Commentary: The dangers of science denial

The Rock Hill HeraldDecember 3, 2012 

The Grand Canyon might be older than we thought – a lot older.

Contrarian scientists have posited a new theory that the canyon is not just 6 million years old, as the consensus now stands, but actually about 70 million years old. That would mean the Grand Canyon was a giant hole in the ground while T-Rex still roamed the Earth.

The proposition that the canyon is far more ancient than now thought – and, in fact, that it wasn’t carved out by the Colorado River but by two other rivers that no longer exist – has sparked a spirited throw-down between two scientific camps.

“It i simply ludicrous,” said one geology professor who is convinced the canyon is only about 6 million years old.

“I see all the data as aligning very nicely for an Old Canyon model,” said another.

So, are we laymen supposed to just throw up our hands and assume that because the scientists are so far apart we can’t be sure of anything about the origins of the Grand Canyon? That probably would be a mistake.

Despite the variance in the two theories, the important thing to realize is that neither side is simply making wild guesses about how the canyon was formed. Both sides are using essentially the same science.

Both sides are trying to read rock striations and to reconstruct ancient landscapes. Those who put together the Old Canyon theory studied tiny crystals of phosphate minerals known as apatite to determine whether the uranium and thorium they contained had decayed into helium. That would help them gauge the temperature of the earth in which they were buried and whether it was close to the surface of the planet.

In other words, this is real science. And if most of the geologists rally around one theory or another, we ought to accept their judgment.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida took some heat recently for saying he didn’t know how old the Earth is. In an interview published by GQ magazine, Rubio when asked Earth’s age, replied: “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.”

The Earth, by the way, is 4.5 billion years old. That has been accepted fact for years. All U.S. students are supposed to learn that fact before graduating from high school.

I confess I didn’t know the exact number. However, I would have guessed hundreds of millions of years old, and maybe I would have been given partial credit.

Rubio obviously was being cute. He was dissembling so as not to offend constituents who take a literal biblical approach to dating the origins of the universe, life and mankind, relying on the Book of Genesis rather than secular science.

The interview probably says more about Rubio’s political aspirations than his knowledge of geology. But the casual denial of real science nonetheless is a disturbing trend.

We see it also in the refusal to accept that greenhouse gases created by people are responsible for seriously altering the Earth’s climate. That kind of willful ignorance ultimately could result in climatic Armageddon.

Rubio went on to state: “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.” Really?

There’s a museum near Petersburg, Ky., the Creation Museum, devoted to the so-called Young Earth theory that claims the universe was created only about 6,000 years ago. Among its displays, the museum features dioramas of people cavorting with dinosaurs.

Real scientists tell us that the dinosaurs became extinct about 65.5 million years before man made his appearance on the planet. It seems safe to say that the only time man cohabited with dinosaurs was on “The Flintstones.”

So, are we obligated to give both the Young Earth and the 4.5-billion-years-old theories equal credence, as Rubio seems to suggest? Should we “teach them all” to our children?

Actually, Rubio is wrong in thinking the issue has nothing to do with the GDP or economic growth. If the United States is to remain economically competitive, our kids must be scientifically literate – even if their parents aren’t.

Scientists will continue to dispute many things, including the age of the Grand Canyon. That doesn’t mean we can dismiss the scientific method or the accepted facts it produces.

Science denial isn’t just ignorant, it’s also dangerous.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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