Thoughts from Kansas

Rubio and Obama, compare and contrast

Slate’s Daniel Engber is upset.  People are making fun of Marco Rubio’s “I’m not a scientist, man” response to a question about the age of the earth, and he wants to insist that “Willful ignorance of science is a bipartisan value.”  As evidence for this claim, he contrasts Rubio:

Q: How old do you think the Earth is?
A: 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.

with 2008’s candidate Obama, from a speech at Pennylvania’s Messiah College in 2008:

Q: Senator, if one of your daughters asked you—and maybe they already have—“Daddy, did god really create the world in 6 days?,” what would you say?
A: 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.

Engber thinks these two statements are “exactly in agreement.” He thinks: “Both senators refuse to give an honest answer to the question, “They both go so far as to disqualify themselves from even pronouncing an opinion,” and “they both profess confusion over whether the Bible should be taken literally.”

He’s wrong.

The most important difference is the question being asked.  Rubio was asked about the age of the earth and waffled; Obama was asked about his religious beliefs and was forthright.  Rubio jumped from a geology question to the divergent views of theologians, an odd choice. Obama answered a theological question by citing theology and declining to wade into a theological dispute, a wise choice.

Rubio chose to make an empirical question (in a secular forum) into a religious question; Obama treated a religious question (at a religious forum) as a religious question.  To ignore that essential difference in pursuit of a “both sides do it” narrative is just silly.  

Dragging Francis Collins into the matter is doubly silly.  Engber holds up NIH director Collins to bolster his claim that science literacy doesn’t matter for policymaking. Yet there’s no actual argument offered to tie Francis Collins’s belief miracles occur – that natural law can be suspended by a supernatural deity – to the claim about science literacy. Surely Engber isn’t claiming that Collins isn’t science literate, or that science literacy is irrelevant to the NIH director’s work.  

If you asked Francis Collins how old the earth is, he’d say it’s 4.54 billion years old, because he’s a scientist and he can remember numbers like that out to 2 decimal points.  If you asked President Obama, he might round it off to four and a half billion years old.  But neither of them would fumble the way Rubio did.

How do we know how Obama would handle the question?  Here’s candidate Obama’s conversation with a Pennsylvania newspaper only 2 weeks before the forum Engber cites:

What’s your attitude regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools?

A: “I’m a Christian, and I believe in parents being able to provide children with religious instruction without interference from the state. But I also believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there’s a difference between science and faith. That doesn’t make faith any less important than science. It just means they’re two different things. And I think it’s a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.”

Contrast that with Rubio.  Rubio endorses the creationist strategy of letting theology override science, of presenting theological views alongside science in public school science classes. Rubio hedges on the science, refusing to take a firm stance on what science is, let alone what he knows about it.  Obama takes a firm stance in support of science, distinguishing science from religion and treating both topics respectfully.  He makes clear that science – and only science – belongs in public school science classes, and dismisses the pseudoscientific claims of those who attack evolution.  There’s simply no comparison.