Needed: STEM education for Marco Rubio

A few years ago Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, put out a 12-point plan that he posited would

improve public education. (One item, to give you a sense of the list, was a federal corporate income tax credit to boost “school choice.”) This was Idea No. 7:

  Overcome The Science, Technology, Engineering And Mathematics Crisis. A focus on the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects will ensure that America remains highly competitive in the global market. Systemic reform with school choice, virtual learning and opportunity scholarships will allow STEM-focused students to study the critical subject areas that will help them succeed in our economy. If those students wish to become teachers, regulatory hurdles should not dissuade them. Together, we can ensure that America has the teachers and workforce needed to retain our economic edge.

 Rubio just showed how much of a science crisis there really is in the United States with his comments in GQ magazine about the age of the Earth. Here’s what he said:

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.

 

Actually, it’s no mystery at all. Rubio is already running to capture the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and he is trying to appeal to the sector of the population that refuses to accept modern science. The irony that he sees a STEM education crisis while misunderstanding basic scientific findings is almost too rich.

I can just hear students telling their science teachers, “I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that.”

Parsing everything questionable in Rubio’s response paragraph could take years so let’s stick to the basics. Of course one doesn’t have to be a scientist to know what scientists have proven: that the Earth is more than 4 billion years old and the age of the known universe, between 10 billion and 15 billion years old. Elementary school kids learn this.

There are, however, people who believe in something called “Young Earth Creationism” which holds that the universe and Earth were created by God sometime between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, meaning that humans and dinosaurs would have co-existed and that the scientific fossil record is phony. It is a view that was formed by what is said to be a literal reading of the Bible.

A Gallup poll released last June shows how many Americans hold different views (assuming Gallup was correct in this poll, unlike in some of its presidential campaign polling). It found that 46 percent of Americans “believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Gallup says that percentage has been unchanged for three decades. It seems fair to wonder why, with all the emphasis on education in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — in recent years.

Rubio’s response revives the evolution-creationism argument, because he is of course appealing to those people who believe that evolution, which is nothing less than the basic animating principle of modern biology, should be taught alongside, and given equal standing, with creationism theory, which is not a scientific alternative. There are different varieties of creationist theory, also called “intelligent design,” but they all refer to the religious belief that God intervenes, or did intervene, in the physical world. Darwin’s theory of evolution doesn’t deal with God one way or the other and is not a theory about how life began on Earth but rather explains how new varieties of life emerged over time and across habitats through natural selection, mutation, symbiosis, gene transfer and genetic drift.  Researchers have tested evolution for more than 100 years and evidence from a wide range of scientific fields confirms it. The methods by which scientists measure the age of the Earth have also been subject to intensive testing and shown, over time, to be accurate.

People can hold whatever religious beliefs they want, but they shouldn’t make up their own science. Since this is America, some try. The producers of the 21-year-old National Public Radio show called “Science Friday” have sued to stop a Colorado radio talk show host from using the name “Real Science Friday” for a program in which he and a colleague bash evolution and show “scientific” evidence for God, according to The New York Post.

When school reformers talk about improving education, especially in the science field, the refusal of so many Americans to accept the most basic principles of science should be one of their biggest concerns.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · November 20, 2012

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