On not feeling sorry for Marco Rubio

As Speaker of the Florida House, Marco Rubio tried to protect parents from having their children taught science in science class if that teaching might conflict with what the kids were hearing at home or in church. So the “How old is the Earth” question was no random “gotcha.”

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

51 thoughts on “On not feeling sorry for Marco Rubio”

  1. “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.”

    Protestantism (at least of the reformed tradition of which I’m a part) does not ask the believer to let the Bible over-rule science either. Science and the Bible are not seen as being at odds. All truth is viewed as coming from God, whether it be truth revealed in natural revelation through science, or truth revealed in special revelation through the Bible. The problem of both science and the Bible is one of interpretation by fallable people. The Bible is viewed as an infallable text interpretted by fallable people. Sometimes science corrects the fallable interpretation of an infallable scriptural text, and sometimes the scripture corrects the fallable interpretation of science. History is replete with examples of how interpreters of both the Bible and of science have gotten it incredibly wrong. The problem is with the interpreters, not with the source of either.

    Mark is right that Catholicism does not ask the believer to let the Bible over-rule science. Unfortunately Catholicism does ask the believer to let the authority of the church over-rule science. Church authorities are as equally proned to err in their interpretation of the “facts” in pursuing truth as are those “authorities” of science. This is one of my major gripes with the Catholic church, that it puts too much faith in man rather than God if you read between the lines.

    1. Bux, it’s nice that you have a relatively enlightened attitude to circumstances when the evidence seems to bely the text. But it’s manifestly wrong to claim that the beliefs you possess characterize “Protestantism” when it’s clear that a simply enormous piece of the American Protestant community doesn’t share your ideas, and demands that reality be subordinated to their conception of the revealed text. Heck, in Louisiana they now have taxpayer money going to pay for math textbooks that denounce set theory because it leads to the idea that some infinite sets are bigger than others (denser? I forget the correct term), which apparently causes theological problems when contemplating the divine.

      1. The maths blurb from Beka Books is very odd. As I understand it, the mathematicians who tried to place mathematics on a rigorous logical foundation – Cantor, Frege, Russell, Hilbert – were Platonists who subscribed more devoutly than the Louisiana fundies to eternal abstract truths. The fundies are mixing up set theory with constructivism, a later argument. None of this has anything to do with school math.

        They are with Stevie Smith: ¨I´ve been much too far out all my life / And not waving, but drowning¨

      2. While knowing that I am probably violating Godwin’s Law in relaying the thought, it occurred to me: “First they came for set theory….”

        Yes, I know; they didn’t come for set theory first. But…wow. Set theory?

      3. I’ll defend Bux on two counts here:

        1. S/he restricted his/her claims to Reformed Protestantism, not to all Protestantism. (I’ve known some Reformed Protestants to be squishy on evolution, most notably Alvin Plantinga, but that’s neither here nor there.)
        2. The Louisiana mishegas can’t be entirely laid at the foot of Protestants, since many Louisianians including the governor who pushed for no-strings privatization are Catholic. Don’t know the breakdown, though, and most of the nuttier schools probably are Protestant since the Catholic church has already established schools, I reckon. But on the other other hand I doubt that most of the folks there are Reformed.

        On set theory, “larger” is pretty much the correct term I think. One cardinal number (represented as a set) is larger than another if you can’t map the larger set to the smaller set without mapping two elements to the same element.

        1. the canonical example of different infinite sets with same cardinality:
          Integers and Even Integers.

          The naive notion is that the full set of integers must be ‘bigger’ than the even integers. It’s OBVIOUS!
          But by setting up a mapping that pairs an even integer for every single element of the Integers, you show they have to be the same size.

          1. The problem though, to religious fundamentalists, is that the reals is a bigger infinity than the rationals. The implication is that something can be “infinite” and yet something else can be bigger. That would be anathema to fundamentalists who would need to know, unequivocally, how big is God’s infinity, and what assurances do we have that some mathematician won’t come up with a bigger one?

          2. No, I don’t think so.

            I think the problem derives from the fact that orders-of-infinity is a pretty esoteric concept, and when fundamentalists try to oversimplify it with simple English words like “bigger” they can’t reconcile it with their concept of truth-as-they-believe-it. Unable to reconcile it, they reject it.

            But it’s because, essentially, they haven’t a clue about mathematics above the level of arithmentic.

  2. This is only peripherally related, but related nevertheless. Some leading Republicans are backing away from the rigid no-taxes pledge they had previously signed on to. If Grover Norquist is about to be thrown under the bus, can Pat Robertson be far behind?

  3. “after all, Catholicism is Church-based, not Bible-based, and the inerrancy of the text is not a Catholic belief.”

    I think it is. This is from the Catholic Encyclopedia (emphasis mine):


    The Bible, as the inspired recorded of revelation, contains the word of God; that is, it contains those revealed truths which the Holy Ghost wishes to be transmitted in writing. . . They are sacred and canonical “because, having been written by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, that have God for their author, and as such have been handed down to the Church”. THE INERRANCY OF THE BIBLE FOLLOWS AS A CONSEQUENCE OF THIS DIVINE AUTHORSHIP. Wherever the sacred writer makes a statement as his own, that statement is the word of God and infallibly true, whatever be the subject-matter of the statement.


    Biblical inerrancy is a Catholic doctrine, but Biblical literalism (as in certain strains of Evangelical Protestantism) is not.

  4. I am puzzled. Does the right-wing commentariat feel that Rubio’s beliefs are something to be ashamed of or embarrassed by? If not, how can an invitation to expound them be a “gotcha”?


    1. Well, it’s like a lot of things in the right-wing canon. Throw out lots of random thoughts that sound okay in the abstract but crumble under even the most cursory inspection. And yes, it’s a “gotcha” to apply that inspection, because it’s questioning people’s beliefs, and that ain’t right, and left-wing McCarthyism, and because shut up, that’s why.

    2. I think the complaint, from what I’ve heard of it at sites like NRO, is not so much that it was a “gotcha” question, as that it’s a “gotcha” question Democrats don’t have to worry about getting.

      I mean, if the Press were routinely hitting Obama with “gotcha” questions, “Mr. President, do you believe the US is damned?”, to suggest something equivalent, there’d be no basis for complaint.

      Gotcha’s for everybody, or nobody. Frankly, I’d prefer everybody. But I’m not under the delusion that hitting Rubio with one was a step in that direction.

        1. Thanks for that link, CO. I was going to suggest that “Rubio had a response, too, and it was about as reasonable as you could ask of such a question.” was Bellmore’s official jumping-the-shark moment but now I realize that I’d completely forgotten about “isn’t it conventional to refer to people who illegally use illegal drug as ‘addicts’?”.

          Every comment is like a master class in prejudice-rearranging.

          1. That’s a pretty tall order, isn’t it? Hell, I’ve been to the National Archives but the only thing I can say is that I saw something which was alleged to be the Constitution.

        1. That would have been a reasonable, albiet inadequate, response. Rubio had a response, too, and it was about as reasonable as you could ask of such a question.

          The complaint isn’t that the question couldn’t have been answered. It’s that Obama never had to answer it, because it didn’t get asked of him.

          I’d be absolutely delighted if the press started asking gotcha questions of ALL the candidates. We both know they’re not going to.

          1. The age of the earth is a matter for theologians to hash out is a reasonable response?


            The age of the earth is a matter for geologists to hash out might be a reasonable response, but asking someone whose expertise is supposed to lie in the area of “What is God?”, and “Who Is This God Fellow, Anyway” to interpret radioisotope dating methods, or rationally discuss time isotropy of physical laws is manifestly unreasonable.

          2. you’re right brett, all obama had to do was ritualistically reject reverend wright and distance himself for a series of statements that could have been spoken by any number of black ministers in any number of black churches, or white ministers too for that matter since falwell and robertson have both said things very similar what wright said except that their statements were about things other than racism. it is incredible how lightly obama got off.

            how many moons orbit your planet?

          3. “That would have been a reasonable, albiet inadequate, response. Rubio had a response, too, and it was about as reasonable as you could ask of such a question.”

            No, it’s not.

          4. Why is it nobody ever asks the CEO of Boeing about his responsibility for selling cigarettes that give people lung cancer? Why haven’t I been forced to defend my actions in Taiwan?

            Boeing doesn’t make cigarettes. And I’ve never been to Taiwan. Pandering to young-earth creationists isn’t part of Obama’s business-model and therefore the point is simply moot.

      1. Do YOU, Brett, understand the use of excess in rhetoric?
        What Rev Wright does as part of his sermons is use extremes to highlight various issues.

        That’s different by leaps and bounds from the earnest (but insane) arguments put forth by Young Earth Creationists.

        But whatevers. When rumors about Obama being Muslim, Atheist, Communist, and/or Kenyan no longer circulate, you may have a point about disparate media blarney about religion.

        1. When such rumors are considered appropriate fodder for Presidential press conferences, YOU may have a point.

          1. I should say that for a question to be a ‘gotcha’ like the one asked of Rubio, it should contain a catch-22 or ‘when have you stopped beating your wife’ aspect.

            Your ‘gotcha’ for Obama has neither. The Obama’s answer would be ‘No, America is not damned.’ and no Obama constituency will be offended. OK, 17 democrats would be, out of 60 Million.
            But for Rubio, it is a fork – do you alienate the fundamentalist Republican voters “4.5 Billion according to geologists”, or the science honoring ones “Opinions about the age of the Earth differ”.

            Rubio chose to pander to the fundamentalists, plain and simple. It was asked because GQ knew it would bring them eyeballs. It was asked precisely because it would be elucidating. Fundies still have sway.

      2. The second I read about this Rubio business, I immediately asked myself, “How does this incident show that liberals are bad?”. Despite spending hours deep in thought on the subject, I failed to come up with anything.

        Thank God that Brett Bellmore is around to help me out.

  5. Well, I suppose the fundie answer to the radioactive decay problem would be that since God controls everything, he sped up decay for a while to make things look really old, then slowed it down and stabilized it in time for us humans to make use of it. Why did he want to make things look really old when they’re not? It’s just another test of our faith. Kind of like all of those fossils that seem to support evolution and the fossils of sea creatures high in the Himalayas. They’re all clever plants by God to sort out the true believers from those who follow the evidence.

    Now, I don’t know (I’m not a physicist), but I suppose radioactive decay fast enough to account for the calculated age of the earth to have appeared over the last 6,000 or so years would have resulted in at least a whole bunch of spontaneous explosions of uranium deposits and probably the extinction of life on earth from the resulting radiation, but then maybe the answer is that God either stopped the explosions with his will or else came along with a cosmic whisk broom and swept all of the radiation away.

    And now my head hurts from having to think like a fundie.

    1. Or He just created the world in exactly the state it would have been in had isotopes been decaying for billions of years. There really is no way to scientifically disprove Biblical literalism. All we can do is point out that it’s not in any way science and that if you don’t start out with a very specific set of untestable assumptions then it’s not possible.

      1. The position that God created the universe just last Thursday, creating everything with the appearance of age and creating humans with false memories of lives they never actually lived, is non-falsifiable given appropriate omnipotent values of “God”. This observation, and the notional religious creed based on it, goes by the name “Last-Thursdayism” among those who spend a lot of their time arguing with young-earth creationists (see University of Ediacara, The Panda’s Thumb, etc.)

        1. But they haven’t spent that much time arguing really. I mean it’s just since last Thursday.

  6. The “I don’t want a school system that teaches kids that what they’re learning at home is wrong” illustrates the conflicts in pluralism. It is also the basis for a delightful gotcha of its own. Should schools teach mainstream economics? After all, some parents are Marxists. Should schools teach shop? Some parents have very definite ideas on how to use tools. The only education that can survive this kind of inquiry is Ebonics.

  7. 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.

    Just to troll a little bit, it is interesting that geology, which is the scientific approach to understanding the natural phenomenon of the age of the Earth et al, is most needed for technological progress in mining, which is not exactly the favorite industry of the kind of people who complain about Marco Rubio’s obscurantism.

    1. Yes, well they certainly do a lot of mining in Florida.

      On a serious note, David, I found that long sentence of yours to be confusing. Parsing it into several short sentences (in reverse order), this is what I think you wrote:

      (a) The folks who complain about Marc Rubio’s obscurantism (whatever that is) generally don’t like mining.
      (b) Geology is needed for technological progress in mining.
      (c) Geology is a scientific approach to understanding many of the natural phenomena of the Earth.

      What I can’t figure out is this: So what? Suppose the statements are all correct. Is there some syllogism buried there?

      Here’s an equivalent to your sentence:

      Mathematics, which is the technical approach to understanding the natural phenomena of numbers et al, is most needed for technological progress in gambling, which is not exactly the favorite industry of the kind of people who complain about sin, profligacy and/or waste in Las Vegas.

      So what are you saying? That people who oppose gambling for either religious or public-good reasons should therefore oppose teaching arithmetic to children in school?

      1. I think the point he’s trying to make is that the mining industry strongly favors Republicans, but that modern mining would be impossible with geology, and yet Republicans are quite comfortable denying fundamental tenets of geology when it suits their political purposes, while Democrats do not have a similar problem with geology and yet do not enjoy much support from the mining industry. I think. Something like that. It’s a bit of a stretch.

        1. More that Democrats aren’t fond of mining than vice versa, although it’s really that the Democrats like you and I who are maddest at Rubio aren’t fond of mining. For instance, I wouldn’t be too sad if we knocked off the tops of fewer mountains and went for solar power instead of drilling, baby drilling.

          I don’t think there’s really supposed to be a gotcha for us here, though, is there? It’s more like a mild irony, or as the man said a little bit of trolling.

          1. decidedly mild irony. I suspect ‘people like us’ (or like Matt and whoever he included in his ‘you’ above) don’t object to all mining, and would not deny that people who do mining need to know accurate geological principles. Many of ‘us’ have reservations about current mining practices that seem to involve ignoring the environmental consequences or the human impact of mining practices in the name of maximizing output. Good science is useful on all sides of that debate. (I don’t suppose miners care how old the earth is, so long as what they learn about current conditions works in practice, and works to support innovation in exploration and extraction.)

  8. So I’m wondering: if you proclaim that you’re a catholic but worship in a baptist church, isn’t some part of you constantly in a state of mortal sin? Sort of a macroscopic Schroedinger’s parishioner.

    1. It is apparently his wife’s church. A perfectly civilized way to handle a mixed marriage, I’d think.

      1. I’m thinking these Baptists are Southern Baptists (because that’s pretty much the only kind of Baptists for white people in the South). I rather doubt either the SBs or the RCs share your view of “A perfectly civilized way to handle a mixed marriage”.

        When I was growing up in the SB church, RCs were not considered Christians. And I can’t imagined that much has changed in that conservative (i.e., very backward) sect.

  9. “And Catholicism, having learned from that series of unfortunate events around Galileo, no longer asks believers to let the Bible over-rule science;”

    As I commented on Brad DeLong’s blog, in response to the exact same claim:

    However it continues to refuse to admit the SINGLE most important scientific matter of our time: that a continually increasing population IS NOT SUSTAINABLE.
    This is a not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of fact. If everyone did what the Catholic Church wants them to and had eight or ten babies, in one generation we’d be fighting nuclear war over food — how else can it possibly play out?

    Against this backdrop, a willingness to accept that “mistakes were made” in the case of Galileo, or Darwin, does not help. Anyone can admit that “mistakes were made” hundreds of years ago, the issue is how do you deal with the problems of today. If your answer, when confronted with an exponential curve is “God will surely provide”, then you are ABSOLUTELY no different from the nuttiest of Teapartiers.

  10. 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

    I dispute this. Not using the scientific approach to understanding natural phenomena *for the purposes of manipulating natural phenomena* is inconsistent with the needs of technological progress. However, rejecting scientific ontology as the true ontology, while conceding it for pragmatic purposes, is not. The young earth creationist can be a perfectly competent geological engineer, providing she concedes that God has arranged natural phenomena just so that the scientific consensus provides the best method of determining how interventions will work. Genesis can still provide the true ontology for the purposes of salvation.

    The scientific realist complaints about “last Thursdayism” are just the reaction of a certain kind of outraged common sense, and such reactions equally must be bracketed for technological progress to continue, as quantum mechanics has taught us. The scientific realist need not abandon these feelings, but must supress them (“shut up and calculate”). See Bas C. van Frassen, The Scientific Image, for a sustained argument for what might now be called Rubioism.

    1. I would point out that Rubio is on the Science and Technology Committee; I for one would not like to see people making decisions who both don’t understand science and BS about it.

  11. I’m surprised here that no one in the comments mentioned the Supreme Court case of Yoder v. Wisconsin, 406 U.S. 205 (1972). That case, which I believe to be wrongly decided, held that parents can cut their childrens’ education short based upon the religious beliefs of the parents. Read Justice Douglas’ dissent (” It is the future of the students, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled by today’s decision. If a parent keeps his child out of school beyond the grade school, then the child will be forever barred from entry into the new and amazing world of diversity that we have today. The child may decide that that is the preferred course, or he may rebel. It is the student’s judgment, not his parents’, that is essential if we are to give full meaning to what we have said about the Bill of Rights and of the right of students to be masters of their own destiny. If he is harnessed to the Amish way of life by those in authority over him and if his education is truncated, his entire life may be stunted and deformed.”)

Comments are closed.