Scientific Literacy a Qualification for Office?

Brad Feld pointed to a Wall Street Journal op-ed from a couple of weeks ago entitled Science and the Candidates, which suggests the need for a presidential debate focusing on science and technology:

Almost all of the major challenges we will face as a nation in this new century, from the environment, national security and economic competitiveness to energy strategies, have a scientific or technological basis. Can a president who is not comfortable thinking about science hope to lead instead of follow? Earlier Republican debates underscored this problem. In May, when candidates were asked if they believed in the theory of evolution, three candidates said no. In the next debate Mike Huckabee explained that he was running for president of the U.S., not writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book, and therefore the issue was unimportant.

Apparently many Americans agreed with him, according to polls taken shortly after the debate. But lack of interest in the scientific literacy of our next president does not mean that the issue is irrelevant. Popular ambivalence may rather reflect the fact that most Americans are scientifically illiterate. A 2006 National Science Foundation survey found that 25% of Americans did not know the earth goes around the sun.

Our president will thus have to act in part as an “educator in chief” as well as commander in chief. Someone who is not scientifically literate will find it difficult to fill this role….

This coming week another group I am a part of, ScienceDebate2008, is issuing a public call for a U.S. presidential debate devoted to science and technology. Eight Nobel Laureates, the heads of several major scientific societies, several university presidents, the chairman emeritus of Lockheed Martin and several congresspeople have already signed on to call for the debate, which would cover three broad categories: the environment, health and medicine, and science and technology policy.

Even if the American public is not currently focused on these concerns, decisions made by the next U.S. president on issues such as climate change, energy research, stem cells and nuclear proliferation will have a global impact. We owe it to the next generation to take ownership of these issues now.

If you agree, there’s a Science Debate 2008 signup page where you can show your support for such a debate.

It’s hard to believe that 25% of the American public doesn’t know the earth goes around the sun, but if that figure is true, it explains a lot…. As Brad pointed out in his post on the subject, it’s probably not right to require a scientific literacy test to allow people to vote, but it certainly seems a reasonable test for holding the office of the president. (For that matter, it would be a nice bar to set for both houses of Congress as well!)