"Politicians aren't scientists"

You know how some media love "he said, she said" journalism? The kind in which any issue, no matter the facts or relative degrees of extremism, is narrated in perfect equilibrium between two opposed, yet indistinguishably-intractable sides. Doesn't that stuff suck? OK! Cool.

Moving on, Slate's Daniel Engber has an interesting article up today about how Democrats and Republicans all hate science just as much as one another: "Willful ignorance of science is a bipartisan value."


  1. Apparently Daniel Engber has never heard of Rush Holt or Bill Foster, both of whom are physicists and members of democratic caucus in the House (or soon will be again, in the case of Foster).

  2. This Slate article is absurd. Rubio is asked a question about science and responds that he doesn’t know. And then Obama is asked a question about faith and says he doesn’t know. Through some journalistic magic Obama’s question is somehow twisted to be the exact equivalent as the question about science. Thus Obama is as ignorant as Rubio. Give me a break!

  3. My problem with this article is that then-Senator Obama and Senator Rubio were both asked two very different questions. Obama answered the question posed to him directly. Rubio did not. So treating both as a “dodge and pander” is not really fair.

    Also, I don’t really have a problem with either Obama or Rubio’s answer on its face. The fact that the earth is 4.54 billion years old is essentially trivia, and the belief that the world was created (whether in 6 days or not) is not inconsistent with the age of the planet. Yet the author acts as though one cannot consistently hold both beliefs–that the earth is billions of years old and that it was created by a deity.

    I suppose the base point–that politicians tend to sound very similar in sound bytes–is true. That’s not surprising, since politicians–particularly those on the national stage–want to appeal to the largest number of people possible, especially in what they say. I don’t think that anyone sane could seriously argue, though, that Obama’s policies and Rubio’s policies are essentially the same or would create the same results. They wouldn’t.

    1. It’s not trivia — next to the the facts that the earth is round and isn’t at the center of the universe, an Earth that is billions of years old is the most important scientific finding there is. And it is very definitely corrosive to religious belief, even if many religious people claim to belief both. The whole reason behind the 20th century resurgence of Creationism was that science and the Enlightenment led to the reduction of the power of religion in Western society.

      1. Actually it’s not as corrosive as you think, if only the wingnuts would actually read their magic book. It says, 

        “A thousand years are to God but the blink of an eye,…”, (Psalm 90)so six days to the big G may be 4 billion years to us. No contradiction, if you believe the magic book.

        1. Uh, no.  If you actually read the “magic book”, the earth, the universe, life and everything were created in 6 literal days.  It explicitly says “and the evening and the morning”; that’s not a “metaphorical” day.

          Genesis 1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

          Genesis 1:31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

          Another problem is that Genesis got the order wrong.  Day 1 introduces day and night, but the Sun, moon and the other stars weren’t created until day 4.

    2. I don’t think it’s unfair at all. They were asked two questions, but their answers are in a sense interchangeable. Obama is just better at dodging. Here are the key parts of Obama’s answers which I must take issue with:

      “there’s always a debate between those who read the Bible literally and those who don’t, and I think it’s a legitimate debate”

      It isn’t a legitimate debate. No serious person should take the Bible literally.  Not even a Biblical scholar. The Bible contradicts itself left and right; logically, it cannot be literally true in every word. I realize this is not a point of view a Biblical literalist will ever discuss with me, and that’s exactly the point: If it can’t be discussed, it isn’t a debate.

      “whether it happened exactly […]: That, I don’t presume to know”

      If that isn’t a pander and dodge, I don’t know what is.

      Their policies in support of, or antagonistic toward science are all that matters. On that score, I think Obama’s doing just fine, and it’s one of the reasons I voted for him. I’d rather have a rationalist who panders to the religious, than the opposite.

      1. Oh no! Obama thinks it’s scientifically debatable how old the earth is? Wait a minute you cut that quote short. 
        “and I think it’s a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I’m a part.”Unlike Rubio he was asked the question under a religious context, and Obama responded politely, basically saying yes your wife is beautiful and yes your children are intelligent. 

  4. For a brilliant look at the stupidity of the media’s unbalanced view on “balanced views”, take a look at this youtube video of “Dara O’Briain vs homeopathy”. Wonderful stuff…

  5. What Rubio needs to learn is that the correct response to difficult questions that are best ignored is to blithely reply “That question is above my pay grade” and move on.

  6. Engber’s analysis is both style- and theology-deaf, and maybe just a teensy bit ingenious (in the sense used to describe certain kinds of arguments). It is not hard to construct the implied audiences for the Rubio and Obama remarks, nor to identify the theological and philosophical traditions they belong to. Obama’s comments are familiar to any mainstream Protestant or Catholic: they navigate the sometimes tricky epistemological territory where faith and reason connect (or don’t). Rubio is actually more dodgy than Obama, particularly when he says “I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer [the question of the age of the Earth]. It’s one of the great mysteries.” All indications are that he’s smarter and better-educated than that and thus is probably playing to an audience he knows prefers scriptural assertions over scientific investigation. It’s a rhetorical punt. Obama is doing something like that, but in a way that makes it clear that he does not have any sense that science and religion are antagonists. (Which was also the position of the Jesuits who provided my theological education.)

    The interesting issues are 1) that politicians need to worry about the fact that a non-trivial portion of the electorate is anti-science and anti-intellectual and 2) the manners in which they navigate this political fact of life. Rubio doesn’t do too badly, given the nature of the audience (and electorate) he has to deal with. It’s kind of a shame that a guy with his intelligence and charisma has chosen to make that audience an important part of his base.

  7. This is a horrible article. The false equivalency crapola starts at the beginning, when Rubio and Obama are quoted in response to two different questions (only Rubio is asked explicitly how old the earth is), and then both are criticized for not answering the question only Rubio is asked. Obama is asked what he would say to his daughter if she asked whether the earth was really made in 6 days. He answers that question, which takes to be how to reconcile faith and the Bible with scientific fact. He alludes to the metaphorical or allegorical interpretation of the Bible. He was never asked how old the earth really is.

  8. I would like both Obama and Rubio to answer the following question: “There is evidence for the existence of a natural nuclear fission reactor on Earth two billion years ago based on the nuclear waste found in rocks of that age. Do you accept such evidence and what do you think of the implications of the fact that the waste did not move with respect to the surrounding rock (in particular, the implications for nuclear waste disposal)?”

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