— 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.
Perhaps for Ratings Sweeps Week
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!”
The Numbers Game
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?
How Hard Was That?
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?"
She laughs. “He’s a people person, not a numbers man,” she says. “But math was always my favorite subject.” I joke a bit more and then explain, “The scientific questions that follow are not inappropriate. Although deferring to science advisers is often the wisest course in policy discussions, some modicum of knowledge is necessary to even understand the recommendations and choose among them.”
6. What is the second law of thermodynamics? Would you support the development of a perpetual motion machine if you knew the Russians or the Chinese were attempting to develop one?
7. A basic question about our celestial neighborhood: How far away is the sun? the moon? Light travels even faster than scandalous rumors, but how fast?
8. Uncertainty is part of political life, but what is the Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics? Would you take your new Lexus to a quantum mechanic?
“You seem a little uncertain yourself,” I observe as he gives his views on quantum mechanics. “Is that your final answer?”
9. The California primary is coming up, so the next questions are not entirely ungermane, either. What is plate tectonics? What percentage of Earth is covered by oceans?
10. Biotechnology breakthroughs are much in the news recently. What is the shape of the DNA molecule. Very roughly how does it function as a code?
Knowledge, Not Trivia
Perhaps the candidate shuffles a bit in his chair under the spotlight. “John,” he might say, “I sure wish I could use a lifeline…”
“Sorry, you may not make a quick call to the Library of Congress,” I cut him off. “More important than facts and formulas for a potential president is a familiarity with the scientific process. You need to understand the thinking and general approach of scientists if you are to frame intelligent policies. With this in mind, I pose the last five questions.”
11. What are falsifiable statements? Why is science especially concerned with them?
12. Is there any scientific evidence for the claims of astrologers? For the therapeutic powers of pyramids or crystals? I won’t ask about crystal balls and the scientific status of political forecasting.
13. What strikes you as wrong about a claim that a block weighing approximately 310 pounds and having a volume of roughly 73 cubic feet has therefore a density of 4.246575342 pounds per cubic foot?
14. People speak of Newtonian theory, Darwinian theory, or Einsteinian theory, and they also sometimes talk about Fred’s theory, Martha’s theory, or Waldo’s theory about this, that, or the other thing. Is the word “theory” being used in the same way in these two sets of cases? If not, how do the two ways differ?
15. What is a double-blind study? A placebo? Would you be interested in a photo opportunity with the latter at the San Diego Zoo?
And How Did You Do?
Finally as each candidate concludes this perhaps unpleasant exercise, I thank him for playing. Then I’d welcome the next one as he emerges from his soundproof cubicle to take the same quiz.
How would the four major candidates do were they to take the above quiz sight unseen?
My guess — and it’s certainly nothing more than that — is that Gore and McCain would get 11 or 12 questions right, Bradley nine or 10, and Bush seven or eight.
What, if anything, would this test would tell us?
My opinion: All other things being equal, greater scientific literacy (which includes being realistic about what one doesn’t know and being open to the scientific advice of others) makes for a better candidate and a better president.
The combination of ignorance and power is a frightening one.
Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several books, including A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper and, most recently, I Think, Therefore I Laugh. His Who’s Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears on the first day of every month.