Twenty years or so ago, a few politicians got caught when somebody asked them the price of a gallon of milk and they didn't know the answer. As a consequence, campaign managers and political consultants started making sure their candidates knew the price of milk and a few similar items like a loaf of bread, should they ever be called upon to assure voters that they do in fact visit the supermarket and are thus in touch with how regular folk live their lives. In a similar but somewhat more complex game of gotcha, Marco Rubio is the latest Republican politician to express discomfort about the question of the earth's age. Unfortunately, unlike the price of milk, that's not a question upon which people of every ideology agree. But if you're a politician wondering what you should answer if you get asked the question, here's a guide to the possibilities, and what each one says about you. There are four possible answers:
1. "The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old." This answer says more than, "I have memorized this particular fact." By being stated as a fact, it communicates not only that you accept that the work of physicists and geologists is a more helpful guide to this question than counting up the "begat"s in the Old Testament, but also that you also aren't particularly afraid of those who believe otherwise. It also might indicate that you are a believing Catholic, since the Vatican, not exactly a bastion of progressive thinking, is totally fine with the science on this one.
2. "I'm not sure of the exact number, but it's in the billions." Much like answer number 1, this one marks you as someone who is pro-science. But it says you aren't a know-it-all, so that might make it go down a little easier with the folks back home.
3. "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..." This is Rubio's answer, and it means, "I'm a Republican with national aspirations." You'll notice how he cleverly offers something for everyone. By saying "I'm not a scientist," he acknowledges that a scientist might be able to tell you the age of the earth, as opposed to telling you the approved propaganda of the International Scientific Conspiracy. But then he says "that's a dispute amongst theologians," which I'm not even sure is true (do theologians really argue about this?), but in any case winks to the Republican base that maybe Rubio thinks the real answer is to be found in whether you assign each "begat" 20 years or 25 years. So if you're a Republican, this is safe territory. Although I have no idea whether this applies to Rubio, this is also what you say if you know full well how old the earth is but are afraid that you'll offend the rubes if you say so.
4. "The earth is somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 years old." This answer says, "I'm a Republican from a safe conservative district." Not all Republicans from safe conservative districts believe this, but I'm pretty sure that everyone in Congress who does believe it is a Republican from a safe conservative district. As Representative Paul Broun of Georgia recently put it so colorfully, "All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don't believe that the earth's but about 9,000 years old." For the record, despite what he said, Broun is not actually a scientist, though he did somehow manage to obtain a medical degree, which of course makes him an expert in geology, enabling him to sift through "a lot of scientific data" and determine that every actual scientist is wrong about this question.
So those are your options. I don't know if any of the Republicans who will soon be lining up for 2016 will be asked this question, but if they are, I'm betting they'll all choose answer number 3.