The Trouble With Adjudicating Who Is And Isn’t On The Side Of “Science”

I wouldn’t have expected Marco Rubio, of all people, to dig me out of my personal blogging hiatus. And just in time for the Thanksgiving holidays, too.

Anyway, Rubio’s refusal to give a straight answer on the age of the Earth has been worked over pretty well at this point. But Slate’s Daniel Engber gave things a good shot in the arm yesterday with an instance from 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama was asked a very similar question and gave a very similar “on the one hand but on the other hand” answer. Several writers have denied there’s an equivalence between the two examples. I don’t think their arguments hold up.

“I’m not a scientist, man.”

Steven Benen pointed to the wording of the two questions and the settings in which they were asked — a secular magazine interview for Rubio, a religious forum for Obama. I don’t really see how that’s relevant. Both questions were meant to illuminate the same difficulty: “Given how the discoveries of science, concerning the age of the Earth and evolution, run up against some of the premises of fundamentalist and biblically-literalist Christianity, how do you navigate that tension?” Both men functionally gave the same answer, which was, “It’s above my pay grade.”

I’m sure Obama doesn’t actually think the Earth could be a few thousand years old. I bet Rubio doesn’t either. But Obama’s response suggested it would be legitimate for himself or anyone else to let some other belief system trump the scientific consensus in deciding their position on the matter. That’s exactly what Rubio said, too. And that’s exactly what everyone jumped on him for.

Indeed, the arguments Phil Plait, Alex Knapp, and others made for why Rubio’s statement was objectionable were all of the same “pull one thread and the whole fabric falls apart” variety. If Rubio thinks science was wrong (or possibly wrong) when it determined the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, what does he make of radiometric dating? Or our reliance on the speed of light as a constant? As Plait asked, what does he make of the science that lead to “cell phones, computers, cars, machinery, medicine, the Internet, manufacturing, communication, agriculture, transportation, on and on.” The ideas and evidence and observations and theories that made all these advances possible intellectually interlock. The whole process of science over time is the attempt to get them to interlock better. By implicitly, if not explicitly, questioning the science behind the age of the Earth, Rubio creates unavoidable intellectual ripple effects that call into question more or less all of the modern technological world.

Anyway, that’s the argument. And it makes perfect sense on the abstract and intuitive level. But if you actually think about the nature of faith for a moment, or just the practical realities of human behavior, it’s clearly balderdash. Many, possibly most, religions incorporate to some extent miracles and divine interventions. Christianity, which is what I’m well-versed in, has the Creation (biblically literal or not) along with Christ’s healings and the Incarnation and Resurrection, for example. These events are all by definition violations of an otherwise reliable natural order. That’s no small part of what makes them so special. If the rational functioning of the universe was not otherwise predictable, they would have no revelatory significance. They wouldn’t be miracles, they’d just be one more random event in the indistinguishable cosmic soup. So it’s kind of silly to say that believing in the Resurrection makes one “anti-science,” since the Resurrection needs the baseline of a predictable world to stand out against. (And it’s not as if an itinerant carpenter suddenly rising from the dead only started striking people as a rather odd belief after Newton published Principia Mathematica.)

Or look at it from a practical standpoint: I grew up in Texas, and I know plenty of people who question evolution or deny the scientific age of the Earth, yet are perfectly capable of functioning in the technological world. Lots of them are good civil engineers, economists, financial experts, biologists, nuclear physicists, etc. Hell, there are plenty of liberals who congratulate themselves for their rationality in rejecting religion entirely, even as they hold to all sorts of ridiculous notions about the health effects of vaccines, the dangers of genetically modified foods, the risks of breast implants, aliens, UFOs, the Gaia Principle, you name it. As Rod Dreher says, go ask the African-America and Hispanic voters who were crucial to Obama’s coalition what they make of evolution or the age of the universe. See what answer you get. The human capacity for straight-up bizarre beliefs is infinitely variable, as is our capacity for seemingly irrational yet pragmatically useful compartmentalization.

Yet while most Americans hold to some kind of wacky notion in some part of our worldview, we manage to avoid denying the merits of chemotherapy or accusing iPhone designers of witchcraft. If you visit your average creationist website, the first thing you’ll notice is the almost endearingly ambidextrous lengths they go to to avoid delegitimizing the rest of science — to make their beliefs about the Earth’s age and evolution fit into the rest of conventionally accepted scientific knowledge. These are not science deniers. These are deniers of particular and isolated scientific conclusions.

And they deny these conclusions for very particular reasons. Some of those reasons are religious, some of them are cultural, and some of them have to do with very personal habits of intuition. But all of them have an internal logic (or psuedo-logic) and structure to them, and can be critiqued from within as well as from without. They are not random fits of irrationality. Nor do they represent some insatiable madness that will eventually spread to every scientific assertion under the sun. They are, in a word, surgical.

So the criticism of Rubio is in danger of sliding into an implied totalitarianism. If there is some normative obligation to always hold science as “the last word” on facts about the world — even in instances that have zero relevance to public policy — and if violations of that norm render a person unfit for office, then you’ve pretty much reduced your pool of viable public servants to atheists and mystics. The reductio ad absurdum of this stance was made explicit by the ever-reliable Sam Harris, when he penned an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that Francis Collins was unfit for the position of director of the National Institutes of Health. What Harris objected to was not any sign of corruption or incompetence — by all accounts Collins’ credentials and capacities were universally celebrated — but simply that he happened to believe in the existence of God and the soul. You can see where this is going.

And beyond the injustice and the practical madness of the stance, there’s just a kind of dickish, Brave-New-World-esque elitist ungraciousness about it. This line of argument basically says to its target, “We will not tolerate your human penchant for weirdness, and we will not trust your compartmentalization. We consider it necessary to quarantine you and your irrationality from public life.”

Now, obviously, I don’t think any of Rubio’s critics are blossoming totalitarians. But I do think they haven’t thought through the implications of their complaint with Rubio. And I think the reason they have’t thought them through is that this isn’t actually a high-minded argument over enlightenment and science. It’s just a pissing contest between rival socio-cultural tribes.

For the vast majority of us, when we say that we accept the scientific consensus that evolution occurs, that the Earth is a few billion years old, or that global warming is occurring, we do not mean that we’ve actually studied these matters ourselves and mastered the knowledge. What we mean is we trust the authority of the scientific community when it pronounces on this stuff. We’re signaling who we think is worth listening to and repeating. Given the breadth of scientific knowledge at this point, this holds true even for scientists themselves — your average theoretical physicist knows jack shit about neurology. What they do know is the culture and institutions of science, which they have decided to trust.

Which is all well and good. I trust them myself! But it means that when we talk about the merits and authority of science, we’re talking about something that includes — irreducibly and inescapably — some component of subjectivity, social signaling, status jockeying, and good old-fashioned tribalism. Steve Benen felt the need to defend Obama by listing all the times he said nice things about science, which should make it obvious that “science” here means a team to which we should be loyal, not some high-minded intellectual principle.

The struggle to recognize truth, to see the world for how it actually works, and to not get sucked down some rabbit-hole by bias or faulty thinking, is a universal human problem. It affects theoretical physicists as much as bankers, biochemists as much as ballplayers. Branding yourself as “on the side of science” will do absolutely nothing substantive to prevent you from straying from the path.

In fact, Rubio probably made the smartest observation of anyone in this dispute: “I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow.”

Yes, in terms of the great Platonic citadel of accumulated scientific knowledge, Rubio’s wrong. But in terms of what we as voters actually need from him as a policy-maker, he’s entirely correct. And while I disagree with Rubio on what policies will actually get the gross domestic product of the United States going again, I can sufficiently critique him with evidence and arguments that don’t bring us anywhere close to having to determine whether God made the Heavens and the Earth in six scientifically measurable days.

And it’s okay to leave it at that.

P.S. The question of global warming deniers is an especially thorny one, given their position’s potentially apocalyptic consequences for millions of human beings. But I think they, too, comport with my argument. They tend to work very hard to make their denial cohere with all other areas of scientific knowledge. And their reasons for rejecting the scientific consensus on this point have nothing to do with a bias against science per se: A lot of them are members of the upper class, the wealthy, and the energy industry, which all have very large vested interests in preventing the kind of top-to-bottom retooling our economy will need in order to head off global warming. And on a deeper level, the threat of global warming calls into question the entire mythos of individualism, technological progress, and competitive free market capitalism around which many Americans have built their sense of meaning and self-worth.

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