Let's Not Pretend Obama and Rubio Have the Same View on the Earth's Age

Did the president, like the Florida senator, refuse to say how old the earth is? Not really.

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You've got to hand it to Slate. The greybeards of counterintuitive journalism still have the ability to make a totally inane argument and get attention for it. Witness Daniel Engber's clever response to Marco Rubio's perplexing statements about the age of the earth. He dug up this 2008 Obama quote:

Q: Senator, if one of your daughters asked you -- and maybe they already have -- "Daddy, did God really create the world in six days?," what would you say?

A: .... What I've said to them is that I believe that God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it. It may not be 24-hour days, and that's what I believe. I know there's always a debate between those who read the Bible literally and those who don't, and that I think it's a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I'm a part. My belief is is that the story that the Bible tells about God creating this magnificent Earth on which we live - that that is essentially true, that is fundamentally true. Now, whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible -- that, I don't presume to know.

Engber jumps to insist that this means Rubio and Obama are both the same. They're both shameless panderers! "Both senators refuse to give an honest answer to the question. Neither deigns to mention that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old .... They both go so far as to disqualify themselves from even pronouncing an opinion. I'm not a scientist, says Rubio. I don't presume to know, says Obama," Engber writes. "In light of these concordances, to call Rubio a liar or a fool would be to call our nation's president the same, along with every other politician who might like to occupy the Oval Office."

This would be fairly convincing, but for one minor issue. Obama and Rubio weren't asked remotely the same question. GQ's Mark Hainey asked Rubio point blank how old the earth is; he dodged. Obama also didn't say how old he thinks the earth is, because no one asked him. If you instinctively grasped that difference on the first read, you might be too sensible to work at Slate. As Steve Benen notes, the settings and context for these questions are also completely different (secular for Rubio, religious for Obama). Unfortunately, this spurious argument took in Dan Amira as well as the Huffington Post. Matt Lewis also seemed to fall for it.

Look, Obama's comment is fair game for criticism that he's pandering to religious voters, although it seems perfectly plausible that the president, a Christian, really believes that; so Engber is also free to argue that Obama is foolishly credulous for trying to reconcile his Christian beliefs with science. But as Ross Douthat noted in response to Rubio's remarks, (1) it's not uncommon for politicians, as well as science-heeding Christians of all stripes, to argue for an allegorical reading of the biblical creation story; and (2) there's no reason why such a belief is mutually exclusive with acknowledging the scientific facts about the age of the earth. In fact, just after the passage that Engber quotes, Obama went on to make the case, unprompted, for the compatibility of faith and science: "I do believe in evolution. I don't think that is incompatible with Christian faith, just as I don't think science is incomptabile with Christian faith."

False equivalence of the he-said, she-said variety is already dangerously endemic in political journalism. Lord knows there's no need for writers to contort themselves to introduce any more into the conversation.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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