Thoughts from Kansas

“I’m not a scientist, man”: Is Marco Rubio’s science denial stupid?

After their thrashing in the 2012 elections, Republicans are casting about for a new standardbearer, and Marco Rubio is a leading candidate for that post.  One consequence of that attention is this GQ interview with Rubio, which includes this awesome exchange:

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.

Though not a scientist, man, Rubio has narrowed down the age of the earth to some collection of seven chunks of time, possibly days.  He’s thus careful not to tread on the toes of young earth creationists or the various old earth creationists (gap, day age, progressive, etc.), while studiously avoiding what any scientist would actually have told him.  Seen cynically, he’s trying not to annoy the various Protestant groups he’ll need to win over to beat the Cory Booker/Elizabeth Warren ticket in the 2016 presidential election.

Less cynically, this is a further example of the reality-distorting bubble that the Republican party has created.  Within the GOP, it may simply be the case that the acceptable range of views on the age of the earth has become reduced to the squabble between Henry Morris and Hugh Ross.  It’s another case of “math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better.”

Another sort of cynic would reply by questioning Rubio’s intellect, and not just because of his Dude-esque language.  How else do we explain a sitting Senator’s who endorses creationism, let alone his claim not know how old the earth is?

But intellect is not the way to understand Rubio, creationism, or the broader problem of science denial.  As historian Adam Laats writes at the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The notion that only the ignorant can oppose evolution does not hold water.”  The historical evidence and modern research on creationists themselves shows that creationism’s persistence is not a matter of ignorance, but a result of social psychology and informed reasoning.  Laats concludes (referring to Rep. Paul Broun’s claim that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell”):

those of us who care about promoting evolution education must admit the hard truth. It is not simply that creationists such as Broun have not heard the facts about evolution. Broun—along with other informed, educated creationists—simply rejects those facts. Evolution educators do not simply need to spread the word about evolution. We need to convince and convert Americans who sincerely hold differing understandings about the nature and meaning of science.

That’s largely right, but I think he focuses too narrowly on science here.  Science denial isn’t really about science, as I argue in an essay that just came out in Trends in Microbiology. My paper, based on a talk I gave at this summer’s American Society of Microbiology meetings, takes on key ideas that I think scientists need to understand to address science denials of any sort, whether they reject the science of evolution, climate change, vaccines, or the link between HIV and AIDS. 

“Science denial,” I argue, “is wrong and harmful, but not antiscience nor irrational. It is driven by genuine fears and deep personal values.”  I conclude, “Science denial is less about science and more about deep fears and core personal identity.” That means it isn’t just a matter of engaging people about the nature and meaning of science (though that’s an important start). We need to understand the social forces that reinforce science denial, the social dynamic that leads people to science denial and keeps them there:

Recognizing and defusing the social pressures underlying science denial are key in convincing people that it is even worth considering scientific ideas that seem contrary to those of their social identity. When science denial becomes entwined with group identity, the risk of social ostracism is probably costlier than scientific error.

To get past that, a key step is to find members of that same social group who accept the science at issue.  In the case of evolution, that means religious scientists and pro-science clergy.  In the case of climate change, it means business leaders and staunch conservatives.  And for vaccines, it largely means parents.

But that outreach can happen through other communities.  The framing story of the essay is about the vaccination drive at Dragon*Con, organized by Women Thinking Free:

You do not expect to see Draco Malfoy carrying a Hermione Granger poster, let alone one in which she touts the whooping cough vaccine. Yet at the Dragon*Con science fiction and fantasy convention, fans of Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer love to dress as their favorite characters. Some of them even don costumes to spread the word about a vaccine clinic, attracting hundreds oftheir fellow attendees to get immunized. Who could say no to Draco?…

The pro-vaccination message came not from people speaking as doctors or scientists, but from fellow members of a community promoting the public understanding of science, with a syringe in one hand and a wand in the other.

And that’s why it works. Science denial isn’t primarily about science, it’s about our communities.

Trends in Microbiology made the paper free access (though alas, not Open Access) so please do spread it far and wide.