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Tips for passing a presidential science test

JOEL STEIN

August 22, 2008|JOEL STEIN

Our next president is certain to be very smart, but probably not scientist smart. Deep down, both Barack Obama and John McCain know this. That's because sometime in high school, each surely got frustrated by physics or calculus and said to himself, "You know, I really enjoy history."

Which is why they haven't agreed to the demands of Science Debate 2008, a coalition of top universities, Nobel laureates, politicians and -- for reasons I hope are unrelated to his role as a paleontologist on "Friends" -- David Schwimmer that wants the candidates to formally address science policy.

But Obama and McCain don't have to be afraid of looking dumb. No one is going to ask them to calculate angles or remember trig formulas, I suspect, because that stuff is actually math, not science. I really enjoyed history.

I know they're scared that discussing scientific issues will anger some religious people, corporations and those who dislike being bored. But Americans love a leader who cares about science. The last one we had was Thomas Jefferson, and he got on Mt. Rushmore and the nickel.

The winning strategy for Science Debate 2008 is simple: Go science-geek crazy. For eight years, U.S. science policy hasn't been dictated by actual science, so our next president is going to have to overcompensate. To get this across, I've provided some talking points either candidate is welcome to use. They might want to run them by some scientists first.

* Stem cells: Many Republicans felt that stem cell research was kind of icky because the cells often came from fetal tissue, which, they apparently thought, is usually given some kind of Arlington-Cemetery-style funeral. So you've got to make America comfortable with stem cells. Use them for everything. All those letters from the office of the president could say at the bottom, "Made from 100% recycled stem cells." Would it be so crazy to start a state dinner with some kind of stem cell appetizer? And, while I'm not suggesting appointment to an important post like secretary of State, surely there's a small department or ambassadorship that a particularly impressive stem cell could handle.

* Evolution: Things got so bad in the last eight years that "intelligent design" is being taught in schools. That's why you've got to enlist scientist Schwimmer to find that adorable monkey from the first season of "Friends" and make the monkey vice president. And then allow it to have its own vice president, maybe a dog or a pony. How cute will that be? And the dog/pony will have its own vice president, like a gerbil. And you do it all the way down to a protozoan. Sure, things will get hair-raising if you, the monkey and the dog all die in some horrible "Every Which Way But Loose"-type trucking accident, but Americans will catch on to Darwin's theory fast when that gerbil has just a few hours to evolve into a powerful world leader.

* Climate change: President Bush bailed on the Kyoto Protocol, spent years denying global warming altogether and then finally said that even if it does exist, it's less important than the economy. Mr. Next-President, sir, you have to get across just how hot it is all the time. Toss those suits. Give news conferences in tank tops and board shorts, all the while hand-fanning yourself like an old Southern lady. Each State of the Union address should begin, "Is it hot enough for you?" which it will be, because you'll demand no air conditioning everywhere you go. Also, it might be cool if you wore shoes actually made of carbon so people see your footprint.

* Healthcare: Due to some incomprehensible changes in the SCHIP program, fewer poor kids got government-subsidized health insurance. This is too bad, because poor kids have enough problems, namely being poor. You know what would help poor kids and our country at the same time? If we gave them bionic healthcare. You don't need to sell drugs when you can help the military with your jumping and running abilities.

* Sex education: The federal government has been pushing abstinence-only programs -- and funding them with hundreds of millions of dollars. Between that, and thousands of hours spent watching Internet porn, today's teens don't even know that condoms exist. The only way to get across how important and exciting protection can be is with a public high school-wide policy of live sex shows. Charts of fallopian tubes and the vas deferens will just bore the modern student. But two -- or, if budgets permit, three -- professionals giving a high-quality demonstration on the same stage where "Guys and Dolls" was put on last week will ensure that kids remember that condoms can be a whole lot of fun to put on.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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