Thoughts on Marco Rubio and the Age of the Earth

Hold on to your hats, kids, I think I will alienate 95% of the blogosphere with this one (and without even cursing)…

Marco Rubio has been getting hammered in the blogosphere from both right and left for his coy answer when a GQ interviewer asked him about the age of the Earth. The irony is, the people I’ve seen complaining the loudest, don’t realize that they themselves don’t adhere to their commentary on the Rubio affair.

First, let’s set the context for those who didn’t see the exchange. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the December 2012 GQ:

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?
Marco Rubio: 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.

Now clearly, Rubio is giving a non-answer here: He’s skillfully acknowledging the controversy without trying to appear like a Bible-thumping hick, but also without offending fundamentalist Christians. After reading Rubio’s response, I know very little about his actual views except, “I would like to continue winning elections.”

Even so, I think much of the hysteria following the interview is misguided. For example, let’s look at Paul Krugman’s reaction. It should not surprise anyone to learn that he quickly pounced:

As I like to say, the GOP doesn’t just want to roll back the New Deal; it wants to roll back the Enlightenment.

But here’s what you should realize: when Rubio says that the question of the Earth’s age “has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow”, he’s dead wrong. For one thing, science and technology education has a lot to do with our future productivity — and how are you going to have effective science education if schools have to give equal time to the views of fundamentalist Christians?

More broadly, the attitude that discounts any amount of evidence — and boy, do we have lots of evidence on the age of the planet! — if it conflicts with prejudices is not an attitude consistent with effective policy. 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.

Beyond Krugman’s annoying haughtiness, is the more serious problem that this is what we do in economics education all the time, including Paul Krugman. When I was a professor at Hillsdale College, I spent an inordinate amount of time lecturing on the virtues of free trade. Now I could’ve just said, “This is a topic where economists from across the political spectrum agree. Lowering trade barriers raises just about everybody’s standard of living, in all countries.”

But I didn’t merely do that. Instead, I gave several different arguments to demonstrate how unfettered trade raises all boats, and I walked through several different critiques of standard “protectionist” arguments. I had the class read Bastiat’s famous “Petition of the Candlemakers,” I walked through a simple numerical example of trade flows and wages in the U.S. and Mexico, and I relayed Henry George’s famous quip that in wartime we blockade our enemies and do to them what we do to ourselves with tariffs in peacetime. I pointed out that as an employee of Hillsdale College, I had a massive trade surplus with the state of Michigan, but a massive trade deficit with Florida whenever I went on vacation. So did this mean my money was eventually going to all end up in the hands of Floridians? And so forth.

Now why did I spend so much time on this topic? Because I knew it was the single hardest thing for the layperson to grasp. Indeed, even after all of my efforts, I would still have students writing on tests that a trade deficit with Japan “sucked!” Even though the vast majority of economists for more than a century has thought it silly for governments to institute tariffs in order to “save domestic jobs,” nonetheless the general public endorses the idea. So it’s important for economists to try to educate their students on what is wrong with this notion, if that’s what the economists believe.

By the same token then, if a large segment of the U.S. population—so large that major politicians are afraid to cross them—doesn’t believe the standard neo-Darwinian synthesis on the origin of species, then it’s important for teachers to teach about these issues. Hardly anybody is suggesting that if someone wants to get a Ph.D. in microbiology from Harvard, that he should use Genesis as a text. Rather, what many parents are saying is that if their kids are going to be taught the general principles of biology, chemistry, and so forth, because these are supposedly important subjects for a well-rounded citizen, then teachers should at least acknowledge the fact that many of these kids grow up in households where they have strongly held views against some of the conclusions of these disciplines.

If Krugman wants to say this is a waste of scarce classroom time, on a topic on which the experts have little disagreement, then by the same token he should recommend that intro college courses on economics drop all mention of protectionism. Furthermore, I have to wonder why he spends so much time on his own blog, in his popular books, and on the Sunday talk shows, knocking down “zombie ideas” and other views advanced by his opponents. One almost gets the sense that Krugman feels it’s important for even a Nobel laureate to disabuse the general public of widely held economics fallacies.

Yet turning back to Rubio, there was another strand of criticism I saw, this time coming from atheist libertarians and Austrian economists. The complaint here was that if the Republican Party keeps catering to these nutjob Christians, then their message of smaller government and economic freedoms will get drowned out by the crazy social and religious dogmas.

These complaints were particularly amusing, because Austrian economists are the analog of the “Intelligent Design” scholars. Contrary to the aspersions of Krugman and others, there really are PhDs in various, relevant fields who challenge the “consensus” views on speciation, the origin of life, and the age of the earth. The fundamentalist Christians who believe in a Young Earth don’t merely say, “Well sure, all them pointy heads with their fancy equipment and big brains say one thing, but I’ve got my Bible so they must be wrong.” No, the fundamentalist Christian thinks the secular scientists have overrated the powers of their reason and are misapplying their scientific tools. The works of the academics in the Intelligent Design and Creationist fields (those are distinct concepts, by the way) are full of secular arguments. They give logical objections to carbon dating and geological evidence of an Old Earth. It’s not simply quoting Scripture.

In conclusion, it is entirely understandable that Paul Krugman and other icons in the economics establishment can laugh at the outcasts in both economics and other disciplines. But it is ironic indeed when Austrian economists—who think that the New Keynesian orthodoxy is rubbish—join suit.

Of course the two disciplines are different; it’s possible that the Austrians are right in their criticism of the mainstream “consensus,” while the Intelligent Design and/or Young Earth scientists are wrong in their criticism of their mainstream peers. But from a cultural or sociological perspective, the two situations are quite similar. Unless a particular Austrian economist also has an advanced degree in biology or geology, I don’t think he or she should be complaining too loudly about conservatives paying attention to “crank” scientists in other disciplines. If the conservatives heeded such advice, then they’d tune out the Austrian economists too.

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