Saturday, December 7, 2013
By PHIL PLAIT Slate
The Earth is 4.54 billion years old.
Staff Photo Illustration/Michael Fisher
We know this because science works. A large number of independent fields of science show that the Earth is terribly old, and all these different scientific areas -- highly successful in their own rights -- converge on the same age of the Earth.
This number is very well known, very well understood and the process behind its determination is a foundational assumption across all fields of science.
So why does Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., say he doesn't know how old the Earth is?
In an interview published by GQ magazine, reporter Michael Hainey asks the senator simply, "How old do you think the Earth is?" The answer too should be simple. Rubio's reply, however is anything but:
"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 seven days, or seven actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries."
Actually, it's not a great mystery. It used to be a century ago. I am a scientist, and I can tell you that nowadays -- thanks to science -- we know the age to amazing accuracy.
The age of the Earth is 4.54 billion years plus or minus 50 million years. That's a number known to an accuracy of 99 percent, which is pretty dang good.
Rubio's answer, however, is so confused and error-riddled it's difficult to know where to start.
Right off the bat, he mentions the Bible in terms of the Earth's age several times, including the "seven days" part.
This is not necessarily an indication he's a young-Earth creationist -- that is, he thinks the Earth is 10,000 years old or less -- but it does indicate some pretty fuzzy thinking on his part, and it makes me think he supports religious findings over scientific ones (or is trying to not tick off an electorate who does).
The fact that he says theologians argue over interpreting the biblical age of the Earth, and doesn't mention that scientists know the actual number, is distressing to say the least.
When he does mention science, he downplays it.
About the age of the Earth, he says, "I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that."
In fact, the age of the Earth and the solar system is one of the unifying concepts of science specifically mentioned in the U.S. National Education Standards -- an educator-created list of concepts that all students should know upon graduating from high school.
Did I mention that Rubio sits on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee?
Which makes his equivocation all the more tragic.
I know that a large fraction of the people in the United States think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. These people are wrong, and provably so, but of course they have the right to believe anything they want.
But when someone believes in something that is provably false, and then they act on this belief that's when it gets very, very dangerous.
I got a chill when I read Rubio's statements, "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."
Perhaps Rubio is unaware that science -- and its sisters, engineering and technology -- are actually the very foundation of our country's economy?
All of our industry, all of our technology, everything that keeps our country functioning at all can be traced back to scientific research and a scientific understanding of the universe.
Cellphones, computers, cars, machinery, medicine, the Internet, manufacturing, communication, agriculture, transportation, on and on all of these industries rely on science to work. Without basic research none of these would exist.
And all of science points to the age of the Earth being much, much older than Rubio intimates. Astronomy, biology, relativity, chemistry, physics, anatomy, sociology, linguistics, cosmology, anthropology, evolutionary science, and especially radiometric dating of rocks all indicate the universe, and our home planet Earth, are far older than any claims of a few thousand years.
The overwhelming consensus is that the Earth is billions of years old. And all of these sciences are the basis of the technology that is our country's lifeblood.
Rubio is exactly and precisely wrong. Science, and how it tells us the age of the Earth, has everything to do with how our economy will grow.
By teaching our kids actual science, we can guarantee the future of this country and its economic growth. By hiding it from them, by equivocating about it with them, by providing false balance between reality and wishful thinking, what we guarantee is a future work force that can't distinguish between what's real and what isn't.
That's a formula for failure. And you don't need to be a scientist to see that.
Phil Plait, creator of the blog Bad Astronomy, is an astronomer, lecturer and author.