Pharyngula

Last week, the hilarity was that Rand Paul refused to say how old he thought the earth was. The new chew toys are creationist apologists for ignorance trying to justify it, while also refusing to state how old they think the earth is. The amusement lies in the way these guys puff themselves up into a state of moral superiority while claiming that scientists are dogmatists…because, you know, they know stuff.

I don’t know the age of the earth, but I know that someone who thinks that someone who doesn’t know the age of the earth should have a position on the age of the earth anyway is a dogmatist. What else could he be?

This is the curious thing about people who hold to Darwinism: they demand that people with no scientific expertise hold scientific opinions. But on what basis? Many people can’t hold them on a basis of scientific knowledge, since they don’t have sufficient scientific knowledge to hold them. There is only one basis upon which they can hold them, and it is the basis upon which Darwinists demand they hold them: on the basis of authority.

Nah, it’s simpler than that. We read the books — even the simple books for the lay public — and they describe the evidence for the age of the earth, and they also explain how the data is used to explore deeper into geology. I’m not a physicist or geologist, but it’s relatively easy to get an overview of the host of data used to support estimates of the age of the earth, to see the degree of detail geologists have at hand, and it’s also even easier to see that working geologists and physicists, people with in-depth training in their fields, are not arguing over whether the earth is 6000 or 4.6 billion years old; the issue is settled.

It’s not dogmatism, it’s pragmatism. The depth of science is so great that no one brain can even grasp the whole of a single subfield, so we trust our colleagues — at least, we trust them as far as they demonstrate cooperation with the tacit rules of the institution of science, which safeguard to some extent the reliability of a scientific claim. The relevant scientists say the earth is 4.6 billion years old, and they are all willing to show their work, so I’ll provisionally accept it until I see a reliable source provide cantrary evidence. A cowardly creationist who won’t even set a rough date is not a reliable source.

It’s fine if someone doesn’t know how old the earth is, if it’s not at all relevant to what they do. I don’t do spot checks on plumbers and carpenters and electricians who come by my house, making sure they know the date of the Permian extinction before I let them do their job. But there are a couple of situations where I think it is appropriate to insist on some basic understanding.

If you are a scientist of any kind, you’d better be aware of the general location in space and time of your planet. It’s not too much to ask, most of us went through a nerdy phase (lasting practically our entire life) in which we devoured all kinds of general knowledge, and we kind of figured out how old the earth is in 4th grade. If we were a bit slow. We also puzzled out that the planet was a rough spheroid in an elliptical orbit approximately 8 light-minutes from our sun. Other kids might have been accumulating baseball knowledge or memorizing the lyrics to pop songs, but Our People learned other things.

If you are a politician, you don’t need to know the scientific data directly, but you’d better be competent to delegate, and you’d better know who in the scientific and engineering community, and that means it’s a good idea to have some information about the scientific consensus. You don’t want to appoint somebody to head the department of energy who thinks the power grid taps into electricity from the sun, or that oil was created in situ in the last 6000 years. It matters when Rand Paul runs away from a basic scientific question, because it means he doesn’t have the competence to judge who will be a good advisor or not. It also tells us that he does not have the political courage to fight for good science-based policy.

The third category is most appropriate here: if you are a creationist who regularly complains about “Darwinists” and promotes intelligent design creationism, yet declaims at length that you are so abysmally ignorant that you can’t even make up your mind whether to trust elementary geology, then nothing you can say about any science is trustworthy. It’s fine to admit that you are an empty-headed goober who hasn’t bothered to look up any relevant science at all, but when you set up a soapbox and pontificate about the insupportability of “Darwinism” from your platform of self-admitted lack of knowledge, you’ve upgraded yourself from silly schlemiel to arrogant putz.


One other hilarious addition: this inane creationist has posted a citation that he thinks supports his agnosticism on the age of the earth: it’s an articled describing how astronomers are revising the estimated age of the solar system — between 4.566 billion and 4.567 billion years old. Oh, yeah, baby — a little more uncertainty, and 0.000006 billion years will look reasonable!