Everyone is getting their shorts in a knot over Marco Rubio’s reasonable answer to a stupid gotcha question asked of him in a GQ interview today.
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.
Now, like most of you, when I want to learn the mysteries of the universe, the first place I look is GQ. There’s probably not a more science-y magazine at the newsstand except for Cosmopolitan or maybe Tiger Beat. Given that Rubio belongs to the Catholic Church who has no dogmatic religious teaching on the age of the universe, clearly the only point of the question was “let’s get the religious guy.”
Few will criticize the biased media tactic, but every hack will now be out there acting as if the chronological age of the planet is the penultimate political question of our day, right behind whether we should ban birth control and tampons. Paging George Stephanopolous, your manure delivery has arrived.
Marc Ambinder weighed in already with a somewhat vacuous assessment, tweeted with the caveat “I am not a Christian conservative”–God forbid anyone think otherwise. Ambinder is apparently not satisfied with a non-scientist saying he’s not qualified to answer a scientific question, and despite pointing out rather forcefully that he is not one himself, he is nonetheless concerned about how Christian conservatives answer questions about science and faith. Right. Ambinder proceeds to do a lame impression of a kooky Christian pretending to be reasonable for the top scientific scholars at GQ.
This raises some issues I wrote about many moons ago. There is a difference between belief and knowledge. Most of what people claim is the latter is really the former.
Rubio admits he does not know the answer to the question. Ambinder would be critical of Rubio’s answer but he doesn’t know the answer either. He can only repeat what someone else has told him–unless of course Ambinder’s bio accidentally omits his many years painstakingly studying paleo-geology. Therein lies one of the big problems in public discourse today, people claiming to know beyond doubt that which they actually only believe. Some will not even recognize that there is a difference.
Today, science is deemed infallible by–and gives imagined authority to–those who have never performed it themselves. One school of thought they don’t personally understand is superior to another school of thought they don’t personally understand because someone in whom they have faith has told them so. Hence the doorknob axiom: watching reporters comment on science or religion (among other things) is like watching dogs trying to work a doorknob.
There’s nothing wrong with having faith in an answer you’ve taken from someone else if you have the humility to recognize that it is not really your own answer. However, it is problematic to smugly claim that despite having a different worldview, you could answer a question more appropriately for someone than he could for himself. Whatever you call it, that presumption–innocent though it may be– is the kernel around which true bigotry is eventually built. President Obama, after all, thinks he knows better what Catholics should believe about paying for contraception.
I would agree that these gotcha questions demand some strategic and proactive consideration on the part of conservatives. Candidates need to prepare themselves for them so that they can either dismiss them as the biased hackery they are or give a concise innocuous answer that can’t be chopped into destructive soundbites which can even cause some in their own party to panic and join the resulting left wing feeding frenzy. Letting those who don’t share the same beliefs or background make those calculations for them is not the answer though.