11/21/2012 01:54 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Marco Rubio's Geological Cliff

The science blogosphere is alive with condemnations of Marco Rubio for being vague on the age of the earth. In a much-discussed interview with GQ, the Tea Party favorite said he thinks there are "multiple theories out there on how the universe was created." The earth, says Rubio, may have been created in "seven days" or "seven actual eras." The ultimate answer to the question GQ posed -- How old do you think the earth is?" -- is that "It's one of the great mysteries."

Writing in the New York Times, Juliet Lapidos accused Rubio of intentionally waffling and pandering to a scientifically illiterate base that has "no truck with geologists." This is her charitable response, which she describes as "cunning." The alternative, she says, is "idiocy." Andrew Sullivan, writing in The Daily Beast, called Rubio "nuts." The more restrained Paul Krugman got into the ring, asking the provocative -- and relevant -- rhetorical question: "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?" Even Rubio's fellow conservative Ross Douthat was critical, asking, "How are you going to have effective science education if schools have to give equal time to the views of fundamentalist Christians?"

GQ's question to Rubio was one of those "gotchas," dropped into the middle of an interview, like Katie Couric asking Sarah Palin what news sources she read. In his meandering response Rubio even tried to undermine the question itself as having "zero to do with how our economy is going to grow."

Rubio's critics are alarmed that an up-and-coming Republican leader is, once again, floating in a fact-free zone. It's Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock and Paul Broun all over again. It's the Republican primary when all the candidates -- save poor, fading Jon Huntsman -- publicly rejected evolution. It's climate change denial. It's leaders lying and pretending to be as stupid as the voters they are cultivating, as Ron Reagen said to Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball on Nov. 20.

While we should certainly be concerned, and heed the blogosphere's wail about the dangers of scientific illiteracy, I don't think we should be so quick to attack Rubio as if he embodies the problem. Krugman is, of course, absolutely correct about the dangers of ignoring "what geologists say" but (and here is where the rubber meets the road) who gets their ideas about the age of the earth from geologists? How many people even know a geologist?

We need to step back and ask how these "controversies" might be adjudicated by conservative religious people who are not members of the scientific community -- people like Rubio. What does evolution, the Big Bang and the age of the earth look like to lay people who are not investigating such questions from a scholarly perspective?

(I am giving Rubio the benefit of the doubt here about his honesty. I have no reason to believe he was lying to GQ in the interview. In fact, what little I know about Rubio suggests that speaking truthfully is probably important to him, although not without its political challenges.)

For starters, it is simply not true that "all educated people accept evolution, the Big Bang, and the great age of the earth," and only ignoramuses think otherwise. Groups like Answers in Genesis, the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research aggressively market the impressive academic credentials of their staff scientists. The Discovery Institute has compiled a list of hundreds of scientists with Ph.D.s who "dissent from Darwin." Answers in Genesis has a former college biology professor on staff and publishes a "peer reviewed" journal. One of America's best-known anti-evolutionists is tenured in biochemistry at Lehigh University. There are entire universities -- Liberty, Bob Jones, Patrick Henry, Cedarville -- where faculty sign faith statements rejecting evolution.

Answers in Genesis spends $20 million a year assuring conservative Christians that evolution, with its ancient earth, is a decaying fossil of a theory, that scientists are abandoning it, and that the evidence is clearly on the side of the biblical story of creation. They also argue that evolution and an ancient earth contradict Christian beliefs and undermine the authority of the Bible.

This is what people like Rubio are likely to hear in their churches, read in their Christian literature, learn in their Christian schools, consume in their Christian media.

But suppose that Rubio decided to pursue these questions in more detail and, not knowing any actual geologists, went to a well-stocked bookstore and purchased a cross section of popular science books explaining evolution, the Big Bang, and the age of the earth. In all likelihood the authors of these books would be some of America's most vocal and anti-religious atheists -- Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett, Vic Stenger. And the books would argue with a suspicious passion that belief in God must be rejected if one is to take science seriously. Some of the books would have titles like "God: The Failed Hypothesis. "

Even a diligent search would turn up but a few books explaining how contemporary scientific ideas can be understood within the framework of traditional Christianity.

From inside the scientific community, or far outside the faith community, the question "How old is the earth?" is trivial. The answer is 4.54 billion years. But from most other places that number will be harder to find.

America's troubled conversation about our origins is, unfortunately, more of a culture war than a scientific controversy. Geologists have become irrelevant. Give Rubio a break.