— During this presidential primary season the candidates have been questioned in numerous forums by countless talking heads with backgrounds in journalism, economics, and law, but seldom by anyone knowledgeable in mathematics or science.
This is odd given the importance the candidates themselves ascribe to education, particularly in science and mathematics.
Nobody expects Messrs. Bradley, Bush, Gore, and McCain to calculate quantum wavefunctions or spout out pi to 50 digits, but reasonable answers to a few elementary questions on mathematics and science would nevertheless be reassuring. I thus propose a Who Wants to Be a Scientifically Literate President quiz.
Unlike ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire show, the candidate would not get any lifelines. In particular, he wouldn’t get to phone any of his staffers. He also wouldn’t get to poll the American people for what they think the right answer is.
Furthermore, some of the questions have several parts, they’re not multiple choice, and an incorrect answer would not end the game.
Ideally some combination of Ted Koppel and Regis Philbin would administer the festivities, but since Ted/Regis is probably otherwise employed, I’ll assume the imagined duties.
“Welcome, and thank you for joining us tonight,” I begin. “I would like to start with five simple questions on arithmetic and statistics. The purpose of the questions is not to test how fast you can compute, but rather to probe your understanding of some basic facts and notions.”
“Are you ready to begin?” I ask. The candidate nods. The music crescendos. “Then let’s play Who Wants to Be a Scientifically Literate President!”
1. A crucial number to know is the population of the country you want to be president of. What is the approximate population of the United States? The world? What percentage of the latter is the former?
2. You read a news story that claims 42 percent of all heart attacks occur on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, apparently because of increased celebrating on the weekends. Do you alert the surgeon general? Quit campaigning on weekends? What’s your reaction to this statistic?
3. You’re campaigning in a Midwestern community where the mean price of a house is $400,000 and the median price is $50,000. What does this say about the distribution of house prices here? If the founder of a hi-tech company builds a $10 million dollar mansion in the community, which goes up more, the mean or the median value of the houses?
4. Bigger numbers now. Given the scale of government expenditures, the following question should not be hard. If one spends $1 per second, it will take approximately 11.5 days to spend $1 million. Roughly how long will it take to spend $1 billion? How about $1 trillion?
5. Polls, polls, polls. Is a carefully conducted poll of 1,500 randomly selected American adults sufficient to determine the percentage (plus or minus 3 percentage points) favoring a certain policy? Is such a poll more or less accurate than one surveying only the residents of a small town of 5,000 people from which 100 people have been randomly selected?
To lighten the mood, I point to Mrs. Candidate in the audience. “I see our potential first lady looking a little nervous,” I banter. “Any advice for your husband?"