“Marco Rubio Disqualifies Himself,” the New York Times’ Juliet Lapidos wrote Monday after Sen. Rubio denied manmade climate change. But Sen. Rubio was merely echoing then-Gov. George W. Bush’s claim in 2000 that “the jury is still out” on evolution. (More)

Endless Debate, Part I: “The Jury Is Still Out”

This week Morning Feature considers conservative demands for endless debate, when it suits them. Today we look at their stances on evolution, climate change, and other science they don’t like. Tomorrow we’ll explore Sen. Rubio’s claims on the science of abortion, and the difference between political dissent and scientific debate.

“I’m not a scientist, man”

So said Sen. Marco Rubio in a 2012 interview for GQ:

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 “great mysteries” in science, but the age of the Earth is not among them. Senator Rubio could find the answer at the U.S. Geological Survey website:

So far scientists have not found a way to determine the exact age of the Earth directly from Earth rocks because Earth’s oldest rocks have been recycled and destroyed by the process of plate tectonics. If there are any of Earth’s primordial rocks left in their original state, they have not yet been found. Nevertheless, scientists have been able to determine the probable age of the Solar System and to calculate an age for the Earth by assuming that the Earth and the rest of the solid bodies in the Solar System formed at the same time and are, therefore, of the same age.
Scientists have used this approach to determine the time required for the isotopes in the Earth’s oldest lead ores, of which there are only a few, to evolve from its primordial composition, as measured in uranium-free phases of iron meteorites, to its compositions at the time these lead ores separated from their mantle reservoirs. These calculations result in an age for the Earth and meteorites, and hence the Solar System, of 4.54 billion years with an uncertainty of less than 1 percent.

The Earth wasn’t “created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras.” It formed 4.54 billion years ago, plus or minus 1 percent, as gravity pulled interstellar dust into the clumps that became planets, moons, meteors, and comets. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that. You simply have to read their explanations of their data and calculations.

“I do not believe … these scientists”

Or not. On Sunday, Sen. Rubio rejected the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change:

I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.
[O]ur climate is always changing. And what [scientists] have chosen to do is take a handful of decades of research and – and say that this is now evidence of a longer-term trend that’s directly and almost solely attributable to manmade activity.

Note that Sen. Rubio presents no scientific alternative to explain the build-up of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and the corresponding rise in mean global temperatures. Not that you’d expect him to. As he said, “I’m not a scientist, man.” But apparently he knows enough to disbelieve scientists.

I don’t agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate

“The possibility that there is another side to the debate”

Senator Rubio is not alone. Consider the comments of BBC anchor Peter Sissons in 2009 on his network’s policy of excluding climate change deniers:

I believe I am one of a tiny number of BBC interviewers who have so much as raised the possibility that there is another side to the debate on climate change

The corporation’s most famous interrogators invariably begin by accepting that “the science is settled”, when there are countless reputable scientists and climatologists producing work that says it isn’t.

Except there aren’t “countless reputable scientists and climatologists” publishing peer-reviewed research that disputes manmade climate change. A 2013 study reviewed almost 12,000 peer-reviewed papers published on climate change from 1991-2011. Of those that stated a conclusion, 97% agreed with the consensus. As the authors concluded:

Our analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on [manmade climate change] is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.

Yet conservatives have sponsored bills in several states that would require teachers to “teach the controversy” on climate change, and a renegade teacher’s group on Facebook asked:

Why are people like John Kerry stifling debate on climate change, or is it global warming? I forget these days…but anyways…

For some, it seems, “a vanishingly small proportion of the published research” is enough. Because, they insist, at first only a handful of scientists bucked the trend and said the Earth was round. Well sure, back in Ancient Greece. Yes, many Americans think Christopher Columbus discovered the Earth was round – based on a myth that Washington Irving authored in 1828 – but in fact sailors and scholars already knew that in 1492. They even had a globe.

“The jury is still out”

The New York TimesJuliet Lapidos wrote on Monday that Sen. Rubio’s climate change denial disqualified him from a presidential run. If only that were true. Back in 2000, then-Gov. George W. Bush made almost the same argument on evolution:

Characteristically, he does not believe in evolution – he says the jury is still out – but he does not actively disbelieve in it either; as a friend puts it, “he doesn’t really care about that kind of thing.”

In fact the jury is not still out on evolution. As with climate change, the scientific consensus is overwhelming. But then-Gov. Bush thought local school boards should decide whether to “teach the controversy” on evolution:

I’d make it a goal to make sure that local folks got to make the decision as to whether or not they said creationism has been a part of our history and whether or not people ought to be exposed to different theories as to how the world was formed.

Except that – when it comes to science – there are no “different theories as to how the world was formed.” Yes, most cultures have origin myths, some religious and some not, but myths are not scientific theories. Schools can teach myths in classes on mythology or comparative religion, but they have no place in a science class.

That’s not “stifling debate.” It’s simply refusing to pretend we should hold an endless “debate” between science … and mythology.


Happy Friday!