Last week, Marco Rubio very publicly answered a question in an interview about the age of the Earth with the answer that “I’m not a scientist, man. . . . 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.” The answer included other choice quotes, but this one provides the gist of his comments. On any other day, one might just chock the answer up to the evils of being an elected politician in a diverse society and leave it at that.
Except Marco Rubio serves as a member of the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Whatever else his personal views might be, his decision not to err on the side of the scientific consensus is worrisome for a member of a committee charge with promoting and regulating it. At the very least, it raises questions about the qualifications to sit on that congressional committee. Mr. Rubio is not being singled out for his comments. In fact, they try very artfully to cater to both pro-science and pro-religious camps; others are not so subtle in their full-hearted support for unscientific theories.
This raises a basic problem with the politics of science in America: it is too easy to use science as a political tool. The interview question was one of the infamous “gotcha” variety designed to trap Mr. Rubio into an unpopular opinion. Science, as an inherently neutral process, ought to be free from such manipulation. Our goals should be to arrive at the correct answer. The law should support this goal—not attempt to interfere with it.
Science and the law can coexist peacefully, but to do so, science and politics must coexist peacefully. Using science as a political punching bag is not a good way to start. Science itself should not be so politically controversial; when scientists come to a conclusion, people who are not scientists or do not really want to be involved in the scientific conclusion should stay out of the debate. Anyone is free to come to one’s own conclusion or to have one’s own belief: but you cannot foist this belief onto science through politics. This is a basic problem in America that we should have long ago resolved: how to promote science and its application to real-world problems and questions without using it as a political tool. Surely there is room for bipartisanship on that?