On Not Feeling Sorry for Marco Rubio

Most everyone in Red Blogistan and on the Red-team varsity of punditry (Pete Wehner at Commentary is an honorable exception) seems to agree that GQ was mean to po’ widdle Marco Rubio in asking him about the age of the Earth. “Gotcha” seems to be the agreed-upon keyword; the Reds back Rubio in his assertion that the question has nothing to do with the GDP, which the erstwhile “party of values” seems to think is all that matters in public life.

I have to admit having had a trace of sympathy for Rubio. When one of a politician’s deeply-held religious beliefs – or at least one of the religious beliefs that he’s pretending to hold deeply because it’s popular with the rubes he’s trying to fleece – conflicts with consensus reality, the politician is in a bind, and not really a fair one. “Did Joshua really make the sun stand still?” would be a genuine “gotcha” addressed to a fundamentalist, as would asking a Mormon about the golden plates.

But in fact young-earth creationism is not part of Rubio’s heritage: he’s a Catholic by birth and current announced affiliation, though his family passed through Mormonism and he currently attends a Baptist church. And Catholicism, having learned from that series of unfortunate events around Galileo, no longer asks believers to let the Bible over-rule science; after all, Catholicism is Church-based, not Bible-based, and the inerrancy of the text is not a Catholic belief.

And in fact the question was not a random gotcha. Paul Krugman points out that Rubio, as Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, sided with the creationists in the controversy about teaching evolution because “I don’t want a school system that teaches kids that what they’re learning at home is wrong” , and likened honest science teaching to Communist indoctrination.

So this wasn’t merely an idle question about Rubio’s personal religious beliefs. By what conceivable standard is a politician’s public record not a suitable topic for journalistic scrutiny?

And as to the GDP question, Alex Knapp at Forbes points out that Rubio is specifically as well as generically wrong.

Generically, not believing in the scientific approach to understanding natural phenomena, and not believing that children in school should be taught that approach, is inconsistent with the needs of technological progress. But specifically – as Rubio could easily know if he bothered to ask – the age of the Earth is uncertain only if the rate of radioactive decay is uncertain. And if the rate of radioactive decay is uncertain there is no reason to think that nuclear reactors won’t randomly go critical and blow up, or to expect that nuclear weapons will go critical when they’re told to or that they won’t do so at unexpected moments. So both energy policy and defense policy depend crucially on the specific scientific ideas whose veracity Rubio purports to doubt.

No, this was no mere “gotcha.” Senator Rubio was asked a perfectly fair question, and gave an answer that should disqualify him from the honorable office he now holds, let alone the Presidency.

Footnote Ross Douthat buys in to the “gotcha” theory, but quotes Augustine to show that Rubio’s answer is as bad for Christianity as it is for Republicanism: “reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture” who insist that obviously false factual claims are part of Christian faith give “infidels” good reason to doubt everything in the Christian Scriptures.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.