Every time a politician is asked if he believes in evolution or how old he thinks Earth is, there is the inevitable complaint from the right: “It’s a gotcha question!” It’s as if to say the whole point is to make certain people, usually Republicans, look stupid during their run for public office. I’ve got to disagree, though.
I find these sort of questions to be valid for at least two reasons. First, it gives us a very general idea of the background of the person. Someone who says he rejects the fact of evolution is almost certainly a young Earth creationist, and I think that’s important to know. (It’s important even if he’s an old Earth creationist.) We expect just about every politician in the U.S. to express some religious piety (unfortunately), but it’s hard to believe at least a few them aren’t mailing it in. The ones who actively reject significant fields of science, though, are probably sincere. I want to know that so I can be confident in my vote against them.
Second, this can give us a general gauge on intelligence. Now, I’m not saying people who reject evolution or global warming or any other scientific fact are stupid. I wouldn’t be so clumsy as to play into such an elitist caricature. What I’m saying is we can get a grip on the scientific literacy of a person based upon some of these questions. Of course, this is sort of a one-way street: A person who reject science can be deemed to have low literacy, but a person who accepts the facts of a few key issues is not necessarily engrossed in science. Regardless, these questions do often correlate with other facts in a useful way. For a prime example, look up anything the likes of Sarah Palin has said about fruit fly research and funding.
I think people should have a pretty good idea about a lot of theses issues, such as evolution or the age of Earth, but even if they’re ignorant, that’s no crime. If someone running for office is asked how old the world is and he doesn’t know the exact number, it would suffice to say something like, “Millions or even billions. I’m not sure.” He would get corrected, but no one would make that big of a stink about it. The stink only arises when a politician starts spouting off things about 6,000 years and ‘no missing lin’k. There’s just no excuse for that sort of stuff.