Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Any fool with access to a computer can get the acceptable figure for the age of the earth. But the vast majority of Americans know little or nothing about how that number was calculated — and that includes those now crowing about the stupidity of Marco Rubio, the latest politician to spout creationist sympathies.
This being Thanksgiving week, no one wants to talk disparagingly about religion. So instead, in the blogosphere and various newspaper columns, Rubio’s creation statements became a discussion about the economy. The logic went something like this: Scientific research is good for the economy and creationists discount certain scientific facts. Ergo, creationists are bad for the economy. But are they? And if that’s the case, why are so many creationists coming from the ranks of doctors, engineers and chemists?
The latest flap centers on the answer the Florida Senator gave to an interview question about the age of the Earth:
“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 among theologians and I think it has nothing to do with 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…”
His opponents paraphrased this to imply that Rubio thinks science has nothing to do with economic growth. But how many of those looking down their noses at him were ever bothered to learn how the earth formed, whether it was a fast process or a slow one, and how scientists figured this out.
If the origin of the Earth is such an economically vital question, why do so few Americans give a damn about it?
My reading is that Rubio was trying to say that creationist views of the origin of the earth or the universe won’t affect the economy. That’s not so easy to refute. Not only have fundamentalist leanings and technological ingenuity coexisted for years in this country, but they’ve coexisted in some of the same brains. Our country is full of productive people in software design, engineering, chemistry and even physics and mathematics who believe in all kinds of crackpot ideas from Intelligent Design to UFO abductions to homeopathic medicine. I know this because I wrote about science for a newspaper for years, and I heard from such people every week.
Historian Adam Laats also questions whether creationism is really the result of ignorance. He expressed his doubts in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled, To Teach Evolution You Have to Understand Creationism.
If you follow the news about culture wars, evolution, and creationism, you’ve probably seen it by now. Earlier this fall, U.S. Rep. Paul C. Broun Jr., Republican of Georgia who ran unopposed for re-election, said in a widely distributed video that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory were “lies straight from the pit of hell.”I don’t agree. But the ferocious response to Broun’s remarks tells us more about the widespread ignorance among evolution supporters than it does about ignorance among creationists.Broun, who serves on the House of Representatives’ Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has long been one of the most staunchly conservative members of Congress. His comments have earned him widespread condemnation; Bill Nye, television’s “The Science Guy,” has called Broun “by any measure, unqualified to make decisions about science, space, and technology.” In the blogosphere, comment has been even less restrained.First of all, Broun is no ignoramus. He holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and an M.D. He is the most recent in a long line of educated creationists. In the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan similarly defended his role as a man of science. In response to Clarence Darrow’s accusation that only “bigots and ignoramuses” opposed evolution education, Bryan listed his many college degrees.
I’d agree with Bill Nye about Broun’s lack of qualification; not because Broun is ignorant but because he appears to be delusional. Delusional people might be capable of doing technical jobs vital to the American economy, but I can see how putting them in leadership roles is problematic. Nye has also said that we should fight creationism because America needs engineers. He seems to be in denial over the number of creationist engineers out there.
Someone who has real insight into persistence of creationism and other weird supernatural ideas is Michael Shermer, a former “Jesus freak”, who became a leader in the skeptic’s movement. His latest book, the Believing Brain goes a long way to explaining the silly beliefs held by many technically smart, math literate, innovate people.
And so, I’m not particularly worried that creationists will impinge on our collective ability to buy better and cooler stuff in the future. But there is evidence that creationism in American culture is impoverishing us in another way – one that may harm our well-being as much as economic trouble. The harm is to American’s intellectual life.
This threat is backed by research done by political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer. I’ve written about their work, which is also cited in the Chronicle piece. Their studies have shown that creationism is having a chilling on education, even if court battles keep pushing it out of the classroom.
When it comes to evolution, many students leave school learning nothing at all. Whether or not these students go on to economy-boosting science or engineering careers, they deserve to learn more than just the superficial details of the birth of our solar system and the evolution of life. They all deserve to learn the truth as we understand it in the 21st century.