An astronomer writing in Slate recently takes Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to task for being unable (or unwilling?) to give the astronomers’ answer to a reporter’s question, posed during a press interview, about the age of the Earth. After noting that the question has nothing to do with the proper subject of the interview, Rubio responds that the Earth’s age is a “mystery,” and that some believe the Biblical account of the Earth’s creation.
Not only is the hapless Senator a member of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Technology Committee (and therefore he should have basic scientific facts on the tip of his tongue), but as a member of Congress he should know the age of the Earth because “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.”
Set aside the question of whether the astronomer has, on the tip of his tongue, the number identifying the next Congress (which will also be of great import to the nation, and the number is 113-1). His argument is such a caricature of the rhetoric the science establishment trots out to appeal for funding increases that he does the cause of public support for scientific research a disservice.
Being able to remember a number (especially out of context) is hardly a sign of intelligence, character, wisdom or civic virtue, as Albert Einstein was not the first to remind us. What’s more, beyond such accumulated physical facts as the contents of the periodic table or the boiling point of water, any scientific knowledge that cannot be replicated under laboratory conditions is dependent on the circumstances of its discovery.
Historians and philosophers of science, at least since Karl Popper, have convincingly demonstrated the contingency of most scientific “truths.” Nor has the total reliance of the economy and technological growth on scientific research been substantiated by decades of research in economic growth and business history. Indeed, there have been instances when scientific research depended upon technological innovation, as in the cases of optics and computational machinery. The relationship between science and technology is iterative, while much of technological innovation is due as much to economic “pull” as to scientific “push.”
While I am no fan of Sen. Rubio, the notion that science is the only form of “intelligence” worth our pursuit or admiration represents an appalling poverty of learning. Those who believe that the Bible contains a literally true history of our world lack the gift of metaphor, and for that they are to be pitied more than ridiculed.
A starry sky on a clear winter Maine night is a wondrous thing to behold; so also is an infant’s first true smile. If forced to choose, we should chose the smile.