem as Senator Rubio – the inability to think critically about scientific issues and present these issues to the public in an intelligent manner.

So, what about Rubio’s statement that “Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that”?

Well – scientists HAVE answered that one and it sure as heck was not seven days.  More like 1,642,500,000,000 days, give or take a few million to account for the precision of the radioactive decay measurement. Actually, the geologic time scale as 10 Eras, not seven, but that’s beside the point.

The last question that needs to be addressed is whether politicians need to understand science to do their jobs effectively?

Yes, they do. No one is asking politicians to be experts but they should know enough to be able to ask intelligent questions and make decisions based on sound reasoning and evidence.  President Lincoln did not establish the National Academy of Sciences just for kicks. The act that established the NAS says, in part:

[T]he Academy shall, whenever called upon by any department of the government, investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art, the actual expense of such investigations, examinations, experiments, and reports to be paid from appropriations which may be made for the purpose.

We live in a technological era where we are surrounded by the results of basic scientific research, from modern pharmaceuticals to microchips that are ubiquitous in everything from our watches to our cars.

We continue to be challenged by a host of issues which require a scientific perspective, including energy, food production, severe weather caused by climate change, advances in medicine, diseases, rapid changes in technology and on and on.

Heck, businesses are screaming that they do not have enough technically qualified people to fill jobs that demand knowledge of basic science and math.  Scientific literacy is a must if we are to maintain ourselves as a technologicially advanced nation.

Bottom Line

We need to be an informed electorate, but we should expect no less of the people we elect to political office.  I, for one, am very uncomfortable, to say the least, with politicians who display such ignorance.

Contrary to Senator Rubio’s assertion, understanding science has everything to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

UglyHat November 28, 2012 at 02:09 PM
That's not true at all. There are a lot of stupid questions.
Andy Koenigsberg November 28, 2012 at 04:57 PM
Sure - if the question is something like "How often do you beat your mother?" Asking someone if they know how old the earth is, is not a stupid question.
UglyHat November 28, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Asking someone a question that you know (or can find) the answer to, when you know the person you’re asking has no better or faster access to a more informed answer makes it a stupid question and a waste of time.
Max Walker November 29, 2012 at 12:29 AM
this has become a litmus question, because the republicans have made it so. it is not a stupid question because the answer cleanly divides politicians into three categories -- totally pro-science, anti-science and quite likely a village idiot, and politician scared of angering his base. i'd like to know which of the three categories a politician belongs to. it's a useful thing to know.
Dr. Edward Beck December 03, 2012 at 03:50 PM
Wouldn't it be nice to just have politicians that say what the truly believe, even if it seemed absurd to others? Terms limits may help slightly. I definitely agree that basic science is easy enough to understand for the large majority of people if they simply open a book or use the internet. On your last comment about Obama, he also appointed Monsanto's Vice President as Senior Advisor to the FDA. Monsanto will continue to destroy farms and make the farmers dependent on their GMO seeds, and the government will allow it as they realize that big business rules. I believe that each party would do the same, Democrat or Republican, since it's about power (votes). This, unfortunately is an example of how "science" can be manipulated. Great article and follow up!

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