Sarah Palin believes in fossil fuels but not necessarily in fossils. This is no trivial matter. Of all the intense scrutiny Palin has faced in this campaign – not least on the matter of her wardrobe – nobody in America seemed much interested in asking her the dinosaur question.
That is: do you believe, or have you ever believed, that the world was created in the past 5000 or 10,000 years and that dinosaurs roamed the planet alongside humans?
Palin’s political extinction may be only days away but somebody really should have asked this question of the woman who has advocated the discussion of creationism in the classroom; the woman who might have been a heartbeat from the presidency; the woman whom John McCain described as being among the "foremost experts in this nation on energy issues".
Well, we know that Palin believes in oil, especially the stuff she wants drilled in Alaska. But does the energy expert know where oil comes from? Does Palin, the daughter of a science teacher, know that the tiger in her tank is more likely a dinosaur – fossilised matter dating back a little further than 10,000 years? Add another 300 million years and she’d be getting warm.
During the 2006 gubernatorial debate in Alaska, Palin suggested schools could teach creationism as well as evolution. "Teach both," she said. "You know, don’t be afraid of education. Healthy debate is so important and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both."
Both? So, once the kids rigorously and logically dispense with evolution, they can arrive at only one other conclusion … and here in Alaska we have both kinds of music: country and western.
Palin later qualified her remarks to say she would not push for creationism to be required on the state curriculum. She had only meant that debate should be allowed if the subject arose. "I don’t think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class."
Similarly, schools could allow healthy debate on flat Earth versus sphere, or sexual procreation versus the cabbage patch.
An Alaskan music teacher, Philip Munger, recalls two encounters with Palin which he regards as important "in light of the possibility that she might some day soon be in charge of thousands of thermonuclear weapons".
In June 1997, Munger writes in a blog, he was directing a community band while Palin delivered an address for home schoolers.
"It was held at her church, the Wasilla Assembly of God," Munger writes.
"Palin had recently become Wasilla mayor … A large part of her campaign had been to enlist fundamentalist Christian groups and invoke evangelical buzzwords in her talks and literature.
"As the ceremony concluded, I bumped into her in a hall away from other people. I congratulated her on her victory and took her aside to ask about her faith. Among other things, she declared that she was a Young Earth creationist, accepting both that the world was about 6000-plus years old and that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time.
"I asked how she felt about the second coming and the end times. She responded that she fully believed that the signs of Jesus returning soon ‘during MY lifetime’ were obvious. ‘I can see that, maybe you can’t – but it guides me every day.’ " The next time they met, Palin had switched to the less strict Wasilla Bible Church. By now people were beginning to encourage her to run for governor.
"I reminded her of the earlier conversation," Munger writes, "asking her if her views had changed. She was no longer ‘necessarily’ a Young Earth creationist, she told me. But she strongly reiterated her belief that ‘the Lord is coming soon’. I was trying to get her to tell me what she felt the signs were, when she had to move on."
Does it really matter what Palin believes about life, the universe and everything?
Matt Damon, for one, reckons it matters how clever – or not – the vice-president is. The actor told Associated Press: "I need to know if she really thinks dinosaurs were here 4000 years ago … I want to know that, I really do, because she’s going to have the nuclear codes."
Should the heartbeat of a President McCain falter, climate scientists might struggle to advise his understudy on 740,000-year-old evidence from ice cores.
But the prospect of a creationist vice-president may not be so alarming to many Americans. A Gallup poll in 1997 found 44 per cent believed that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the past 10,000 years".
A CBS poll in 2006 found 55 per cent believed that God created humans in their present form, against 27 per cent who believed humans evolved but God guided the process, and 13 per cent who believed evolution needed no help from a god.
Palin’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden, is clear on this. "I refuse to believe the majority of people believe this malarkey," he said two years back.
Courageous – even foolhardy – given the numbers. But at least we know.
Since McCain drafted Palin, nobody has asked her what she really believes on the subject. Someone really should.
And if she answered that, yes, she was a creationist, they might suggest she conduct the following exercise: step outside the front door of the Governor’s Mansion in Alaska; draw an imaginary line to the vice-presidential residence in Washington; imagine the starting point is the beginning of all time on Earth and that Washington is the present day. Now, draw your creationist’s timeline parallel to the first line, then walk along the latter. It will end before you reach the front gate.
Which might be just as well.