On the Practicality of Reason
November 21st, 2012
Marco Rubio has been in the news recently for equivocating on 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 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.Translation: “I can't have science which contradicts fundie beliefs! I'm running for president, for Pete's sake!” A lot of apologists for this kind of young-earth creationism try to make it seem like there is no real-world impact for denying the science on this. A lot of people who know science disagree, saying that, for example, believing evolution is false will have a real impact on a student's understanding of biology and other aspects of science. However, it is sometimes hard to see exactly how that works. After all, most people don't learn enough about biology or science in general for the difference between believing or not believing in science to have any real impact on their lives. As a result, the effects of fundamentalist denial of science remains distant. One conservative, not necessarily religious, form of science denial is starting to break through to people's lives: the denial of climate change. Seeing Rhode Island-sized chunks of ice break off the polar caps every other month are one thing, but storms the size of Hurricane Sandy now pounding our shores on a regular basis have made things even more plainly obvious. But what about the age of the universe? The age of the Earth? How does that effect us on a daily basis? Paul Krugman took a stab at it recently, noting: “If you’re going to ignore what geologists say if you don’t like its implications, what are the chances that you’ll take sensible advice on monetary and fiscal policy? After all, we’ve just seen how Republicans deal with research reports that undermine their faith in the magic of tax cuts: they try to suppress the reports.” In essence, denying science begets denying facts, an excellent point in light of current and recent conservative beliefs, policies, and actions. However, that is still indirect, and therefore relatively difficult for many taken in by the fundie narrative to internalize. How can we state in more concrete terms that denying the science on the age of the Earth as well as a variety of fossil life consistent with that age has real-world impacts? How can we show in better kick-to-the-gut terms that accepting evolution is in fact an important thing? One attempt was antibiotics, and how the microorganisms we fight with them are rapidly evolving, making more and more of our medicines ineffective. However, fundamentalists have a workaround: that kind of evolution, the kind we can observe in real life, we'll call that “micro-evolution,” which yields only small changes in organisms over short periods of time, and accept it because it can be consistent with a young earth; but it is different from “macro-evolution,” the kind which says all life evolved over billions of years. Have you ever seen a giraffe evolve into a hippo in a laboratory? No? Then I will smugly not believe in this “macro-evolution” kick you're on because you have no evidence that is easily digestible in sound bites a layman can discern without trying too hard. Now, don't get me wrong, all of these arguments are dead wrong, in any number of ways. But you have to remember that the problem lies in getting non-scientists to understand, and answers like the one above, as clearly wrong and flawed to a scientist as it is, is nevertheless more than enough to assure a fundie who, after all, wants to believe in whatever supports their religious beliefs. What we need is an argument which is not too technical, but which shows clearly that young-Earth creationism simply can't be right. Just today, I found a great example of just that. Alex Knapp at Forbes does it:
Now, Marco Rubio’s Republican colleague Representative Paul Broun, who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology, recently stated that it was his belief that the Universe is only 9,000 years old. Well, if Broun is right and physicists are wrong, then we have a real problem. Virtually all modern technology relies on optics in some way, shape or form. And in the science of optics, the fact that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum is taken for granted. But the speed of light must not be constant if the universe is only 9,000 years old. It must be capable of being much, much faster. That means that the fundamental physics underlying the Internet, DVDs, laser surgery, and many many more critical parts of the economy are based on bad science. The consequences of that could be drastic, given our dependence on optics for our economic growth. Here’s an even more disturbing thought – scientists currently believe that the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old because radioactive substances decay at generally stable rates. Accordingly, by observing how much of a radioactive substance has decayed, scientists are able to determine how old that substance is. However, if the Earth is only 9,000 years old, then radioactive decay rates are unstable and subject to rapid acceleration under completely unknown circumstances. This poses an enormous danger to the country’s nuclear power plants, which could undergo an unanticipated meltdown at any time due to currently unpredictable circumstances. Likewise, accelerated decay could lead to the detonation of our nuclear weapons, and cause injuries and death to people undergoing radioactive treatments in hospitals. Any of these circumstances would obviously have a large economic impact. If the Earth is really 9,000 years old, as Paul Broun believes and Rubio is willing to remain ignorant about, it becomes imperative to shut down our nuclear plants and dismantle our nuclear stockpiles now until such time as scientists are able to ascertain what circumstances exist that could cause deadly acceleration of radioactive decay and determine how to prevent it from happening.That is an excellent point. Dating techniques are based upon the science of understanding the decay of atoms. This decay is directly linked to both the measured age of objects far older than the supposed creationist age of the universe and to the stability of nuclear power and weapons. If it is unreliable, then so is everything based on atomic decay. Atomic decay is used to regulate time, for crying out loud; the time you set your watch by is determined by atomic clocks. The chemotherapy for cancer treatments someone in your family is bound to have undergone, or is undergoing, is also directly related to this—that person could die if the science on radioactive decay is wrong. So! Hearing this, fundamentalists will give up and concede the earth is 4.54 billion years old, right? Yeah, I know. That's the thing—if a person wants to believe something without having to pay the price for it in some other way, they'll always find a way. One way is what a lot of these fundies do: simply ignore the effective arguments and facts. Pretend they don't exist. They already do this, relying on a host of bogus arguments “proving” “evil-ution” is wrong, despite a mountain of science, collected here, for instance, proving their arguments are rubbish. Other forms of denial exist, up to and including the “nuclear option” of denialism: God created the universe to seem like it's old so as to test our faith. Yeah, that must be it. God created a vast universe full of carefully crafted and fully-consistent deception all for the benefit of our tiny race on on our tiny planet, to see if our love of Him is great enough that we will believe more in the science gleaned from an ancient, error-filled, inconsistent philosophy text written by people who did not know about and were not writing about science than we will believe in the actual universe in front of our eyes. Yes, that's reasonable. Aside from the fact that this supposition is ludicrous, there is another key flaw: it presumes that virtually all of creation is a lie intended to deceive us. It assumes that God created us flawed so we could be deceived, then deceived us, and then punishes the deceived with an eternity of pain and horror. Again… yeah, I know. Making these arguments won't shift the beliefs of the deeply committed. So, why argue any of this? Because there are many on the fringes, especially the young ones who have not heard these arguments before, the ones whose “hearts have not been hardened,” who will hear the arguments and will perhaps succumb to reason. Reason, which Martin Luther himself identified as “the greatest enemy faith has.” And it is working. The number of those not affiliated with an established religion is growing. As Rick Santorum pointed out recently, many young people going to college and learning this satanic “critical thinking” hogwash are coming out of college less convinced about fundamentalist denialism than they were going in. He called it “indoctrination.” Which is the opposite of the truth, of course. “The indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned.” That kind of goes against the entire idea of critical thinking—but “indoctrination” describes perfectly what fundamentalists want their kids to stick with. What we need is more exposure to the idea that, in Genesis, the Hebrew word “yom”—as in, the six yom of creation—can mean “era” just as legitimately as it can mean “day.” Once people realize that they can believe in the Bible and in science, things will go a lot smoother. The problem: organized religion. You see, it has been insisting for quite some time that the translation of that word is a 24-hour “day.” And these people claim to directly represent God. They claim that they are the dispensers of High Truth. Realizing that Genesis could refer to “eras” makes a lot of sense and would allow for believers to believe that the Bible was never in error on that point. But it would mean that the church which pushed the 24-hour day interpretation was in error, and we can't have that. But there is hope. It took the Catholic Church just four centuries to “forgive” Galileo for being right. So, all we have to do is wait several hundred years. Maybe they'll come around on this, too.