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.

Max Walker November 25, 2012 at 02:53 PM
Andy - excellent piece. Many politicians are probably truly anti-science, but in Rubio's case, it felt like he was deliberately cagey because he didn't want to anger his base voters.
Andy Koenigsberg November 25, 2012 at 04:13 PM
Thanks. I think the GQ question was designed to put Rubio on the spot and it just made him look silly. Regardless, if Senator Rubio is just playing to a base of evangelical Christians which represents a only quarter of the population of this country and declining, and with a growing number of younger people either leaving their faith or reporting themselves as unaffiliated with any organized religion, how long can that strategy keep working? I have to also say that President Obama said something similar back in 2008 when he was a Senator, which also pisses me off to no end. At least the people he has appointed to science and technology positions have been more apt to make decisions based on reason and evidence, which was not the case in the previous admnistration. There are something like 3 or 4 million job openings in this country right now which are unfilled because of the lack of applicants educated in science and math so we have to decide as a people what is more important to teach: sound scientific reasoning or watered down semi-ideological pablum which does not offend anyone. To quote Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History: "I don't have an issue with what you do in the chruch, but I'm going to be up in your face if you're going to knock on my science classroom and tell me they've got to teach what you're teaching in your Sunday school." I will leave it at that. Thanks again for reading.
TBH November 26, 2012 at 01:39 PM
And this guy is the future of the republican party?! Aye. This is the stuff to make you want to go and pound your head against a rock. Literally. Here is some more head exploding stats... a 2012 Gallup poll shows that about 47% (ironic number, no?) of Americans don't believe in evolution, with 58% of Republicans believing that God created humans as they are today within the last 10,000 years. More Americans believe that Obama is Muslim (16%) than believe in a strictly scientific version of evolution (15%). All this in addition to the ongoing orchestrated denial of climate change. Truly, we should be shocked and dismayed.
Andy Koenigsberg November 26, 2012 at 03:17 PM
I was trying really hard not to spin all this in terms of political party ideology, but even former GOP Congressman Joe Scarborough was joking this morning about Republicans not believing in science (and, full disclosure, accusing liberals of not believing in math regarding our budget woes). I think there is enough misunderstanding of science to go around, personally, but just about all of the anti-science rhetoric I have ever read or heard does come from the right side of the political spectrum. I am no longer shocked and dismayed.This has been going on for a long time now (see Karl Rove's 2004 statement denigrating "reality-based" decision making which "emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality"). Anyway - my point still remains that regardless of ideology, we need to get our act together and look at many factors, including the issues I discussed in the post, when we vote for our elected officials.
David Nolta November 26, 2012 at 11:24 PM
Oh Andy Koenigsberg--what a great essay, a model of its kind! The cynicism of the entire political "elite" on the unwieldy topic of Science is, as you indicate, potentially ruinous. It is ruinous to the politician if he or she is careless not to appeal to the majority of his constituency on the topic, but far more ruinous to that same constituency--and everybody else--if politicians refuse to acknowledge and support scientific progress. The most bizarre (and depressing) thing is that there is a whole "new tradition" among American politicians of taking PRIDE in not knowing about science, and not respecting people who do (not merely scientists, but, again as you say, people who are interested in science, people who are intelligent and value science). There is also the ridiculous ongoing effort to prolong a false, entirely fabricated antagonism between science and faith. YOU CAN SO HAVE BOTH. And I am no scientist; having just read Brian Green's Fabric of the Cosmos, I cannot pretend I wasn't seriously boggled at times. But not respecting the ideals of Scientific objectivity and experimentation seems to me to be to flirt with disaster--economically, yes, but also in terms of our moral and physical well-being. It's like snorting in the face of God! I did appreciate, too, the fact that the quote from the mission statement of the NAS puts Art on a par with Science...
Ron Goodenow November 27, 2012 at 12:35 AM
Andy, I am in Northern California, just having spent many days near the ocean. The amount of environmental activism and enthusiasm here is stunning. It really reminds me of much of Europe. So there is hope. The stupid attitudes of Rubio and the Republicans have reduced the party here to a wounded ostrich looking for its head in the sand. It will cease to exist as a political force soon. Reasons not only include utterly idiotic comments about immigrants and tax strategies that have ruined the schools, but a refusal to join the long march for environmental cleanup. And this in a state which has perhaps the best public universities in the world -- and just voted to raise taxes to help them! I am reminded of my wife's dad, a high ranking military officer of very correct stature, who loved the environment. He was a rock ribbed Republican who loved nature, admired Teddy Roosevelt and supported national parks, preserving wetlands and science education. Today's Republicans, as the Rubios and worse show, are now just playing to the uneducated deniers of many things modern....and many things they could see if they just opened their eyes, got off their duffs and explored the world, not the angry depths of their keyboards. Carry on.
Andy Koenigsberg November 27, 2012 at 12:57 AM
Dave - the director of the National Institute of Health, Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. is an Evangelical Christian. There is no better example of a man devoted to both science and religious faith. I also know a Jesuit priest who is one of the most noted geologists in Massachusetts and an evolutionary biologist who is a devout Catholic. So yes, you can be both true to your faith and be a scientist where your devotion is to truths that are found in nature. I see no problem with accepting Jesus as your savior and rejecting the ludicrous idea that the Earth is 10,000 years old.
Kira Gagarin November 27, 2012 at 03:20 AM
Derek Speed November 27, 2012 at 08:06 PM
Clearly, one can be both religious and believe in science - I happen to be one of those people. That people like Marco Rubio are not willing to admit that out of fear of angering those in his party that believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible is amazing in this day and age. Have some guts and take a stand against ignorance!
UglyHat November 27, 2012 at 08:24 PM
I wish he gave them a Chris Christie/Bill Parcells answer. Something like ‘that’s a stupid question, stop wasting my time’.
Andy Koenigsberg November 27, 2012 at 08:52 PM
Having guts is not a widespread characteristic of politicians on the national scene these days. Jon Huntsman was culled out of the GOP primaries early on last year partly because he had the temerity to accept evolution and climate change and would not pander to the base. There are still many well funded national organizations pushing for creationism and its modern incarnation - intelligent design to be taught in public school science classes. By contrast, a small organization called the National Center for Science Education, run on a shoestring budget, is about all there is opposiing these organizations and the state level legislation they sponsor even now. Alot of this activity goes on under the radar of the national media. Only when things happen like the Rubio interview do the rest of us get to say "Holy S#!t! What's going on here?!" This stuff has been going strong since the 1927 Scopes Trial. To quote Clarence Darrow from that trial: "Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. . . After a while . . it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind."
Andy Koenigsberg November 27, 2012 at 11:07 PM
There's no such thing as a stupid question - only stupid answers.
Stan November 28, 2012 at 02:17 AM
Andy Koenigsberg November 28, 2012 at 03:15 AM
I read the same article and as I said, Obama's comments in 2008 are nothing to be proud of either. However, actions speak louder than words, and the calibre of Obama's appointments to R&D agencies (including Francis Collins at NIH) speak for themselves.
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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