(Disclaimer: I wrote about this issue for my WHYY blog. I don’t want to commit any Jonah Lehrer style double dipping, but I think the coverage of this issue is worth discussing here at the Tracker as well.)
It was open season on biblical creationism last week following the latest waffling weirdness to come from a politician’s mouth. This time it was Marco Rubio, a U.S. Senator from Florida, who had this to say when a GQ interviewer asked him the age of the Earth:
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…
Not surprisingly thousands of science writers and scientists piled on him. And that’s fine, but wringing your hands about the scientific bogusness of Biblical literalism is about as challenging as beating a tortoise in a 100 yard dash.
So I won’t bore you with the many pieces that belabored the obvious. Instead, I’ve flagging a couple of contrarian pieces and posts. Karl Giberson wrote this piece for the Huffington Post, which argued that creationists are not idiots – they’re victims of a massive propaganda campaign:
"For starters, it is simply not true that "all educated people accept evolution, the Big Bang, and the great age of the earth," and only ignoramuses think otherwise. Groups like Answers in Genesis, the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research aggressively market the impressive academic credentials of their staff scientists. The Discovery Institute has compiled a list of hundreds of scientists with Ph.D.s who "dissent from Darwin." Answers in Genesis has a former college biology professor on staff and publishes a "peer reviewed" journal. One of America's best-known anti-evolutionists is tenured in biochemistry at Lehigh University. There are entire universities -- Liberty, Bob Jones, Patrick Henry, Cedarville -- where faculty sign faith statements rejecting evolution."
I’m glad Giberson had the guts to break from the pack, but here he interchanged intelligent design and biblical literalism. This is a serious mistake, since the subject of the controversy at hand is the age of the Earth, and intelligent design proponents allow for the proper age. The Discovery Institute is the one focused in intelligent design. Behe is an ID guy. If you’re going to effectively fight creationism, know your enemies. To lay people, ID is not as obviously crazy as biblical creationism, but it’s just as wrong-headed. That’s why I’m a fan of Judge Jones for his articulate and well-reasoned ruling against it in the Dover trial.
Another contrarian piece from last week’s news focused on the previous creationism-in-politics flap. In this piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Adam Laats looks at Paul Broun:
"Broun, who serves on the House of Representatives' Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has long been one of the most staunchly conservative members of Congress. His comments have earned him widespread condemnation; Bill Nye, television's "The Science Guy," has called Broun "by any measure, unqualified to make decisions about science, space, and technology." In the blogosphere, comment has been even less restrained.
I disagree with Broun's views on evolution—and on a host of other topics, for that matter. But if we hope to understand creationism, we need to abandon the trope that only the ignorant can oppose mainstream evolutionary science. It is a comfortable delusion, a head-in-the-sand approach to improving evolution education in the United States. In the end, it stems from a shocking ignorance among evolutionists about the nature of creationist beliefs.
First of all, Broun is no ignoramus. He holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry and an M.D. He is the most recent in a long line of educated creationists."
I mentioned this piece in my own blog, and also recommended Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain for a fascinating explanation of the way educated and even smart people can believe the weirdest things.
I also wrote that I questioned all the finger-wagging that went on over Rubio’s statement that the age of the Earth won’t affect the economy. Many people twisted his words so they could accuse him of saying science has nothing to do with the economy. The subsequent outrage seemed disingenuous and a bit pompous.
I was pleased to discover that Daniel Engber at Slate had the same reaction I did, and in his piece, Who Said it, Marco Rubio or Barak Obama?, he went a step further by calling out reporters and bloggers who joined the finger-wagging pack. It's a good, gutsy piece of writing:
What about Rubio's assertion that the age of the Earth "has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States"? That's the claim that gave Phil Plait "a chill," since science is "the very foundation of our country's economy." At Forbes, Alex Knapp declares that "this economy, at its root, is built on a web of scientific knowledge from physics to chemistry to biology. It's impossible to just cherry pick out parts we don’t like." If we get it wrong on Earth's creation, these critics say, the United States will fall apart.
Will it really? It seems to me that Rubio is right. Lots of basic scientific questions have no bearing whatsoever on the nation's short-term economic growth. We can even go much further: Lots of scientific questions don't matter all that much when it comes to other scientific questions. It's possible—and quite common—for scientists to plug away at research projects without explicit knowledge of what's happening in other fields. And when a bedrock principle of science does need to be adjusted—a not-so-unusual occurrence, it turns out—the edifice of scholarship doesn't crumble into dust. DVD players still operate. Nuclear plants don't shut down.
When I wrote a newspaper column on evolution I heard from creationist doctors, chemists and engineers all the time. Surely they were doing good economy-bolstering work. Engber also popped the balloon of gloating partisans by showing that President Obama waffled on questions about creationism in a way that bears a striking resemblance to the recent Rubio utterance. Here’s Engber quoting Obama waffling:
"What I've said to them is that I believe that God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it … it may not be 24-hour days, and that's what I believe. I know there's always a debate between those who read the Bible literally and those who don't, and I think it's a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I'm a part. My belief is that the story that the Bible tells about God creating this magnificent Earth on which we live—that is essentially true, that is fundamentally true. Now, whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible: That, I don't presume to know…"
There was one error in Rubio’s statement that should have gotten more attention. Many writers pondered whether Rubio was himself a creationist or he was just pandering to them. He dropped a big hint when he conflated the origin of the Earth and birth of the universe. That’s very geocentric of him. Creationists may think of the birth of the Earth and the universe as the same thing. Nobody with a scientifically oriented worldview would do that.