Scientific Literacy Has a Lot to Do With Economic Growth

This blog post is inspired by a statement of Florida Republican Senator (and a rising star for the 2016 presidential race) Marco Rubio in a GQ Interview:

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.”

The plot to the left is the per-capita GDP (in 2006 dollars) worldwide throughout the 20th century. See how it increases? Why is that?

My belief, and that of most introductory economics textbooks, is that technological innovation (aka scientific research) is at the core of it all, leading to increased productivity, and on through the self-fulling prophecy of the endogenous growth theory. And I believe that scientific literacy has a lot to do with GDP, because it’s our politicians that decide how to allocate funding, and scientists need funding.

This is why I’m particularly sensitive when the question of federal research funding comes up among politicians. Obama set the goal of doubling basic science research funding by 2016, but he has unfortunately not lived up to the promise and is doing a worse job than his predecessor in this regard. Part of the problem is that the question of funding science always seems to get tied up with a select few topics, namely: evolution, climate change, embryonic stem cells, and abortion. Am I missing any?

The scientific community becomes outraged at some of the absurd statements made by creationists on these topics. The result of that outrage is often the perception that there is a war over science. There is a sense that a strong plurality of Americans are scientifically illiterate based on polls like this: 46% believed the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. However, I have long held the hope that these 46% are ignorant on just those select few topics about which the Evangelical Christian community deeply care about. But outside of those issues, everyone is in consensus on the structure of a DNA double helix, the physics of a transistor, and Einstein’s special theory of relativity. At least I hope so.

From my experience, everyone (left and right) has a deep respect for science in general. The people that rail against “science” actually agree with 99.9% of the current state-of-the-art knowledge in fields from biology to chemistry to physics to mathematics, and have “beef” with a very select few topics of climate change, evolution, etc. It’s important to remember that, and remind people of that. Because the last thing anyone wants is to decrease our nation’s investment in basic scientific research. It’s the fuel for the long-term economic growth of our nation.

So, Senator Rubio, your ignorance about the age of the universe has a lot to do with the GDP of our nation. Because you have a lot of power to influence the following plot:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *