It was a simple question and all it required was a simple answer.
How old is the Earth?
When GQ magazine put the question to Marco Rubio, United States senator from Florida, he balked. "I'm not a scientist, man", he replied. "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." Digging in deeper, he went on to say, "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."
It's hard to know what Senator Rubio really thinks about science and its answers (he recently backed off from his original tortured answer). What is certain however is the lack of scientific uncertainty concerning the Earth's age. It's 4.54 billion years old, give or take. If, like the Dude, you are into the whole brevity thing, you — or Marco Rubio — would be perfectly fine saying the Earth is about 5 billion years old.
There are so many lines of evidence pointing to this long-established truth that I need not waste your time on them here. Rubio's initial punt, however, raises a deeply troubling issue that demands serious consideration. It's a shadow that has been hovering over the intersection of science and politics for some time now: the willingness to treat basic, foundational scientific facts as if they where talking points for partisan debate. This shifty relationship with science is truly a threat to our country's future well being. Pondering the problem I got to thinking: what if politicians took a pledge to accept the scientific consensus on the big questions?
Many folks have heard about Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge. The TPP has been signed by 270 congressmen and senators, binding them to never, ever, ever raise taxes.
If taxes are important enough for a pledge, then science and technology, the engines of our economic competitiveness, should be worth one as well. If you accept that point, the next question becomes what would a Pledge For Science look like? Science is not a religion or a political dogma and the point here is not to demand that everyone adhere to what spills forth from the latest journal articles. That would be crazy. If we are to prosper as a nation then our pledge must be to the process of science as well as its established understandings.
With those needs in mind, here is one suggestion for what a pledge to science might look like:
Given the unique role science has played in American history — securing our prosperity, ensuring our defense and allowing us to push back the frontiers of knowledge in ways which will echo through future generations — I ___________________, representative/senator of the State of ___________________ pledge my support to the great American enterprise in science and technology.
In particular I pledge to make no statements in flagrant contradiction to the foundational principles of basic science, nor will I support others who make such statements. Understanding the importance of science to the next generation of Americans, I pledge to uphold the integrity of basic scientific research and take no actions to undermine the broadest public education in empirically verifiable scientific truths. I further acknowledge that such education must include an understanding of the methods science deploys in its investigations, as well as the limits of those methods.
In making this pledge I affirm that an absolute respect for both science and a personal commitment to divinity (in whichever form) are not incompatible.
Note that nothing in this pledge demands politicians be committed to scientists on issues of policy. Acknowledging climate change is real (and created by human activity) is a scientific issue. Deciding what to do about it is a policy issue. It's up to politicians of all stripes to decide how to respond climate change. Pretending the scientific consensus doesn't exist, however, does not constitute a policy.
Insisting on education about the methods of science and its limits keeps our feet to the flame. Simple admonitions to "trust us, we're scientists" will never work long term. Scientific literacy must now be recognized as fundamental to the health of a functioning democracy.
The last line of the pledge is critical and keeps the pledge from devolving into a battle over atheism vs. creationism. As the Catholic Church has demonstrated, there is no need to set up a false dichotomy between religion and something like evolution or the age of the Earth.
So what do you think?
What would you want in a national Pledge For Science? How would you balance out the need to keep politicians from waffling on scientific issues as diverse as evolution, climate change and vaccines while separating out issues of research from issues of policy? Should a pledge only speak to foundational issues? How would it address issues still at the hazy edges of our current realm of knowledge?
Whatever form it might take, asking our leaders to uphold the underpinnings of our nation's scientific and technological leadership in the world seems like a good idea. Maybe a pledge would begin to walk us back from the edge of the intellectual abyss we seem to be skirting with our political dialog.
Standing up for science should be a no-brainer for us. We are a nation that has shown, many times, how much we value the endless possibilities flowing from the pursuit of knowledge, not the least of which include a lasting peace and a generous prosperity for everyone.