What on earth do they think? Politicians on the age of the planet

In an interview with GQ, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has been mentioned as a rising star and potential U.S. presidential candidate in 2016, was asked “How old do you think the Earth is?” He responded:

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.

Keep in mind that Rubio sits on the Science and Space Subcommittee in the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which oversees by far the largest scientific research budget in the world.

Yet Rubio is hardly the first U.S. politician to express such a view. In October 2012, Paul C. Broun (R-Ga.), who serves on the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee, declared his views in these jaw-dropping terms:

All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.

At least one of the recent presidential candidates (Texas Governor Rick Perry) similarly responded when asked how old the earth was: “I don’t have any idea, I know it’s pretty old,” but then added that he wasn’t sure whether anyone knew “completely and absolutely” the age of the earth.

Along this line, presidential candidates Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Ron Paul labeled climate change “a hoax,” even as the scientific evidence for global warming continues to mount, and the need for world governments to take action grows more pressing.

Is this based on ignorance or political expedience? As the New York Times writes about Rubio, “if his response was more proof of cunning than idiocy, it was still ludicrous.”

Modern geology

These denials of modern geology are astonishing in the extreme to any scientist familiar with the depth and strength of the evidence for a 4.54 billion-year-old earth. Geologic dates are calculated using any of several well-established techniques based on known rates of radioactivity, a phenomenon that is rooted in fundamental laws of physics (quantum mechanics), and which follows simple mathematical formulas. Dating schemes based on rates of radioactivity have been refined and scrutinized for several decades. For details on how these ages are measured and calculated, see Radiometric dating.

So how reliable are these dates?

As with any experimental procedure, these measurements are subject to certain “glitches” and “anomalies,” as noted in the literature. But through several decades of extensive use, scientists have identified these difficulties and have designed careful experimental procedures to avoid them. And modern high-tech mass spectrometers can obtain reliable dates even on microscopic samples.

The chance that a single peer-reviewed measurement is off by a factor of millions is slim indeed. But the chance that every one of the these measurements is off by such a huge factor is absolutely zero.

Besides, one can determine the rough age of the earth by a very simple calculation. It is a fact that among all known isotopes found on earth that are not themselves products of radioactive decay, every isotope with a half life less than about 70 million years is absent (evidently because all traces have disappeared during the age of the earth), yet every isotope with a half life greater than about 70 million years is present at some detectable level. Since our current technology can detect isotopes with an abundance of roughly one part in a trillion (corresponding to the amount remaining after 40 half lives), this shows that the material from which our earth formed is at least 40 x 70 million (= 2.8 billion) years old. For details, see Reliability of radiometric dating and How old is the Earth.

One additional note here: As of this writing, mass spectrometers, which can be used to measure levels of radioactive isotopes (and thus calculate geologic ages) are available on eBay for as little as $250. Will the last of the young-earth creationists not give up until they can personally measure the age of rock samples? That day is nearly here.

Intellectual consistency

One wonders if the declarations mentioned above are intended primarily to appeal to creationist-minded constituents and donors. But at the very least, these politicians are not being intellectually consistent. If they truly believe that the scientific evidence behind the accepted age of the earth is questionable, then to be consistent they should:

  • Stop using the GPS unit in their automobile, because it crucially relies on the constancy of satellite-borne atomic clocks, which constancy is a consequence of quantum mechanics. GPS technology also relies crucially on Einstein’s relativity.
  • Toss their smartphone, because the engineering behind its components relies crucially on quantum mechanics.
  • For that matter, stop using any item with built-in semiconductor devices, since they are all similarly designed based on quantum mechanical principles. Nowadays, this means a vast number of manufactured items, including every new automobile now on the market.

Needless to say, no one expects these politicians to toss away their iPhones or their Garmin navigation units any time soon, nor will they stop driving. And therein lies the problem.

As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is reputed to have once said, “Science is not a taxi-cab that we can get in and out of whenever we like” [Cutting2011].

Thus once someone accepts that the basic principles of physics are accurate descriptions of the physical world (and they have passed the most exacting experimental tests imaginable), one is bound to accept their consequences. And one of the most immediate and basic consequences of these laws is that radioactivity follows certain simple mathematical rules, and, as a result, that the age of the earth is approximately 4.54 billion years — most certainly not just a few thousand years.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is wise to treat it like a duck.

Politics and education

These quips by high-ranking U.S. politicians raise serious questions as to whether these politicians are qualified to serve on these committees.

For example, few would disagree that it is inappropriate for a person who firmly believes that all banks are part of a sinister conspiracy, and should be immediately shut down, to serve a national legislative body overseeing the banking industry. And few would disagree that it is inappropriate for a person who rejects all medical intervention including, for example, blood transfusions, to serve on a committee overseeing vast national medical programs.

There is an even more pressing reason for concern over this nonsense: the future of scientific education. As we have argued elsewhere, a scientific and mathematical literacy crisis threatens the U.S. and numerous other first-world nations, particularly in light of the great strides being made by the Asian “tigers” and other ascendant nations.

For example, in a recent international ranking of 15-year-old students, the U.S. ranked an unimpressive 25th place in math and science skills. In the same light, a National Academies report highlighted the desperate need to improve mathematical and scientific education, particularly at the K-12 level.

In this context, what message are Americans sending to youth when prominent national politicians, with highly responsible positions overseeing scientific research, express utter contempt for modern science?

We do suspect that these same politicians are much more respectful of medical advice when their own health is involved than their public positions on evolution and creation should allow them to be. Do they turn down life-saving surgery because medical imaging is based on science they don’t like?

Now is the time to ask these questions. Within a few years it may be too late.

[This article appeared in the Math Drudge blog, co-authored with Jonathan M. Borwein, and also in the Huffington Post.]

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