Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Why the Age of the Earth Matters

Senator Marco Rubio got some publicity of a kind he probably didn't want this week with the publication of an interview in GQ in which he was asked about the age of the Earth:
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.
Since it is one of the most essential functions of the news media to catch Republican politicians saying dumb things and then discuss the sheer dumbness of what was said for as long as possible, we'll be hearing about this for a while. I'm not clear from Rubio's answer whether he thinks is something of a Young Earth creationist, and he's trying to sound less scary about it, or whether he just wants to avoid offending the sensibilities of those who are Young Earth creationists by not flatly disagreeing with them. Either way it's a bit dispiriting.

Rubio makes the argument that the age of the universe doesn't actually have anything to do with the sort of everyday concerns that a Senator deals with. Over at Forbes, Alex Knapp points out that the age of the universe actually does have huge implications for the kind of science we deal with in our everyday lives.
The emphasis in Rubio’s statement is mine. I say that because the age of the universe has a lot to do with how our economy is going to grow. That’s because large parts of the economy absolutely depend on scientists being right about either the age of the Universe or the laws of the Universe that allow scientists to determine its age. For example, astronomers recently discovered a galaxy that is over 13 billion light years away from Earth. That is, at its distance, it took the light from the Galaxy over 13 billion years to reach us.

Now, Marco Rubio’s Republican colleague Representative Paul Broun, who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology, recently stated that it was his belief that the Universe is only 9,000 years old. Well, if Broun is right and physicists are wrong, then we have a real problem. Virtually all modern technology relies on optics in some way, shape or form. And in the science of optics, the fact that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum is taken for granted. But the speed of light must not be constant if the universe is only 9,000 years old. It must be capable of being much, much faster. That means that the fundamental physics underlying the Internet, DVDs, laser surgery, and many many more critical parts of the economy are based on bad science. The consequences of that could be drastic, given our dependence on optics for our economic growth.

Here’s an even more disturbing thought – scientists currently believe that the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old because radioactive substances decay at generally stable rates. Accordingly, by observing how much of a radioactive substance has decayed, scientists are able to determine how old that substance is. However, if the Earth is only 9,000 years old, then radioactive decay rates are unstable and subject to rapid acceleration under completely unknown circumstances. This poses an enormous danger to the country’s nuclear power plants, which could undergo an unanticipated meltdown at any time due to currently unpredictable circumstances. Likewise, accelerated decay could lead to the detonation of our nuclear weapons, and cause injuries and death to people undergoing radioactive treatments in hospitals. Any of these circumstances would obviously have a large economic impact.
Knapp does a good job of pointing out that issues like the age of the universe are not simple trivia from a scientific point of view. If someone were really serious about believing that the universe was only 9,000 years old, it would imply that a lot of the physical laws we take for granted at the moment (a lot of our paradigms) are wrong. I think it's important that people have an understanding of how seemingly separate areas of scientific knowledge are in fact intimately tied together, so this is a very useful reminder.

That said, I think this misses something about the way in which most people who say that they think the Earth is only a few thousand years old actually use that belief. I've read explanations by Creationists that attempt to put together some story as to how we see light from objects more than 10,000 light years away, how radioactive decay could have been faster in the past, etc. in order to explain how the world looks the way it is while being less than 10,000 years old. However, these explanations invariably seem to be focused on coming up with an explanation as to how things used to be different for a while in the past -- they never attempt to make any predictions about the world behaving in strange and unexpected ways in the future. This is, of course, one of the several reasons that "creation science" can't really be considered a science, it's not predictive. Creation science is the attempt to use scientific language to explain how two seemingly incompatible things could be true: the world could look and act the way it does now (far away objects, radio isotope dating, fossils, etc.) and yet be very young. However, now and in the future, "creation science" is comfortable assuming that the world will continue to work exactly the way it does now -- not in the crazy ways it allegedly did for a couple days 9,000 years ago.

One can simply see that as being very bad science, and I think that's certainly appropriate. But as I think about Rubio's comments in particular, it strikes me that part of what's going on in many cases when people express doubts as to the age of the universe is that they're effectively walling off the question of the age of the universe and choosing to think of that in a context other than a scientific one. Sen. Rubio's expressed doubts as the the Earth's age and Rep. Broun's expressed belief that it's only 9,000 years old don't actually have any implications for science and technology applications in the present because they don't think about the age of the universe as a scientific question. I doubt very much that they expect the laws of physics to suddenly start acting differently any more than any other person does. Like anyone else making the leap from inductive knowledge to general laws, they are quite happy to act as if the speed of light and the breakdown of radioactive elements is constant. They just don't want to apply those practical beliefs to the question of the age of the universe.

In one sense, this isn't that odd. There are lots of areas of life where we don't attempt to apply science as a way of answering questions because science is incompetent to answer them. Examples of such questions would include: What is the meaning of life? Does my wife love me? Is Brahms better than Shostakovich? Should I become an academic or go into business?

What is odd is that those who believe in or hold open the possibility of a young earth are choosing to take a topic which science would appear to be well suited to "How old is the Earth?" and choosing to hold that out as an area where they do not apply science.

UPDATE: Of course, it's not just the Right that has its science problems. As a friend quipped on Facebook: "Rubio says he doesn't know the earth's age. Obama says he doesn't know when life begins." One of those is more likely than the other to result in making bad decisions.


codebeard said...

I'm just some guy with a Physics major, but here's my opinion:

Rubio is entirely correct that his own personal views on the matter are unrelated to his work.

It seems better to me to say "I'll let the scientists deal with that question" than to give his own opinion if he's not a scientist. If he had said "of course the Earth is 4 billion years old", despite having no scientific qualifications, that would be okay?

Knapp is so wrong I could write a book about it, but let me just start with the basics. His argument is basically "if we are wrong about this then THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT WILL END." Of course it won't – scientists have been coming up with new cosmological models every few decades without the economy falling over.

"Oh no if the speed of light is not constant then bad things will happen." Please Knapp, go take some pills and have a good rest. There are plenty of secular scientists who disagree about the speed of light or its constancy.

You know what? Even if the speed of light tomorrow were half the speed it was today, the following things would be totally unaffected: The Internet, DVDs, laser surgery, and many more critical parts of the economy. Lots of things depend on the speed of light being really damn fast but not many things depend on it being constant.

Knapp really gets to show his ignorance when he speaks about radioactive decay. If the Earth were only 9,000 years old (which it's not, but let's go with Knapp's hypothetical situation for a moment), then would that mean radioactive decay rates are unstable? Um, no. Which part of his head did he pull this idea from?

Let's take a look at the actual science. Let's suppose we have a piece of wood and we want to work out how old it is:

What we would like to know:
- The age of the piece of wood.

What we actually know:
- The levels of different radioactive isotopes in the piece of wood right now.

Therefore, the things we need to know are:
- What were the original levels of radioactive isotopes in the wood when it was formed?
- How have the levels changed since that time?

For the first question, the standard model assumes:
* The original levels of radioactive isotopes should be the same as what we find in a freshly grown piece of wood.

Regarding the second question, the standard model assumes that:
* The sample is a closed system. That is, negligible external introduction or leeching of isotopes (e.g. if it had been sitting next a hunk of Uranium for a thousand years then all bets are off.)
* Radioactive isotopes decay exponentially with a constant rate factor, at least because that's what we have observed for the past century.

To be sceptical about the standard model one need only challenge one or more of the above three assumptions.

Knapp seems to think that if there are issues with the dating model, they must be because the third assumption (rate with respect to time) is wrong and HENCE ALL HELL WILL BREAK LOOSE.

Of the three assumptions though, rate with respect to time is probably the one with strongest scientific support, so it's a straw man to portray a sceptic as automatically challenging this assumption.

Scientifically, the weakest assumption in the model is that the original levels are the same as for a new piece of wood. If this part of the model is wrong, then the rate could still be perfectly stable and nuclear power plants wouldn't vaporise us all on the morrow.

Brandon said...

While I wouldn't be quite so harsh, I agree with codebeard that Knapp exaggerates the implications. If reasonably conclusive proof were discovered that the world were only 9000 years old, the models would still work as well as they do now, because whether they are getting correct answers to present problems depends only on whether you can, in fact, use them to get correct answers for practical purposes, whatever they may say. And as codebeard notes, it's not as if scientists aren't willing to consider the possibility that light might not really be constant; it's just that theories making that assumption have turned out to be really, really good. If it turned out that the speed of light weren't actually constant, all that would change is that assuming that light is constant would now just be regarded as a really, really good approximation under a wide variety of conditions for a large number of purposes. Which is not a huge fall from grace or disaster for electronics.

I think, though, that you've hit the nail on the head with your diagnosis of a lot of young earth creationists; there's an agnosticism about how much you can actually know about such things on the basis of our actual evidence, and one of the alternatives is in their minds directly connected with certain beliefs that are pretty important morally. So naturally (and if their assumptions were correct, actually pretty reasonably) they go with what they think has the most significant positive moral and practical consequences.

Darwin said...

In fairness to Knapp, what I think sends him off in the particular direction that he goes is a specific creation science set of claims that is fairly common among young earthers -- or at least was 5-10 years ago when I was keeping up with those debates. By this theory, things like the speed of light and radioactive decay occur at a predictable rate now, but the universe got to be the way it was via a brief period in the days right after the creation of the universe when everything happened much, much faster. Thus, light streamed across billions of light years of space in the course of a couple days, getting a continuous supply of light between us and the farthest observed objects, and then everything slowed down to the current rate, with things behaving roughly as they do now.

From this, Knapp is going to: Wait a minute. If you're telling me that things like the speed of light and radioactive decay suddenly increase and decrease in speed, how are we to know that this won't suddenly happen again at any moment?

Now, what he misses in this is that creation science (being a save-the-appearances exercise for a certain type of biblical interpretation) isn't actually interested in making predictions. So the claim is not "the speed of light and radioactive decomposition tend to suddenly speed up and slow down at unknown intervals" but rather that these rates acted very differently very briefly in a unique period of time (during the creation process, if you will.) Young earthers no more expect to see that sort of thing happen again than he does.

Darwin said...

I do have to disagree with codebeard's point:

Rubio is entirely correct that his own personal views on the matter are unrelated to his work.

It seems better to me to say "I'll let the scientists deal with that question" than to give his own opinion if he's not a scientist. If he had said "of course the Earth is 4 billion years old", despite having no scientific qualifications, that would be okay?

Certainly, one is not required to go around learning the findings of fields one has no particular interest in so that one can reel them off on request, but I don't think that one is required to express lack of expertise on every question that stems from a field one is not an expert in.

So, for instance, I'm not a doctor, but I don't think it would be inappropriate for me to venture an opinion that smoking increases the chances of lung cancer, or that new human organisms result from the fertilization of an egg by a sperm as a result of sexual intercourse. I'm not morally obligated to know these things, and it wouldn't make me an inferior person if I hadn't bothered to pick up or retain them, but I think it would be a little odd if, on being asked, I begged off by saying, "Well, I'm not a doctor," and then throwing around some 'on the one hand... on the other hand' thoughts.

I don't think one needs to be any sort of expert in the field to go with the current estimate of the Earth's age, even while understanding that such things are always subject to revision should new evidence come to bear.

Crude said...

From what I understand, Slate recently pointed out that Obama gave more or less the same response as Rubio back in 2008, with no such fanfare taking place. They certainly didn't interpret his words to mean that he was endorsing some particular variety of 'creation science' and maybe we should be worried he's going to pull funding from physics labs because hey, all the information they gather will probably be invalid and useless in a week anyway.

I have a few big problems with what Knapp is saying, but here's one issue I'll mention that worries me: I get the impression that the attitude is scientists, or at least the vague 'consensus of scientists', is supposed to be treated as sacrosanct where you're supposed to agree and endorse their views, even if (maybe even 'especially if') you don't understand them and they really have no bearing on your day to day life.

I think in most other situations, saying 'look, I haven't read into this deeply myself, so I'm unaware of the arguments and evidence, therefore I'm agnostic' would be regarded as laudable. Suddenly you get to certain scientific questions and the response becomes 'being unaware of the arguments and evidence is no excuse, here is the scientific consensus, now declare your loyalty to it!'

Not to mention, the 'certain scientific questions' part is key. I've noticed that many people are frantic about whether a candidate believes the earth is 4 billion years old, or if darwinian evolution is true. No one seems to care whether candidates are even aware of the transition from classical to quantum physics, or know a single thing about chemistry.

Darwin said...

The Obama quote can be found here:

and the conclusion is here:

I was kind of surprised how much he went out of his way to express respect for a young earth interpretation of the Bible (since I wouldn't tend to think that's necessary for a Democratic politician to do to cement cultural support from his side) but he does seem to suddenly catch on to what he's saying and go off on a "But I really love evolution!" tangent.

On accepting the scientific consensus: I think one of the things that drives scientists and those interested in science batty is when people act as if there is a lot of doubt or controversy about topics on which there really isn't. So for instance: there are indeed a lot of things which are open ended and under dispute among scientists about various details relating to evolution, but that evolution does indeed take place according to the broad outlines generally discussed is not a remotely controversial point. (Same with the age of the earth being roughly 4.5 billion years and not a few thousand.)

So saying that you're agnostic on evolution or the age of the earth from a scientific point of view isn't like saying that you are agnostic on something relatively speculative and controversial like string theory.

Of course, the thing is, those who question those generally do not primarily consider those theories to be open questions due to scientific evidence, they do so due to their theological commitments. So arguably it's much more a turf war over whether to use science or theology to address questions such as the age of the earth or the way in which species develop rather than over scientific evidence.

Crude said...

So saying that you're agnostic on evolution or the age of the earth from a scientific point of view isn't like saying that you are agnostic on something relatively speculative and controversial like string theory.

Well, it's alike in one way: most people are simply unaware of the evidence, research, reasoning, etc that backs up the views of scientists in both fields. I've lost count of how many people I've met who A) claim to be big believers in the theory of evolution, and B) think the X-men are prime examples of Darwinism in action. To give one example.

Really, how many who accept the age of the earth can explain why they accept that, which doesn't reduce to 'I hear that's what scientists say' or something real close to that? If someone has no more reasoning BUT that, should we really be encouraging them to be steadfast in their commitment? Granted, fantastic evidence for those views may be out there, but the existence of good evidence and arguments alone doesn't suffice to dictate what people should think, does it? They have to be aware of that evidence and those arguments.

Or, I suppose, you could make the argument that they should just accept authority figures' claims. But I think there's an obvious danger that comes with that which will lead us back to a similar problem.

Crude said...

They have to be aware of that evidence and those arguments.

To clarify, I mean 'they have to be aware what that evidence is, and what the arguments are'. Not merely being aware 'there's good arguments, I hear!'

Joseph said...

It might make sense to ask politicians 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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