Who Wants to Be a Science Savvy Congressperson?

by John Allen Paulos

Herschel Walker claims that we have enough trees already, that we send China our clean air and they return their dirty air to us, that evolution makes no sense since there are still apes around, and freely offers other astute scientific insights. He may be among the least knowledgeable (to put it mildly) candidates running for office, but he’s not alone and many candidates, I suspect, are also surprisingly innocent of basic math and science. Since innumeracy and science illiteracy remain significant drivers of bad policy decisions, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that congressional candidates (house and senate) be obliged to get a passing grade on a simple quiz.

Nobody expects these candidates to calculate quantum wave functions or spit out the first 10 digits of pi, but reasonable answers to a few elementary questions on mathematics and science would nevertheless be reassuring. After all, high-tech companies often require applicants to take a difficult high-tech test, so why shouldn’t low-tech organizations like Congress require applicants to take a simple low-tech test. I thus propose a biennial Who Wants to Be a Scientifically Literate Candidate test, which could perhaps be broadcast on local TV stations nationwide. (The somewhat snarky answers to it are below.)

If I were the moderator of such a test (the least likely aspect of this wishful fantasy), I would begin by welcoming whichever of the candidates have been shamed or dragooned into taking it. I’d go on, “Let’s start with five simple questions on arithmetic and statistics whose only purpose is to gently ascertain your understanding of some basic facts and notions.”

“I suggest that you write your responses on the special tablets in front of each of you.” The candidates’ answers, I announce, will be private, but their total score – the number of correct responses to the 15 questions I will ask- will be published.

Dramatic music begins and I proclaim, “First off, a very easy question.”

  1. A crucial number to know is the population of the country. What is the approximate population of the United States? The world? What percentage of the latter is the former?

“Now a perhaps tricky question about estimation.”

  1. You read two news stories, one claims 42 percent of all heart attacks occur on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, apparently because of increased celebrating on the weekends, and the other that the rebuilt World Trade Center is, at nearly a mile high, the tallest building in the US. What’s your response to these two stories?
  2. Imagine now that you’re campaigning in a community in your district where the mean price of a house is $750,000 and the median price is $120,000. What does this say about the distribution of house prices here? If the founders of hi‑tech companies build a few $15 million dollar mansions in the community, which goes up more, the mean or the median value of the houses?
  3. Bigger numbers now. Given the scale of government expenditures, the following question should not be hard. How many million dollar expenditures add up to a trillion dollar expenditure?

“Polls are the lifeblood of political races. So, what about this question?”

  1. Is a very carefully conducted poll of 1,500 randomly selected American adults sufficient to determine the rough 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?

“One third of the quiz, the number part, is over, perhaps leaving some of you candidates numb.” I chuckle, “get the math?” To lighten the mood, I point to the spouse of one of the candidates seated in the live audience. “I see you’re looking a little tense,” I banter. “Any advice for your spouse?”

Nervous laughter “Well, I married someone who is more of a people person than a numbers person.” I recognize the defensive nature of the comment and joke a bit more before explaining, “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.”

  1. 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?
  2. A basic question about our celestial neighborhood: How far away is the sun? the moon? Light travels even faster than your opponents’ scandalous rumors, but how fast?
  3. 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?

“Some of you are probably a little uncertain yourselves,” I am assuming.

  1. Don’t look up but extreme heat waves, droughts, and wild fires have been occurring ever more frequently, so the next question is quite germane. Do the vast majority of climate scientists attribute climate change to human behavior or to natural variations in the climate?
  2. 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?

“Alright, just one more set of questions. More important than facts and formulas for a potential member of congress 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 these last five questions.”

  1. What are falsifiable statements? Why is science especially concerned with them?
  2. Is there any scientific evidence for the claims of astrologers? For the therapeutic powers of pyramids or crystals? For phrenology? psychokinesis? numerology? or innumeracy?
  3. 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 4.24657534 pounds per cubic foot?
  4. 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?
  5. 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 would the typical congressional aspirant do? What, if anything, might this test would tell us?

My opinion: All other things being equal, greater mathematical and 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 congressperson. Obviously, other factors are important as well, but the combination of ignorance and power is especially frightening.

The Answers (with the aforementioned smidgen of snark added)

  1. About 330 million, 7.5 billion, and between 4% and 5%. By contrast China and India each have approximately 4 times as many people. These basic numbers help put so many others in perspective.
  2. By itself the evidence for more frequent heart attacks on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday is hardly impressive since three days constitute 3/7ths or 43 percent of a week, and so you’d expect roughly that percentage of heart attacks over any three days. Not knowing the height of the World Trade Center (1,776 feet) is quite excusable, but thinking it’s about a mile high (5,280 feet) is not.
  3. From the definition of “median,” half the houses cost less than $120,000, so there are some expensive houses that bring the average up. These houses, like the $15 million mansions, raise the average value much more than the median value.
  4. A trillion is a million millions, and a billion is a thousand millions. The words rhyme, but are vastly different, like hippo and zippo. A hippo is heavy but a zippo is a little lighter.
  5. Yes, 1,500 respondents are sufficient. The survey of 1,500 Americans is more accurate than the survey of 100 residents of a small town of 5,000. The number of people in the sample is what is important, not the fraction of the population constituted by the sample.
  6. In an isolated system, disorder can only increase, never decrease. The second law forbids the existence of perpetual motion machines.
  7. Unlike Marjorie Taylor Greene, you needn’t have any special interest in space or NASA, but these numbers are also quite basic: 93,000,000 miles, 240,000 miles, and 186,000 miles per second. And, no, sunspots are not the cause of global warming as the esteemed senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, once opined.
  8. It is impossible to measure both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle with complete precision. Greater precision in the measurement of one of the quantities makes the value of the other more uncertain. No, don’t get entangled with any quantum mechanics, but do you resign yourselves to an inevitable degree of uncertainty, especially in politics.
  9. The vast majority of scientists cite incontrovertible evidence that the extreme changes in climate are the result of humans’ actions. With all due respect to Herschel Walker, we all need trees, clean air and water, and clear thinking about evolution and science in general.
  10. A double helix, or a pair of winding staircases. Each “step” along the helical staircase is a pair of chemical compounds called nucleotides. There are only four nucleotides, usually symbolized by A, G, T and C, and most of the many different sequences of these four compounds are coded instructions for the making of different proteins.
  11. Falsifiable statements are capable of being shown false. Statements such as “What will be will be” or “The woman you were dreaming about last month was your mother” are not falsifiable and hence are scientifically empty.
  12. No, no, no, no, no, and YES. Why do so many people still believe in astrology? Every leprechaun knows it’s nonsense.
  13. The answer is absurdly precise given the approximate nature of the weight and volume, just as is stating that the number of American Covid deaths is 1,103,286
  14. A scientific theory is an interconnected and coherent collection of statements supported directly by evidence and indirectly by the statements’ relation to each other and to other accepted bodies of evidence. Another quite different meaning for the term is an unproved assumption or a personal belief, as in Fred’s theory.
  15. A double-blind study is an experimental design in which neither the experimenters nor the subjects know who is receiving the new treatment and who is receiving the placebo. The latter is sometimes an inert substance such as a sugar pill, generally a substance or procedure that has no physical effect. No, not at the San Diego zoo.


John Allen Paulos is a Professor of Mathematics at Temple University and the author of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, Innumeracy, and a new book, Who’s Counting –Uniting Numbers and Narratives with Stories from Pop Culture, Puzzles, Politics, and More, which will be out on the 15th.