Why Are We Surprised About Senator Rubio’s Concept of Geological History?

November 26, 2012

You would think that a United States Senator would have at least a rudimentary knowledge of geology. Presumably the Senator, who is on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, must use knowledge of science to deal with some of the issues this committee tackles, especially the subcommittee of Science & Space, of which he is a member. He is well-educated with degrees from the University of South Florida and the University of Miami (Law).

Senator Rubio no doubt had a course in earth science when he was a middle school student in Florida, and no doubt took biology courses in high school and at the University of South Florida, where he earned a B.A. degree. And given that he received his degrees in the 1990s, there really hasn’t been enough time for him to forget everything he learned in science classes.

Yet, when he was asked about the age of earth, he said he wasn’t a scientist, and not qualified to answer. What is the implication of that answer? Does he mean that only “experts” like scientists can express a qualified opinion? Does this mean that only lawyers, like himself, are qualified to give opinions about legal matters? Here is Rubio’s complete answer:

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.

William Smith’s first geologic map of England, c. 1815

William ‘Strata’ Smith would beg to differ. In truth, knowing about the history of the earth, the age and composition of rock formations changed the world economy. Simon Winchester in his book, The Map That Changed the World, tells the story of how Smith, a English canal digger, discovered that rocks he was digging were arranged in layers; he also noted that fossils varied from one place to another, and by using fossils he could “trace” layers around England. According to Winchester, Smith realized that he could make a map that would show the ‘hidden’ earth. He created a hand-painted geologic map that was eight feet high by six feet wide.

According to Winchester (and most geologists would agree), the world’s coal and oil industry, its gold mining, its highway systems, and railroad routes were are derived entirely from the creation of Smith’s geologic map. Mr. Rubio might want to know that there is a field of study called economic geology.

The answer Rubio gave might also come as surprise to some middle and high school students that had taken a few courses in science, especially earth science, biology or astronomy. In those courses they most likely studied geological time, rocks, minerals, and fossils, and learned about methods scientists use to date things that happened long ago.

But here is something that is more important. Geology is the study of earth (the place we all live), its history, structure, evolution of life, and the processes that moulded the Earth, and affected its inhabitants. Don’t you think that we should expect that men and woman elected to the U.S. Congress ought to know something about the planet on which they live?

Should members of Congress pass a literacy test (link to the US Citizenship Test) that would include questions on science, political science, religion, economics, history of the U.S.? Just to be sure they have the knowledge needed to do their job? Teachers, physicians, pedicurists, lawyers, and electricians need to be certified by a test. Why not members of Congress?

Is the Earth Really Billions of Years Old?

Archbishop Usher of Ireland, a highly regarded churchman and scholar (1581 – 1665), established the Usher chronology by comparing written histories and Holy writ concluded that the earth was formed on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. He then calculated the dates of other biblical events. The “young Earth” of Usher came under criticism, especially in the 19th Century with the development of the science of geology. Usher’s views however were not different from some famous scientists. Johannes Kepler’s earth was 3992 BC, and Sir Isaac Newton’s was c. 4000 BC). Their views were not nonsense.

But, today we do have people who claim that the earth is only 9,000 years old. A 9,000 year old earth is nonsense. I am talking about Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia who said:

You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.

Phil Plait, on his Bad Astronomy blogwrote a post on Rep. Broun. Plait suggests that Broun is another member of the Anti-Science Committee that resides in the halls of Congress.

Senator Rubio and Representative Broun might be surprised to find out who wrote the following account of the origin of earth and life on earth. Read on….

Here is one view of the universe, its origin, and emergence and development of life on Earth:

According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang‘ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5–4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.

Most high school students, if asked, whether they think this is a fair account of the origin of the earth and development of life, would probably agree.

Representative Paul Broun of Georgia would say the statement is straight from Hell. The earth is only 9,000 years old.

Senator Rubio thinks that the science on the age of the earth is not settled. He ought to read Alex Knapp’s post on Forbes. Rubio thinks there are multiple theories to explain the age of the earth. He thinks the age of the earth is one of the great mysteries of the world.

Rubio is a Roman Catholic. The quote that I included above was not written by a scientist. It was written by a Catholic Cardinal in 2004. When it was written, the author’s name was Cardinal Ratzinger. He is now Pope Benedict XVI. You can check the reference here: Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, plenary sessions held in Rome 2000–2002, published July 2004.

Would this information, and the knowledge that the head of the Catholic church accepts the scientific views on the history of earth, and evolution of life on the planet have any affect on Rubio’s views?

Probably not.

Say It Isn’t So

Are Rubio’s views simply fundamental religious beliefs? Are his answers couched in politico speak? Is he more concerned about what potential voters think of his view on such as ‘touchy’ subject? Would his answers on evolution, global warming and climate change, and cloning lead to the same kind of conclusions?

Even though Rubio’s education and religious beliefs should not have been a conflict with the established science of the age of earth, or even evolution, he appears to be either fearful of science, or he is beholden to the conservative world view that is based on a strict father or authoritarian figure. Is he beholden to the radical right of the Republican party when he gives anti science answers?

In George Lakoff’s view, we can understand one’s position on issues such as the “age of the earth” by understanding his research on deep framing–the moral and political principles that cut across issues and that are needed before “slogans or clever phrases” can have meaning with the public. Lakoff, however, believes that politics is about values and how to communicate them, not necessarily about issues. Lakoff writes in his book, Thinking Points, that

Politics is about values; it is about communication; it is about voters trusting a candidate to do what is right; it is about believing in, and identifying with, a candidate’s worldview. And it is about symbolism.

Rubio’s answer to the question the earth’s age is about the values he holds about truth and knowledge. By saying that the age of the earth is a great mystery, he is opting for an authoritarian source of knowledge based on beliefs, and not a source of knowledge based science, reason or inquiry. Rubio’s position is based on the Strict Father Model that Lakoff has developed that focuses on authority and control. In the case of the age of the earth, a religious authority has a more valid answer than the field of geology. Conservatives think that they lose control if they accept data, knowledge, concepts and principles established by science. There is little authority in the field of science. There is no president or moral leader of science. For a conservative, values and resulting beliefs and attitudes flow from a moral authority–God, the president, the parents, the teacher, commanding officer, and so forth (Lakoff, Thinking Points).

For progressives, who have turned to the keyboard on their blogs and newspaper articles after Rubio’s comments, its important to point out what their values are, how it frames their positions on issues. What values underscore why they oppose anti-science comments spread by members of Congress such as Rubio?

What are the values that move you to agree or disagree with Rubio’s view on the age of the Earth?

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordinator of science education, and was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design and...