Basic Science Exam for Presidential Candidates

As someone who has studied science and math and remains very interested in them, I am often disappointed that very few questions about science are asked during political debates.  So, I decided to create a  Basic Science Exam that Wolf Blitzer and Brian Williams could ask Presidential candidates in future “Presidential Entrance Exams”.  Ideally, this would be done by having the candidates enter their answers to each question simultaneously on laptops, after which their answers would be revealed to them and the viewers along with the correct answer.  Think how interesting it would be if one candidate got most of the questions right while one got most of them wrong.  Would people really want to vote for a candidate who demonstrated that they were ignorant of the basic science needed to set effective health care, energy, and climate change policies?

Here is my Basic Science Exam for Presidential candidates:

  1. Which of the following is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming? a) oxygen, b) methane, c) nitrogen, d) argon
  2. Which kind of fat is widely considered unhealthy to eat in large quantities? a) saturated fat or b) unsaturated fat
  3. Which of the following is a key concept in Darwin’s theory of evolution? a) genetic drift, b) taxonomy, c) acquired characteristics, d) natural selection
  4. Do antibiotics work against viruses? a) yes or b) no
  5. Which hormone is involved in diabetes? a) dopamine, b) insulin, c) melatonin, d) progesterone
  6. Which gas do plants produce during photosynthesis? a) oxygen, b) methane, c) water vapor, d) carbon dioxide
  7. Which of the following would reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions from coal-powered energy plants? a) hydrolysis, b) carbon transmutation, c) carbon sequestration, d) hydrogen synthesis
  8. Which of the following processes powers the Sun and other stars? a) nuclear fusion, b) nuclear fission, c) ionization, d) quantum tunneling
  9. Which of the following could be used as fuel in a nuclear fusion reactor? a) uranium, b) oxygen, c) hydrogen, d) lead
  10. What do photovoltaic cells convert sunlight to? a) heat or b) electricity
  11. Which of the following can contain the other? a) atoms or b) molecules
  12. Can sound be heard in a pure vacuum? a) yes or b) no
  13. Can gravity bend light rays? a) yes or b) no
  14. How old in years do geologists think the Earth is? a) 6,000,  b) 130,000, c) 65,000,000, d) 4,500,000,000
  15. Did humans and dinosaurs ever live on Earth at the same time? a) yes or b) no
  16. How much of the Earth is covered in water? a) 10% b) 25%, c) 50%, d) 75%
  17. Which of the following is true? a) the Earth orbits the Sun or b) the Sun orbits the Earth
  18. Which of the following statements is true? a) The Sun is smaller than the Moon, b) the Sun and the Moon are the same size, or c) The Sun is bigger than the Moon
  19. Which of the following is the universe doing according to astronomic observations? a) contracting, b) expanding, c) staying the same size?
  20. Which of the following is not part of the scientific method? a) observations, b) hypotheses, c) dogmas, d) experiments

I realize it’s highly unlikely that any Presidential candidates would actually agree to take this exam in front of live cameras, but wouldn’t it be great if they did?  Maybe the candidates who made it all the way through the election cycle and ultimately won the general election would then actually understand enough science to make intelligent policy decisions.

Answers to the questions are in the first comment to this post.

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11 Responses to “Basic Science Exam for Presidential Candidates”

  1. don hennick Says:

    I don’t see any mention on your web site of Pyrolysis or Agrichar.

    The more you learn about this ancient technique of soil restoration the more you’ll see how elegant this solution can be for carbon sequestration, for us all.
    Imagine putting the carbon tax funds into the hands of millions of peasant farmers all around the world, building their soil and their net worth at the same time. Please search “AGRICHAR”, “BIOCHAR” or “TERRA PRETA”.

  2. rberlind Says:

    Here are the answers:

    1:b, 2:a, 3:d, 4:b, 5:b, 6:a, 7:c, 8:a, 9:c, 10:b,
    11:b, 12:b, 13:a, 14:d, 15:b, 16:d, 17:a, 18:c, 19:b, 20:c

  3. rberlind Says:

    After posting this, I came across a blog post by John Tierny of The New York Times that mentioned a grass-roots organization called “Science Debate 2008” that is advocating a Presidential debate focused on science and technology. There are interesting comments by many readers on that post which can be found at:

    http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/12/24/a-presidential-science-debate

    The actual website for Science Debate 2008 is: http://www.sciencedebate2008.com

  4. scotchcart Says:

    Very elegantly constructed questionnaire!

  5. nmhood Says:

    very well done. i agree.

  6. Ami Isseroff Says:

    blogs4brownback.wordpress.com/2007/05/18/heliocentrism-is-an-atheist-doctrine/ says Heliocentrism is an an atheistic doctrine.

    I can think of at least 1 candidate who would probably get question 17 wrong.
    There are 1600 comments at that Web log entry 😦

  7. Jennifer Says:

    I’d love to see that. Although the results might be frightening!

  8. びっくり Says:

    1. Carbon Monoxide in our atmosphere reacts to form Carbon Dioxide. According to the prevailing theories this is a greenhouse gas. Can I use Carbon Monoxide as a valid answer.

    12. Technically sound can travel in the vacuum of space. It is not a pure vacuum. The characteristics of sound are just different in that rarified medium.

    17. The Earth and Sun orbit around their center of gravity. That point happens to be inside the Sun, but not exactly at its center.

    Generally, I am in favor of a basic test of science and technical knowledge for candidates. However, that would give a huge advantage to people like Al Gore (having invented the internet and all.) I wouldn’t expect the test to be at a very high level though. For example, I wouldn’t care much if a candidate knew that gravity could bend light. But they oughta know that plants generate Oxygen.

    On the other hand, they need to know a lot more before they get my vote.

    Interesting post, thanks.

  9. rberlind Says:

    Thanks for the detailed analysis.

    1. It is true that carbon monoxide has an indirect warming effect. It elevates concentrations of methane and ozone and does eventually get oxidized to carbon dioxide. However, it is less of a concern than methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide and is not generally listed in lists of the primary greenhouse gasses. But I should probably replace it with something else like argon.

    12. Good point. I should rephrase it to read in “a pure vacuum”.

    17. You’re technically correct of course. However, I think it is standard to overlook such details when formulating questions like these.

    I do agree that knowledge of General Relativity is less important than knowledge of basic biology, chemistry, and physics. However, its discovery by Einstein was a great milestone in the history of science and I think everyone should be aware that it is a theory of gravity and know about some of its key predictions.

  10. whalecurry Says:

    Firstly I must say I do really love your concept, although I have little to no interest of whoever the American people choose to steer their sinking ship into the final iceberg 😀

    However, I must say I find question 20 slightly hypocritical. Many of the previous 19 questions themselves are riddled with scientific dogma of their own. Much of what the questions investigate are “prevailing beliefs” or at risk of sounding like a pompous wanker current “paradigms”.

    How about some more questions about falsification or scientific theory which I think is far more important in our current climate of widespread high school science mentality.

  11. rberlind Says:

    I was originally thinking of “dogma” in the context of religion. But dogma can also be defined in non-religious contexts. For instance, the American Heritage Dictionary gives the following as a secondary definition of dogma: “An authoritative principle, belief, or statement of ideas or opinion, especially one considered to absolutely true”. So, one could say that Newton’s theory of gravity was a scientific dogma for 300 years until Einstein discovered that General Relativity was a better theory of gravity.

    So, I think you raise a fair point in so far as you are saying that science and scientists also have various dogmas just like religion does. However, I would argue that dogma is absolutely not part of the scientific method itself. Scientists should always be ready to change their opinions about what is true based on new experiments or observations. Some or even many scientists might not live up to that high idea, but that is a failing of people who practice science, not the scientific method itself.

    In contrast, most religions state their dogmas as being absolutely true and not subject to any form of revision no matter what evidence is found that contradicts them. So, I think dogmas in science are much less absolute.

    Incidentally, I had originally considered using “faith” instead of “dogma” but thought that would make the question too easy. I also did not want to make the question quite so obviously a science vs. religion question, although it might still come across that way.

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