Dec 28

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

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!)

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Comments: 27

  Paul [12.28.07 07:35 AM]


You appear to be taking the tried-and-true approach to bashing Christians here by essentially stating that if you don't unequivicably believe in evolution, then you can't possibly have a mind for science.

Unfortunately it's that sort of blind faith that is causing the intellectual dulling of our society. Blind faith of any sort is wrong and by immediately categorizing candidates based on evolution is purely atheist intellectual snobbery at it's best.

Take a moment to check out Ben Stein's new film on the subject. There is an outright effort to stifle any intellectual discussion on the subject that does not fall in line with Darwinism. Top scientists are being driven out of their field by simply choosing to question Darwin's theories.

I completely agree that a presidential candidate should have an aptitude for science and technology, but stating that the belief or non-belief in Darwin's theories is the benchmark is the wrong sort of litmus test.

Now, if a candidate stated that ONE theory MUST be accepted over all others, then I could see a problem. If we're to be able to get to the scientific truth of any subject we must be allowed to be shown all of the evidence openly and freely, without a political or religious agenda attached to it.

Or do you have a political agenda yourself with this "Science Debate 2008"?

  Thomas [12.28.07 07:51 AM]

Paul, notice that the word "Christian" does not appear in Tim's post nor in the quoted editorial. In addition, as I read it, any judgement about the value of believing in evolution comes in the editorial cited from the WSJ, not from Tim.

Honestly, if both sides of this debate weren't such knee-jerk whiners, we'd all be better off.

My first thought, of course, was "25% of people don't know the earth goes round the sun? And yet I'm not the billionaire around here?"

  Stormy [12.28.07 08:44 AM]

Paul, there's a common quote out there that says that more Americans believe in the devil than in Darwin ( but that's not the quote that Tim is using. Not even close.

I think most Christians I know believe that the earth goes around the sun, so it's really scary that 25% of Americans don't know that. I always wonder about these studies ... I know my social circle isn't representative of the public at large but still ... I think most my friends know that the earth goes around the sun. I'm going to have to ask!

  Stormy [12.28.07 08:49 AM]

There was a Science Friday episode on the role of Presidential Science Advisors and how it's changed from president to president.

  George [12.28.07 09:53 AM]

It's obvious why Republicans deny science and evolution, they pander to the religious right. Even Karl Rove, who designed the plan views them as "wackos", but "wackos" who vote.

Read American Theocracy by Kevin Philips for sober look at just how f**ked up things are here in the US with regards to religion and politics. Out here on the west coast we are isolated and progressive and have no idea how pervasive the christian fundamentalists are in the south.

But honestly, does it even really matter who the president is? The elections are rigged (hence, we get Bush who rigged both of his elections). And who ever does get in will be controlled by corporate interests, republican or democrat.

I don't understand the complete absence of reason with regards to all religions, which are mythologies, and which cannot be taken literally by any thinking person. And which have been used for millennia) to control populations, start wars, etc. But then, that's just me. There seem to be plenty of shallow thinkers out there who do believe in virgin births, resurrections , creationism, walking on water, etc.

  Tim O'Reilly [12.28.07 10:18 AM]

Paul, no Christian bashing here. I hadn't even noticed the fact that the question posted to Huckabee came up originally in the context of evolution. I was focused more on his statement that science is an unimportant issue for a president. That's a shocking statement, and the one that is the focus of the article.

But since you mention evolution, it *is* one of the better tested scientific theories out there. One of the true tests of ANY scientific theory is that it allows us to predict the future, so to speak. You can posit an effect and test it. Evolution is observable at the micro-scale every day (have you ever heard of antibiotic-resistant staph, for example?) But it has been observed even in larger animals, at human time scales. I highly recommend a book entitled The Beak of the Finch, which discusses observed evolution in only a few generations of finches on the Galapagos.

There is no alternative theory to explain this behavior. If there were, a "debate" between competing theories would be appropriate, just as we see in astrophysics. That happens in science all the time.

But when someone says "I don't like that theory for religious reasons" and dresses up their belief as it were science, with no ability to make and test hypotheses based on their alternate "theory," they clearly don't understand the scientific method.

Meanwhile, there's no incompatibility between science and conservative Christianity, as far as I see it. If God is omnipotent, why could he not unfold his creation by means of Darwinian evolution? The fact that some Christians seem to have an anti-science agenda is troubling.

For what it's worth, my father was both a scientist (a neurologist) and a conservative Catholic. I was sometimes uncomfortable with his passionate conservatism (he helped to start a catholic college whose principal founder "saw Satan incarnate in the Berkeley student riots"), but I never saw him be anything but a scientist, someone who observed and tried to understand the world.

Two stories come to mind. The first was a conversation we once had about acupuncture, which was just then coming into vogue here in the West. I was surprised by his position: "I don't understand how it could possibly work. But if it works, it works."

The other was the case of a man who came to him reporting a ticking in his head. He'd been seeing psychologists for years, and even a neurologist or two, all of whom were convinced he had a psychological problem. My father put a stethoscope up to his head, and heard the ticking. (It was an abnormal blood vessel.)

A scientist studies the world and tries to explain it. Yes, some scientists hold on to wrong explanations when others come up with better ones, but as a whole, the scientific tradition is one in which people give up their explanations of the world when a better one is offered.

Are you really arguing that it wouldn't be a good idea to have our leaders demonstrate a working knowledge of science (just as they are expected to have a working knowledge of the economy, or international relations)? Do you fear that Christian candidates would not come out well in such a debate?

If so, that's a sign that they are poor candidates for president, not that Christianity itself has any bearing on the presidency..

  Chris Spurgeon [12.28.07 10:22 AM]

I agree that a high level of scientific literacy is a hugely valuable asset for those holding political office, but the tragic reality is that even when a politician has a good grounding in scientific knowledge, that knowledge takes a back seat to political gain. Just take a look at former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has an astonishing set of medical credentials but still made a wacky and medically unethical long distance diagnosis of Terri Schiavo. Or the way politicians from both parties ride roughshod over the physics and statistics surrounding nuclear waste storage in order to come down on the most politically expedient side. We don't need politicians who know science, we need politicians who will act on that knowledge.

  Alex Tolley [12.28.07 10:39 AM]

The point of Tim's comment is a bit wider than religion vs science. Politicians, by and large, in whatever country, tend not to come from the sciences, Britain's Margaret Thatcher being a notable counter example. Without a decent grasp of science, it is easy to make decisions based on other concerns. We have seen this most obviously in the US with policies concerning global warming and stem cell research. Whilst a good, balanced cabinet of advisors can overcome a leader's lack of knowledge in certain areas, e.g. economics, all too often the same sort of debilitating social pathologies that we all see in corporations appear in government too, resulting in very sub-optimal decision making. We have seen this again very clearly in the current US administration where the VP was able to exclude cabinet members from economic and foreign policy decisions made by the president.

When congress makes laws, it can be astounding to listen to the know-nothings as they pontificate about science and technology. Watch CSPAN for any length of time and you will see politicians make outrageously incorrect statements. Because of the "debate" format, they are rarely corrected or debated.

If there was one thing that Web 2.0 could help with this situation, is to have immediate fact checking done on speeches and the results broadcast to the chamber and the viewers, so that errors are immediately visible. Like a spell checker that instantly reminds you that a word is incorrectly spelled, a science fact checker would instantly expose incorrect statements and allow a challenge.

  Ross Stapleton-Gray [12.28.07 10:46 AM]

Chris said, "We don't need politicians who know science, we need politicians who will act on that knowledge." Indeed.

President TBD need not have any background in health science, nor any great knowledge of economics, but should be able to appoint and then listen to advisors, e.g., who can lay out the cost/benefit analysis of universal pre-natal and neo-natal health care, say, where a small investment by government produces considerable long-term payoff, or who can demonstrate that abstinence-only sex education leads to more unwanted pregnancies/STDs, rather than less. And then it's his/her job to sell that to the nation (or identify and promote others who're good at that).

Among Clinton's failings in this department I'd include the "gays in the military" fiasco--as CinC he had every authority to "kick ass and take names," rather than cave... he didn't have to have ever served as a soldier to allow the existence of a variety of effective world armies to serve as proof of concept--and failing to support Lani Guinier and Jocelyn Elders, though admittedly the way Elders broached the subject (of masturbation) pegged the embarrassment meter.

  Shaze [12.28.07 11:43 AM]

I love it when people question Science, it's just too bad they can't question their belief's in the same way.

Ben Stein is a moron. And as you've so astutely observed, real Science has to be fallible. "Real theories" HAVE to be succeptable to being proved wrong; which isn't the case with Creationalism or any of the Pseudo-Sciencetific ideas studied by the religious, or the dumb.

If you're not using your brain, you don't get to be president.

  Michael R. Bernstein [12.28.07 11:44 AM]

Tim, I'm afraid that candidates are largely no longer required to have a working knowledge of the economy or international relations, or anything really except campaigning and fundraising. Those things can help a bit to keep a candidate from sounding stupid in public, but they aren't really required.

Note the the dearth of real discussion of candidates' actual policy proposals in the media. Nearly all coverage is about electability and the horse-race.

  William Hartt [12.28.07 11:54 AM]

I think this article subtlety points out a major issue in America and Western Europe today: the scientific literacy of high level corporate managers. I will risk stereotyping here...the US is already being run by CEOs relying on lawyers and MBAs, not technologists. I think this is the real issue, not the scientific literacy of presidential candidates. Fix this problem, the presidency will follow.

  Benjamin Williams [12.28.07 12:10 PM]

Generally speaking the President enforces the law, the Congress makes the law, and the Judges interpret the law. The Federal government needs to only deliver the mail, fight/defend against invaders, keep individual States from fighting against each other, and count the population every 10 years. Every other item should be handled by the people first, and then the State. If “25% thinks the Sun goes around the Earth” that is the responsibility of the individual or the parents, then the State, if the State wishes to get involved.

I read about personal rights and personal privacy, but that is not given to us “by the Federal government.” I read about developing ideas, making money, and changing lives but people complain about not having Tax-Funded Healthcare. Web 2.0 is about the people creating products and systems that work for them, when has the Federal government ever worked for them. We gripe about the TSA and the DMV, but do you want the Federal Healthcare Administration ran the same, because it will be.

I want Web 2.0. I want to own _my_ data, use it how and with what systems _I_ want. I want privacy, I want security, I want freedom. I cannot have that if I let the Federal system make choices and policies for me. A Federal government telling me how to run my life (taking my money in the process) is the same as Apple telling me what apps I can have on my iPhone.

  BeerWineLiquor [12.28.07 01:41 PM]

Keep going. We will make it to a billion with the competition we have in this country. I have but a simple EE degree, and I have amassed $1M in just a few years. Of course, with our current administration's monetary policy, that mil is worth about as much the IQ level on said administration's science advisory board.
Another great post and response as always.

  Ross Stapleton-Gray [12.28.07 02:06 PM]

Shaze said, "And as you've so astutely observed, real Science has to be fallible." You mean to say, "falsifiable," i.e., able to be demonstrated as false.

I give Ben Stein props for playing himself as a conservative Republican in "Dave," but he makes a better comic actor/gameshow host than a pundit.

  Ken McNamara [12.28.07 07:43 PM]

At risk of being run out of town on a rail - I don't think scientific literacy is all that essential for politicians.

Public policy decisions are rarely cut and dried scientific issues.

Consider the depth of thought that went into the stem cell decision - an issue that is based on the 'probability' that stem cells are the Holy Grail of medical research.

Oh, and for those who think that decision was made off the cuff - go here:

Thanks again for this excellent site.

  Chris Meisenzahl [12.30.07 06:49 AM]

I'd gladly settle for economic and Constitutional literacy. That would rule out all current candidates with the exception of Ron Paul. If they followed the Constitution, their knowledge or ignorance of science would largely be moot.


  Charlene [12.31.07 05:58 PM]

Tim, I agree with you that people have to understand some science, just like they need to understand geography, literature, mathematics and other subjects.

But I have to disagree with you but evolution as defined by Darwin is NOT one of the better tested theories. In fact most of what Darwin wrote about cannot be proved.

Most grammar school texts contain outright lies about evolution. The most popular lie is the one about the moths in England.

There have been several debates between well educated Evolutionists and Creationists and the Evolutionists lose. Here is a website about this:

And you have to admit Science is no longer an exact science. Look at what happened to Pluto! Just as in technology, people cannot keep up with every new scientific discovery.

  Tim O'Reilly [12.31.07 06:29 PM]

Charlene --

I imagine that we'll have to agree to disagree. The fact that any particular example proposed by Darwin is questionable in no way undercuts the validity of the theory of evolution. In fact, it highlights that unlike "creation science," Darwinism is in fact science. That is, it consists of evidence and explanations of that evidence. And the wide acceptance of the theory among scientists is not due to any one piece of evidence but a great preponderance of evidence for which this theory appears to be the best explanation.

What's more, this theory predicts behavior of real world systems that are subject to experiment (such as selective breeding, the development of disease-resistant strains, and so on.)

There appear to be no such testable hypotheses associated with Creation Science.

As to debates won by creationists -- well, you might think that reading the account of said debates on a site run by creationists. But you won't find any agreement with that position in the scientific literature.

As to Pluto -- the definition of what size of object should be called a planet is a notational agreement. It has nothing to do with the correctness or lack thereof of any scientific theory. Pluto has always been seen as an anomaly among the planets. (The definition might, however, have bearing on some particular theory of solar system evolution, allowing people to consider various objects as a class.) You demonstrate your ignorance by your very examples.

In any event, the premise of any scientist is not that science, or any particular scientific theory, is infallible. In fact, the history of science is the history of fallibility, of being wrong, and then being marginally "righter" in some way that is predictive and effective.

Speak to the predictions and advances that are produced by the theory of "creation science", the experiments that this different approach suggests, and the new insights that it gives us, and you'll be talking science. Lacking that, all you are talking about is religion under another guise.

  Ken McNamara [01.02.08 02:26 AM]

The Evolution / Creationism debate is a good example of a political question.

Neither side really wants a solution.

Each side has an agenda that is fueling the argument - it's not really a matter of right or wrong that can be tested by any method.

Anybody who (read politician) faced with bringing the two sides together will discover a third rail buried beneath the surface. If they make the call based on the scientific method they probably won't survive the next election.

Bottom line, even the scientifically literate politician is not always going to look like they are.

  Mike Pearson [01.02.08 06:11 AM]

Charlene, the mention of the "popular lie" about English moths is very topical, as it a raft of new evidence supporting the original hypothesis has been released, debunking the idea that this example is a "lie".

I assume you're referring to the Peppered Moths found in England, which evolved a dark brown (melanic) form they were selected for over and above the white variant as they were better camouflaged against trees in polluted areas near industrial towns.

Various questions have been raised by Creationists about the validity of the experiments, and scientists have gone back to reassess the work and to conduct further studies. The conclusion? Peppered Moth variation does stand up as a clear example of selective pressure and evolution in action.

  Tim O'Reilly [01.02.08 07:05 AM]

Ken, I agree that the Creationist vs. Evolution story is a political one, but it IS also a scientific one. And there's no science on the creationist side. It's a pastiche of attempts to undermine the theory of evolution without any agenda other than a religious one.

To me, the test of a scientific theory is whether it's trying to help us better understand and predict the world. Creationists might say that they are trying to do that, but I ask you this: where are the scientific advances produced in Creationist laboratories? There are millions of scientists working to understand God's creation and put that understanding to use. Where are the Creationists doing the same?

When I see reports of new discoveries based on "Creation Science" I'll take seriously the idea that it's an alternative theory.

The whole idea, for example, that Creationists accept "micro-evolution" (because it's hard for them to deny what is every day observed with antibiotic resistance) but deny macro-evolution is so silly. It's the theory of evolution that has helped biologists to understand what is happening at the micro level. There's no arbitrary dividing line.

  Ken McNamara [01.02.08 11:11 AM]

Tim -

I'd humbly suggest that the contribution of the Creationists is to prod the scientists into better proofs.

Addressing the most political side of this debate - teaching:

Left up to me I'd teach Evolution and Creationism side-by-side.

To the scientists who object, I'd point out that their theories either stand on their own (and do as you suggest) or they aren't worth bothering with.

To the creationists who object, I'd point out that God grants you light as you need it to understand the world around you. To reject that light is to reject God.

I've often found it odd that the Grand Canyon (a book about the history of the planet, if you can read it's pages) -- and the existence of the human species -- are (in the geological time sense) almost synchronized. Almost like someone left it there for us to find....


  Tim O'Reilly [01.02.08 12:25 PM]


It's an attractive idea that we should teach creationism and evolution side by side as alternate theories, but that would assume that they are in fact alternate theories. In physics, they teach string theory and the standard model side by side, because there is still scientific disagreement about which one better fits the observed facts. But we no longer teach the ptolemaic model in astronomy alongside the copernican view, because it is no longer seen as a legitimate theory.

Once you go down the path of giving alternate views "equal time," you end up in territory that may be culturally interesting but is no longer science.

I could see teaching Evolution and Creationism side by side in a religion class, but not in a science class.

  Michael R. Bernstein [01.02.08 04:52 PM]

"Once you go down the path of giving alternate views "equal time," you end up in territory that may be culturally interesting but is no longer science."

Yes, let's hear it for the 4 CORNER

  Ken McNamara [01.02.08 06:56 PM]

Tim -

I didn't mean to imply that 'side by side' meant equal time or that the class needed to be a science class.

(Nor, FWIW, that Creationism is a theory.)

But I think this discussion makes my point - scientific literacy isn't all that essential for politicians.

In fact, the scientist immediately defines the debate in scientific terms. Their agenda is to exclude anything that isn't true science.

The politician can't think this way.



BTW - I'm told that you can still view the Earth as the center of the universe - but the math gets really complicated and might get in your way for practical applications, such as launching a satellite.

Creationism is pretty much faced with the same problem. First they have to stuff God into a little box defined by their limited view, then they have to deny the light they've been given.

Tough sell.

  messels [01.11.08 11:43 AM]


i think you had it fairly well squared away when you asked, "where are the results of creationism [as a 'science']?"

realistically, where else can the debate go? faith in god hasn't provided ANY advancements to the standard of living over its entire history (which is typically the crux of a discussion on "god's" place in society...that is, whether we're willing to make sacrifices because of science. the answer thus far is that americans don't make sacrifices in their standard of living ever, which may be more a reflection of our general social ethos of "we deserve it" and "all about me" than any religious paradigm).

it's fine to say the world was created by a god. i mean, it was created by _something_ regardless of what we call it. BUT, that's where it needs to end. there's really no reason that religion should be entering into a political discussion (or a policy discussion based on scientific findings)since our society is secular. i think this was the reason for originally separating 'church from state'. in fact, this is an old, old debate reaching back at least to marx & baur ("on the jewish question").

essentially, restricting political discussions to the secular and allowing the private citizen to discuss religion within their smaller communities (church, family, friends) would completely circumvent the tension of god and science in schools.

on that note, i think having a president who is scientifically literate (or at min, OPEN-minded) should be a requirement for office just as their are age and citizenship requirments.

that being said, religion seems to be a policial chip that's used when needed and abandoned when inconvienent. hence, we rely on science to help w/ engineering projects and military advancement but we abandon it as "unproven" when it comes to evaluating the world around us (and educating our children).

last comment: 25% of americans failing to know the rotation of earth around the sun even being remotely close (say even at 10% accounting for a flawed study) is just telling of how crummy our education system is.

way to go america...oh, wait, we're stupid.

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