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  1. Opinion

Rubio doesn't know how old the Earth is

The Earth is 4.54 billion years old.

We know this because science works. A large number of independent fields of science show that the Earth is terribly old, and all these different scientific areas — highly successful in their own rights — converge on the same age of the Earth. This number is very well known, very well understood, and the process behind its determination is a foundational assumption across all fields of science.

So why does Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, say he doesn't know how old the Earth is?

In an interview published by GQ magazine, reporter Michael Hainey asks the senator simply, "How old do you think the Earth is?" The answer too should be simple. Rubio's reply, however is anything but:

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 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.

Actually, it's not a great mystery. It used to be … a century ago. I am a scientist, and I can tell you that nowadays — thanks to science — we know the age to amazing accuracy. The age of the Earth is 4.54 billion years … plus or minus 50 million years. That's a number known to an accuracy of 99 percent, which is pretty dang good.

Rubio's answer, however, is so confused and error-riddled its difficult to know where to start. Right off the bat, he mentions the Bible in terms of the Earth's age several times, including the "seven days" part. This is not necessarily an indication he's a young-Earth creationist — that is, he thinks the Earth is 10,000 years old or less — but it does indicate some pretty fuzzy thinking.

About the age of the Earth, he says, "I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that." In fact, the age of the Earth and the solar system is one of the unifying concepts of science specifically mentioned in the U.S. National Education Standards — an educator-created list of concepts that all students should know upon graduating high school.

Did I mention that Rubio sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee? Perhaps Rubio is unaware that science — and its sisters engineering and technology — are actually the very foundation of our country's economy? All of our industry, all of our technology, everything that keeps our country functioning at all can be traced back to scientific research and a scientific understanding of the universe.

Cellphones, computers, cars, machinery, medicine, the Internet, manufacturing, communication, agriculture, transportation, on and on … all of these industries rely on science to work. Without basic research none of these would exist.

Astronomy, biology, relativity, chemistry, physics, anatomy, sociology, linguistics, cosmology, anthropology, evolutionary science, and especially radiometric dating of rocks, all indicate the universe, and our home planet Earth, are far older than any claims of a few thousand years. And all of these sciences are the basis of the technology that is our country's life blood.

Rubio is exactly and precisely wrong. Science, and how it tells us the age of the Earth, has everything to do to do with how our economy will grow. By teaching our kids actual science, we can guarantee the future of this country and its economic growth. By hiding it from them, by equivocating about it with them, by providing false balance between reality and wishful thinking, what we guarantee is a future workforce that can't distinguish between what's real and what isn't.

That's a formula for failure. And you don't need to be a scientist to see that.

Phil Plait is an astronomer, lecturer and author. He worked for 10 years on Hubble Space Telescope data and has written two books, "Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing 'Hoax' " and "Death from the Skies! These Are the Ways the Universe Will End."

© 2012 Slate