Earth day: What Marco Rubio said to GQ!


How old are the culture wars: For us, the most interesting thing in the papers this week are the letters in yesterday’s New York Times about what Marco Rubio said.

What Marco Rubio said to GQ about the age of the earth!

The letters appeared in yesterday’s Science Times section. For unknown reasons, they don’t seem to be available on-line. (Sigh.)

The eight letters were sent in response to an article in the previous week's Science Times. In the original piece, Nicholas Wade quoted what Rubio was asked, then quoted his full answer:
WADE (11/27/12): It was the standard political interview, about ambition and the right size for government. Then came the curveball question to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida from Michael Hainey of GQ magazine: “How old do you think the earth is?”

Senator Rubio, a possible contender in the 2016 Republican presidential race, gave the following answer: “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.”

He went on: “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 seven days, or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”
“How old do you think the earth is?” Wade called that a curveball question. We might be a bit less flattering, leaning perhaps toward “gotcha.”

Was something wrong with that question? Sort of. Especially given Rubio’s answer, we’d be curious to know what he would say about the way certain science topics should be taught in public schools.

(For the record, you’ll note that Rubio didn’t saying anything in that answer about what teachers should be doing. He talked about what “people” and “parents” should be able to teach. Public school teachers weren’t mentioned.)

We'd like to know what Rubio would say about science in public schools. But after getting Rubio’s answer, Our Man from GQ moved straight to a new topic. To all appearances, he was mainly interested in throwing a curveball—a flashy question that would possibly get his profile some ink.

Hainey's question achieved that end. The liberal world swung into action, mocking Rubio for his exceptionally dim-witted answer. Indeed, that was Wade’s basic approach in the New York Times. At the end of his report, he described Rubio as a “rudderless politician” who “threw 15 back flips and a hissy fit when asked a simple question like how old is the earth.”

We really didn't hear it that way. This brings us to our own question and answer:

How old are the tribal culture wars? Perhaps a bit older than earth!

Good liberals stood in line to trash Rubio for his ridiculous answer. Some people linked to an earlier interview in which he discussed a bill in the Florida legislature about the teaching of evolution. Here’s part of what Rubio said in that earlier profile:
SMITH (2/26/08): The "crux" of the disagreement, according to Rubio, is "whether what a parent teaches their children at home should be mocked and derided and undone at the public school level. It goes to the fundamental core of who is ultimately, primarily responsible for the upbringing of children. Is it your public education system or is it your parents?"

Rubio added, "And for me, personally, I don't want a school system that teaches kids that what they're learning at home is wrong."
In the end, what does Rubio think about the teaching of evolution and other such topics? In the snark which followed the GQ piece, we saw no one who actually tracked his finished view of that question.

For ourselves, we had a different reaction to Rubio’s statements. In part, that’s because we were teaching in Baltimore’s public schools at a time when some of the liberals who postured and snarked were off in the academy, leaving themselves surprisingly clueless about their nation’s politics.

Our reaction? We thought Rubio’s statements in that earlier interview went to the heart of a genuine problem in public education. It made us think of our own days in the Baltimore public schools in (let’s say) the mid-1970s.

At that time, we were teaching delightful fifth graders in an all “black” Baltimore public school. Their parents and grand-parents were also “black.”

By the norms of the culture, we weren’t.

When questions about American history arose, we tended to share our personal views with our students. (At some point, you can’t really have a classroom discussion if you keep your own views to yourself.) But if you’ve been in such situations, you may have realized, as we did, that you didn’t want to be imparting views with which your students’ parents might disagree—especially concerning subjects on which those parents might well have very strong feelings.

We were struck by Rubio’s sensitivity to this type of real world problem. Way back then, we would often say things like this:
BALTIMORE FIFTH GRADE TEACHER (1975): Well, I’ll tell you what I think about this. But just because this is what I think, that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to think it. Different people think different things about questions like this.

As you get older, you’ll decide more and more what you think about this. But if you’re trying to figure this out, you should also check with your parents or your grandparents, because what they think ought to be more important to you than what your teacher thinks. Your parents are very important.
For the most part, “Why did people ever take part in slavery” is a different type of question from “How old is the earth” or “Where did the allegedly human race come from.” But whatever you may think of people who reject key parts of modern science, Rubio was talking about an actual human problem.

Do you want to be telling a ten-year-old child that what her parents deeply believe is wrong? Set aside the contempt you may feel for those parents because you’re brighter and better than they are. Is it hard to see that an actual human problem arises when public schools are teaching material that, in Rubio’s words, “undoes at the public school level” what children “are learning at home?”

What do you do about that problem? Our Man from GQ was too glib to ask (or to care). He got some publicity from his “curveball question” and we liberals took it from there.

For ourselves, we’d like to see what Rubio would say to that ultimate question. How should a public school system present the kinds of science which may conflict with what kids are taught at home? We never encountered that problem as a teacher. We assume the conflict may be a bit more widespread today.

How should a school system deal with that? Remember, you’re dealing with kids who are ten years old. And you’re talking about the deepest beliefs of their parents.

Granted, their parents are worthless and dumb. But how do you deal with the conflict?

We thought Rubio showed a good ear for an real human problem. It made us think of something we saw Bill Clinton do a few weeks after his 1992 election.

Clinton took a supervised stroll through Washington’s black community (Georgia Avenue). At one point, a youngish man who looked as if he may have been homeless approached him with a question.

The man in question wasn’t one of the swells. Watching on C-Span, we were thrilled when Clinton responded by addressing the man as “Sir.”

We were thrilled to see that Clinton knew enough to do that. Warning to triumphalist liberals: To our ear, Rubio’s sense of the human problem involved in this unrelated matter carried a bit of that feel. Our sense? We've mocked the way Romney talked smack about voters. Rubio won't likely do that.

Snarking liberals were very sure that Rubio was being a dope in that answer—that he was a “rudderless politician...throwing a hissy fit.”

For ourselves, we heard a slightly more advanced sensibility in his comments. That said, how would Rubio handle that conflict? How would he teach science in public schools?

Our Man from GQ didn’t care. Truth to tell, neither do we liberals.

Mommy, how old are the tribal wars? Among the pious and self-impressed, at least as old as the earth!

Goofus and Gallant/Age of the earth edition: From what he reads in his Bible, Goofus thinks the earth is only 4000 years old.

Gallant buys Stephen Hawking’s books and pretends he understands.


  1. Bob's hypersensitivity to religion rearing it's ugly head in political matters is, obviously, quite selective, and it's only the liberals who are ever at fault. Ever heard of creationism, and the people who want it taught as legitimate science?
    In the Daily Howler's World, it's O.K. for pols to ride on Jesus's coattails, but don't ask them anything about the Bible.

  2. I respect Bob and appreciate his effort to shed light on the problems with the modern media and his concerns for our education system and repeatedly have defended his views in the comment section. Here comes the but. There is only one answer to the question about the age of the earth from an educated intelligent person and it is this." A huge majority of the experts in the fields of geology, astronomy and physics have studied the physical evidence and have concluded that the earth is about 4 billion years old and I concur." Or something along those lines. There is no debate. This was not asked in a classroom but had it been the answer would have to be about the same. If that is contrary to what student's parents believe then so be it. The parents are wrong and it being a religious belief doesn't change a thing. I admit I am a non-believer and think that religion is a combination of false history and junk science. I do appreciate the part of religions that teach peace,empathy and charity and only wish religion would have advanced those ideals more successfully in the several thousand years since the beginning of the major religions that are still practiced today. Bob you are wrong. There was nothing sensible in Mr. Rubio's answer. It was a typical creationist talking point. There are still many in this country that want science taught along with religion and Rubio is trying to court those people with answers like that one. In a classroom if a truth turns out to be in contrast to a parents belief then the sooner a student learns that the better. To simplify, if a parent thru some strange religious belief thinks 2 and 2 equals 5 should a teacher have to be sensitive to the parents beliefs and tell the student to consider that the parent may be correct? Of course the teacher doesn't need to pass judgement on a parents belief and needs only to present the facts and hope that truth will prevail. Of course a person should speak respectfully about and to people they don't agree with. There are those that are trying very hard to teach creation along with science in our schools both public and private. Do you really want a education system where a teacher someday says "Okay kids we have finished with our chemistry lessons now pick up your books on alchemy"? (stolen from Christopher Hitchens, just realized the root of his first name is christ, how ironic)?. Anyway,Bob you didn't get it right on this one. Sorry

    1. Bob's point is that Mr. Rubio demonstrates that he may be a formidable politician. His answer does not off handedly dismiss the views of a large number of voters. He would not likely get elected, or do well as a prospective Republican nominee by saying, "the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and I don't give a shit what you stupid religious types say!" There is still freedom in this country to believe in some bullshit as long as it doesn't directly impact the rights of others. The views of parents should be given some weight in society, don't you think.

      On the other hand, I do believe that schools should teach science and its tools without having to address religion. Parents are then free to send their kids to Sunday school (where they learn truths that haven't changed for centuries) and then sit down and discuss the conflicts between what they learn in Church (or wherever) and what they learn in school.

  3. I appreciate the issues Bob raises about the difficult situations teachers face, especially with younger children, insofar as things they are teaching may challenge in direct and profound ways what children are taught at home by their parents. In my experience (for what it's worth), teachers are very sensitive to those issues and try to be respectful of parents' authority and views, especially when what they are teaching might challenge those views. So, doesn't Rubio himself unfairly create a straw man, in his 2008 comments, when he implies that teachers in fact mock and deride what many parents teach at home about things like the age of the earth?

  4. Quaker in a BasementDecember 5, 2012 at 4:59 PM

    What Rubio believes about the age of the earth is of no practical significance to anyone.

    Asking questions like these has become the lazy journalists' stand-in for actually asking about things that matter. Long-term solvency of Social Security? Too hard! Price of a gallon of milk? Reveals character!

  5. Bob wrote, "BALTIMORE FIFTH GRADE TEACHER (1975): Well, I’ll tell you what I think about this. But just because this is what I think, that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to think it. Different people think different things about questions like this."

    That's exactly the right way to explain the age of the earth to a child whose parents do not agree with the science. Rubio is right to say that a parents shouldn't have their beliefs mocked in class.

    But Bob is mistaken to think that Rubio was being sincere. He wasn't really worried about beliefs being mocked. There's an easy fix for that. The parents complain to the principal who takes the teacher aside and gives him or her a verbal warning.

    Rubio was worried about the teaching of evolution altogether and trying to make his bill to get creationism taught in the schools sound as innocuous as possible.

    Rubio also says, "And for me, personally, I don't want a school system that teaches kids that what they're learning at home is wrong."

    That sounds different, doesn't it?

    1. FYI: Rubio already backe off his "I dunno ..." answer, which was strictly a tea party homage.

    2. That is not the correct way to answer the age of the earth question. Its not what the teacher thinks its what the truth is. You don't tell a kid I think two and two is four. You say two and two IS four. Of course you don't mock parents religion mostly because you don't discuss religion unless its a class on history or naturally a class on religion. The age of the earth IS aprox. 4 billion years. Rubio's answer tells me quite a bit about him. Folks this is simple stuff. I want truth and professionalism from journalists and teachers and then let the chips fall where they may.

    3. I get what you're saying, oldguy. If I were a high school or junior high school science teacher I would explain to the student exactly why his parents are flat-out wrong and why there are no credible "alternative theories" to evolution. I would then explain to the student that, although he is free to reject evolution in the end (and many smart people do), he has to know the science behind the theory in order to pass the class.

      Ten year-old children who have been taught creationism at home have to be dealt with very differently. That's all I'm saying.

    4. If I was a teacher I would try to explain to the students that what goes on in their homes is not my business but that my job is to convey the subject matter as agreed upon by the consensus of experts in that particular field. Or something along those lines. I sure would avoid saying a parent was wrong and hope the student could work it out on their own. It seems a teacher in today's world has a minefield of issues to deal along with the usual problems of discipline,politics and resources and many others I haven't even considered. What a tough job to do well in today's or any day's climate for that matter and I only wish we had many more great teachers who probably in the end or the people that can actually make a real difference in creating a better world. Too bad we don't pay them enough respect or money.

  6. Talk about overcompensating in the effort to be fair. Rubio wasn't talking to a class of fifth graders, dude. He was talking to a writer for a magazine read by grown-ups. If the question was a gotcha transparently intended to discover whether he's such a pandering weasel that he won't even show respect for the intelligence of literate adults, well ... gotcha.

  7. This is not a hard call. Bob, you got it wrong this time. Rubio's answer was terrible. You may see it as respectful, I see it as pandering. It doesn't matter how old the parents think the earth is. What matters are the facts, what the science tells us. Everything else can go jump in the lake.

  8. Somerby and Joe Bageant understand that urban/snarky liberals/progressives don't really get working class reality because it's beyond their particular experience of the world:

    re: Do you want to be telling a ten-year-old child that what her parents deeply believe is wrong? Set aside the contempt you may feel for those parents because you’re brighter and better than they are.

    and re: Granted, their parents are worthless and dumb. But how do you deal with the conflict?


    "One of the problems we working class Southerners have is that educated progressive Americans see us as a bunch of obese, heavily armed nose pickers. This problem is compounded by the fact that so many of us are pretty much that. Call it the “Dumb-crackers-lordee-I-reckon” syndrome. But liberals err in thinking this armed and drunken laboring species is an exclusively Southern breed. No matter where you live in this nation you will find us. We are the folks in front of you at the Wal-Mart checkout lugging a case of motor oil while having nicotine fits. But even in such democratic venues as shopping, our encounters are limited because we do not buy designer beer and you do not buy ammo or motor oil by the case."

  9. I am starting to get the feeling that Syria's chemical weapons are the same as Saddam throwing babies from incubators, Jessica lynch, toppling of the Saddam statue, and Gadaffi's rape rooms.

  10. Much of what is taught by parents at home is incorrect. Many answers are counter-intuitive. Common sense is the type of sense one learns until one is experienced. Common sense is not that common. Do we not teach med students about the scientific method and its usefulness to diagnostic medicine simply because a superstitious couple is teaching their kids voodoo? All religion is voodoo to the non-believer. Rubio was not being sensitive to the feelings of some adults, he was being insensitive about teaching children how to reason, think critically and skeptically about the world in which we live. Who is actually being harmed if a child is being taught old wives tales, folklore and romantic or biblical stories? Keeping children ignorant to please difficult parents is not the answer.

  11. Thanks, Mr. Somerby, for getting to the heart ( in every sense of the word) of this matter.

    Wouldn't it be nice if the chattering class of all stripes gave a good goddamn about anything other than their own reflection.

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