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Gotcha Questions? We Deserve Answers

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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In the last few weeks, Scott Walker has been asked a series of questions about touchy topics, such as evolution and whether he thinks Barack Obama is a Christian. Conservatives are outraged that these "gotcha" questions are being asked. Liberals are outraged by the answers. Both are at least partially right.

I'm going to rile up a large portion of my readership by saying this, but I'm not sure it matters what the president believes about evolution. To the extent that this is a policy matter, it is a policy matter for state and local school boards, where creationists might decide to de-emphasize this portion of the curriculum in favor of content that doesn't offend their religious beliefs. Scott Walker is not running for his local school board, and as far as I know, they're still teaching evolution in Wisconsin classrooms. So his beliefs about evolution are probably not very relevant to his current administration or his political future.

No, wait, I know what you are going to say: We need to know if he thinks scientifically or submits reason to theology! Prepare to be outraged again: I don't think this actually tells us any such thing. 

I was at a dinner the other night where the very high percentage of Americans who believe in young-earth creationism was submitted as evidence of the failure of the U.S. school system. I don't think that's right. People forget most of what they learn in school almost as soon as they learn it -- I got an A in sophomore chemistry, and all I can tell you about it now is that it's sometimes measured in "moles" and there's something called a covalent bond that ... well, actually, I forget. And before you start looking all superior, STEM majors, what is the difference between the conditional and the subjunctive, and can you name four causes of the Thirty Years' War without resorting to Google?

Most of the people who "believe" in evolution don't have much more scientific foundation for their beliefs than a young-earth creationist does for theirs. I would be slightly surprised to learn that the reporters asking the questions -- or, for that matter, President Obama -- could deliver more than a few vague sentences about how evolution works, desperately dredged up from the Life Sciences module of their seventh-grade science class. And many such "believers" will conveniently discard their support for evolutionary models if their own closely held moral beliefs are threatened -- witness the outrage when Larry Summers suggested that biology might have produced different distributions of mathematical ability between men and women. We're talking about a process that determined that male black widow spiders should be eaten after they mate. Of course it could have.

Now, I happen to think that the scientific authorities should be deferred to on this question.  But knowing which authority people defer to still doesn't tell us much about how a candidate thinks. First of all, politicians don't tell us what they think; they tell us what they think the majority of us want to hear, so we're not so much finding out what Scott Walker believes as which voters he's most afraid of. And even if he did tell us his truest, innermost thoughts on the subject, the sad truth is that relatively few people on either side have ever thought through their own beliefs about evolution in any important way.

Many of us who profess a belief do so not because we ourselves have examined the matter closely, but because smart people we respect told us it was true, and it fits in with what our friends and family believe and the rest of our own beliefs about the world. Most people who are young-earth creationists -- about a third of the country -- probably hold their beliefs for much the same reasons. We are not really asking these questions because it tells us much about their thought processes; we ask them because we want to know which tribe they belong to. 

All of which is a long way of saying that these questions are episodes of political theater, little skirmishes in our long-running culture war rather than serious ways of evaluating a candidate's presidential fitness. While I am generically in favor of things that make politicians squirm, I do wish that reporters wouldn't dwell on these side topics, and if they have to, I wish they would spend equal time asking Democrats questions that force them to choose between their base and independent voters, such as "Is it a good thing that technology and legal abortion now mean that 90 percent of Down syndrome pregnancies are terminated?"

All that said, these questions will get asked, and if Scott Walker wants to be president, then he needs to have better answers.

Especially on evolution. It's easy to understand what happened to Walker with the question about Obama's religious beliefs. For people who don't go to church and think of religious belief as a form of personal identity, it seems obvious that someone is a Christian if they tell people they're Christian. But if you're a Baptist preacher's kid, the question might well seem more important -- and more complicated. If Obama doesn't come to your Bible study and you've never heard his witness or read his spiritual writings, how could you know if this man has actually accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior?

But if you're a Republican candidate, you have to expect questions about evolution. And abortion in cases of rape or incest. And stem cells and birth control. In a country in which these issues are hotly contested, many of these questions are perfectly fair subjects on which the public has the right to know your opinions. If your campaign staff lets you get out the front door without solid, well-rehearsed answers to these questions, they are committing political malpractice. And that does tell us something about Walker's presidential campaign, as well as the man who's at the head of it.

  1. I'm not saying that Larry Summers is right, mind you. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. What I'm saying is that many people seemingly refuse to even countenance the possibility of hard-wired gender differences in desirable human cognitive traits -- even though they profess to believe that the human brain was produced by the same process that made men vastly faster and stronger than women.

  2. I believe in evolution. The young-earth creationist arguments seem very unconvincing to me, though I guess I can't rule out the possibility that the earth was created 6,000 years ago with the fossils already in the ground.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net