the mystery dance

Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan points to a fascinating quote from Marco Rubio (the original source is GQ) on the age of the universe:

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.

Sullivan then does his duty and points out we have answered the age of the earth and no, it’s not 6,000 years old, and no, it wasn’t created in seven days. But what catches me about Rubio’s answer is the way he lays a fog over these settled facts, how there are “multiple theories,” which by use of the word “theory” gives the whole answer the patina of objectivity, of science, and then he quickly pivots to “parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says.”

That’s an old trick by now, “teach the controversy,” but it just doesn’t lose its ability to confound or enrage, and the very staying power of  the Christianist argument is worth noting. You end up chasing your tail a lot, trying to parse Rubio’s comment: is he saying religion has the same kind of explanatory power as science? My guess is ‘no,’ because facts get in the way – science is testable, religion is not. So the argument is more “separate but equal,” but if that’s the case, what is religion doing over on science’s turf? And if determining the age of the universe isn’t religion’s turf, what is? Or is he saying people get to decide whether this a question of science or faith?

To people who don’t believe, of course, this is all just pointless obfuscation. Science proves what it proves, and that is enough. To some people who do believe, Rubio and people like him are foolish, not least because they turn God into a mechanical engineer. But the believers and the would be believers and the not quite believers continue to want the divine, to want meaning. And like a dog squeezing through the screen door left ajar, it’s the want for meaning which lets in  Rubio’s commentary, makes it seem more sensible than it is.

But the real problem with Rubio’s comment lies in “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.” In fact, how you feel about the economy has everything to do with whether you believe in objective facts about the world as it is, or writs about the way the world as it should be. It’s easier to believe the economy will grow like gangbusters by the simple act of cutting taxes on the rich if you also believe the world was whisked into existence, complete with dinosaurs and humans (and, apparently, saddles with which to ride those dinos) all at once. It’s a remarkably dumbed down view of reality in which you push down lever A over here, and every time out, lever B springs up over there.

On the other hand, if you believe in cosmology and evolution, you believe in a world with a certain amount of complexity, including economic complexity. Not all of that complexity can be tamed, of course, but it can be understood and acted on, and if you hew to the facts, you stand a pretty good chance of making bad problems better. The real mystery is why following the facts doesn’t have more strength, more appeal. When a Republican on the national stage can live with the facts – and get other Republicans to go along – he’ll have something.

(And…I’m in good company. An hour or so after writing the above, I find Krugman working the same territory.  It’s no wonder I’d be attracted to the same subject; more than anyone else over the last couple of years, Paul Krugman’s writing has influenced how I think about things.)

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