93% of MeFites Can't Find the Nation of Niue on a Map
July 8, 2008 3:50 PM   Subscribe

How stupid are these surveys about American stupidity?

Since the publication of Rick Shenkman book, I've been hearing look-how-dumb-we-are statistics more often. Such gems include "70% believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11", "Six in ten can't find Iraq on a map", and "33% of young Americans cannot find Louisiana on a map". There are many others, but you get the idea.

I've always been hesitant to take these stats at face value because the news stories about them are usually without context, and the stats themselves look suspiciously cherry-picked. But since Shenkman's book has caused these stats to pop up with more frequency, I want to know just how accurate they are. Is America that stupid, or do these studies get played up because it makes a good story? Are any of these studies online, and if so, do they break their results down by demographics? Are there any particular studies that are, well, more disheartening than the ones already mentioned?

I'm most interested in the demographic breakdown in these studies, actually. I've always figured there were more to these stats than the AP wire stories ever say. Any help, AskMeFites?
posted by Weebot to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
70% believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11
That figure comes from a poll conducted by Washington Post on August 11, 2003.

A September 2007 CBS/NY Times poll says that percentage is now down to 33%. The results of the poll are here [PDF]. The CBS article also goes into some theories on why Americans continue to hold to the idea that Saddam was behind 9/11.

I'm most interested in the demographic breakdown in these studies
Unfortunately, the majority of newspaper/news station polls rarely provide detailed breakdowns of the samples.
posted by junesix at 4:03 PM on July 8, 2008

The 70% for Saddam and 9/11 appears to come from a Washington Post study, which is no longer available on their website. The story is here, but I was hoping for a link to the actual survey and its methodology. It's worth noting that the question isn't so much whether Saddam was the 'mastermind' of 9/11, as much as whether or not he was "plausibly" involved in planning.

posted by fogster at 4:04 PM on July 8, 2008

Both of your geography stats are from the National Geographic-Roper Survey of Geographic Literacy. Full results (PDF). They have some demographic breakdown, but not full results.
posted by smackfu at 4:21 PM on July 8, 2008

(Sorry, the link is is to the PDF of the Final Report, which is the "final results", but they don't give full demographic breakdowns on each question or the full set of answer percentages.)
posted by smackfu at 4:23 PM on July 8, 2008

Language Log had a post about something similar a couple of years ago, specifically showing how easy it was to manipulate statistics to return results that maximized making people look stupid.

For example with the "33% of young Americans cannot find Louisiana on a map" instance, you could have a situation where you took 100 people and asked them to correctly label certain states or even all 50 states. Regardless of their overall performance at the task, you could just take the one they most frequently failed to identify correctly and highlight that single data point, even if the complete statistics reflected a much higher level of geographic knowledge. I'm not saying that's the case here but that's a general way these things can be distorted.

The other factor is how wrong they are ... if they're asked to point to Louisiana and they point to Mississippi or Alabama, that's a whole different degree of wrongness than pointing to Montana or New Hampshire. These studies (more specifically, the journalists who write about them for the popular media) are generally not interested in subtleties, however.
posted by camcgee at 4:28 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

The discussion of education was particularly interesting:
Throughout the survey, the more education respondents have, the more likely they are to answer questions on geographic literacy correctly. Young adults with at least some college education are better informed than those with up to a high school diploma only, and those who are currently studying know more than non-students. People with college experience answered an average of 33.4 questions correctly (out of a possible 53), compared to 24.1 for people with up to a high school education and 28.6 for all 18- to 24-year olds. Likewise, students answered an average of 31.4 questions right, versus 26.5 for non-students.

This difference between high school and college educated respondents is not simply a reflection of age. Age is less of a factor than might be expected, with no significant difference in overall performance between 18-20 year olds and 21-24 year olds (averaging 27.6 and 29.5 correct answers, respectively). When looking for ways to explain how much people know, education is a much stronger and more consistent predictor of geographic knowledge and awareness than age.
Are there any particular studies that are, well, more disheartening than the ones already mentioned?

Reading through the whole survey is pretty disheartening.
Next, respondents were shown a map of the Middle East (Map C, below) and asked to find four countries: Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran. On average, young Americans can find one (1.3) of these four countries. Fourteen percent can point out all four countries correctly, while 44% cannot find any of them. ...

Education makes a difference in young adults’' ability to locate these four countries in the headlines: young Americans with college experience (1.6 correct answers on average) are more likely than those with up to a high school education (0.9 correct) to locate these countries. That said, even the more educated group fares relatively poorly, with less than a quarter of those with a college education able to find all four countries (23%, 6% of those with up to a high school diploma.
camcgee: For example with the "33% of young Americans cannot find Louisiana on a map" instance, you could have a situation where you took 100 people and asked them to correctly label certain states or even all 50 states. Regardless of their overall performance at the task, you could just take the one they most frequently failed to identify correctly and highlight that single data point, even if the complete statistics reflected a much higher level of geographic knowledge. I'm not saying that's the case here but that's a general way these things can be distorted.

That wasn't the case here.
Young Americans' knowledge of the geography of the United States is only marginally better than their knowledge of other countries around the globe. Each of the participants in this survey was shown a map of the continental United States (Map D, next page) – the same map used in the 2002 and 1988 surveys – and asked to identify seven states [California, Texas, Louisiana, Nevada, Mississippi, New York, Ohio]. On average, young Americans can accurately locate about half (3.4) of these states. One in five (20%) get all seven right, and just 3% can'’t find any of these states on the map....

When respondents are wrong, many are at least looking in the right area of the country. Mississippi is often confused with Alabama (11%) or Arkansas (9%). Young adults who can’t find New York most often confuse it with neighboring states Pennsylvania (13%) or New Jersey (9%). Respondents tend to relocate Ohio in Indiana (10%), Illinois (7%) or Iowa (5%).
The other big area that comes to mind would be historical knowledge. I'll see if I can dig up some concrete data.
posted by russilwvong at 4:33 PM on July 8, 2008

That wasn't the case here.

Yeah ... I didn't see the PDF link until after I'd posted. Still, its informative to compare the overall scope and tone of that report with, say, the CNN story highlighting the information.
posted by camcgee at 4:40 PM on July 8, 2008

You might want to check out the NSF's Science and Engineering Indicators, specifically the section on Public Knowledge About S&T. In particular, this table (pdf) might be interesting. For example, on a fairly consistent basis since 1988, this survey finds that about a quarter of respondents give the wrong answer to "Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?" and about half give the wrong answer to "How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?". There are lots of different breakdowns (e.g.: by gender, by age, by educational attainment, etc...) in the appendices.
posted by mhum at 5:00 PM on July 8, 2008

Is America that stupid, or do these studies get played up because it makes a good story?

Both. But it's not just Americans. I've seen the same sort of statistics for other western nations as well; it's just that "Americans about as ignorant as British!" isn't as good a headline.
posted by Justinian at 5:06 PM on July 8, 2008

NYT reports on a survey by a group called Common Core: History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens.
Politically, the group’s leaders are strange bedfellows. Its founding board includes Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, the union that is a powerful force in the Democratic Party, and Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University who was assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush. Its executive director is Lynne Munson, a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former special assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne.
Here's the test (PDF). Full report (PDF). The results aren't as startling as in the geographic literacy survey:
Overall, how did today’s 17-year-olds fare? On the whole, students answered 67 percent of the 33 questions correctly, earning a cumulative grade of D. On the history section, they earned a C, answering 73 percent of questions correctly. When it came to literature, they earned an F, correctly answering just 57 percent of the questions.
There's also more alarmist surveys from conservative groups such as ACTA and ISI.

An interesting comment:
Six in 10 high school students lack even a basic knowledge of American history, according to results from the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test nicknamed the "Nation's Report Card."

Despite public hand-wringing over the supposed ignorance of today's youth, education Professor Sam Wineburg argues in the March issue of The Journal of American History that American students have always performed dismally on history tests designed to gauge factual knowledge. Back in 1917, 1,500 Texas teens sitting for the first large-scale test fared just as poorly, while tests in 1943, 1976, 1987 and 1994 produced similar results.
The argument is that Americans have always been historically ignorant; this isn't a new problem.
posted by russilwvong at 5:22 PM on July 8, 2008

"Six in ten can't find Iraq on a map"

Have you ever looked at an unlabeled map and tried to identify Iraq? It's a dinky little country that's smushed in the middle of a bunch of larger countries. It's pretty hard to identify. I mean, I could find it, and I'm not surprised that some people can find it, but I'm not surprised a lot of people can't find it.

Why finding Iraq on a map is considered the touchstone of worldly knowledge is beyond me.

Anyway, the point of maps is that they are labeled so that you can look at them to find out where things are. In fact, the whole idea of a map presupposes that you don't know where things are.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:41 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've always been incredibly annoyed by these statistics... There are a lot of things one needs to know in their day to day lives - national geography isn't high on the list.

It's not that people are dumb if they don't choose to memorise this stuff, it's that a wide and diverse range of activities - from travel to political awareness to even just having diverse social circles or business contacts - tend to result in this kind of understanding leeching into people just in the course of living. If someone is managing to get through life without learning these things, sure - they might be spending their life obsessively-focused like a laser on some deep and complex problem, but it's more likely that they're just somewhat insular and don't do very much outside a very limit set of things.
As such, I suspect these statistics probably do correlate fairly well with general dumbness.

I guess apprehension of this fact is supposed to be a correlate for intelligence, as opposed to an indicator of education, class, attention to current events, etc.

To my mind, being dumb can refer to varying crippling combinations of any or all of those things, and a few other things (such as attitude to learning), not just intelligence.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:01 PM on July 8, 2008

Education is a process, not a destination. It starts in youth, and ideally, ends at death. The best education imparts curiousity and openess, as opposed to certainty or mere content.

Given the size of the body of human knowledge, we are all pretty much equally ignorant, in that even the brightest among us know a scintilla of all that is to be known.

That said, one would think it would be good to have a common grounding in what might really matter. For instance, knowing that genetics has a major influence on physical characteristics is probably sufficient, whereas being able to recite a few thousand nucleotide sequences is the province of a dedicated expert. It's not necessary for day to day living.

The same might be said of geography and history, within limits. For that matter, it's probably true of any knowledge subset.... finance, economics, music, art, sport, archaeology, industry, business. We manage by accessing the most critical and useful info for our immediate purposes, don't we? The tests seem to be exercises in bias, insofar as the test writers include what they think is most important.

If you think these areas suffer from ignorance, try math or science. Jumpin' Jesus on a pogo stick, in common society, there is NOTHING that passes for knowledge in these areas. I'm willing to bet that not 1 in 100 (maybe 1/1000) Mefites can explain how the IC's in the computers they use are made, let alone work. Nonetheless, they manage to employ the boxes to good effect. THeir knowledge requirements are specific to the tasks they confront.

OTOH, I have no idea how I'd plant 500 acres of corn, and no one I know would call me stupid or uneducated. (Ok, lots of people would call me stupid or uneducated!)

The planet will probably never contain an equally intelligent and / educated population and that probably won't sink us as a species. It may be true that because we are breeding more people, and people start out uneducated, that we are making more uneducated people than we used to have. It may also be that because we have lots more accessible knowledge than in days past, we're breeding potentially brighter ones? I hope it's the latter.

Pay attention to the stats insofar as they further a particular argument you may want to make, but take their implications with a grain of salt.
posted by FauxScot at 6:42 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

In general, Americans did well in finding locations close to our borders. Seven in
ten (71%) correctly found the Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest body of water.
This is higher than the performance of young adults in several European countries,
but lower than that of Japan (84%) and Canada (83%), two other countries that
border the Pacific.
posted by smackfu at 6:47 PM on July 8, 2008

This doesn't directly answer your question(s), but I really like this analysis of how the media can portray certain [lies, damn lies, and] statistics.
posted by bah213 at 7:19 PM on July 8, 2008

I am tall and thin and quite fair-skinned and look Slavic. I have an obvious European accent. But do you want to know what I hear most often, when people ask where I'm from and I tell them I'm from Bosnia? It's some variation on how much people would love to visit my country, but they don't know any Spanish, and the airfare to South America is very expensive and they've heard that it's unsafe to drink water in Mexico. Well, um . . . okay!

Yet I've been to Asia and all over Europe and Australia and Canada, and in the course of my work I meet people from all over. I'm sad to confess that it's really only from Americans that I get such a huge dollop of total ignorance.

By the time I was in my early teens, I could identify every country in the world on a blank map. And I do mean *every* country - Nauru, Equatorial Guinea, you name it. I could also identify all fifty American states, all the Soviet Socialist Republics, hundreds of "regions" which had some history but were not independent states, the capitals of all these places, the primary languages of every nation, the language families to which they belonged, some sense of their economy and exports, and so on.

Am I bragging? No. I was no prodigy; my fellow students were equally capable. We'd learned this material from a young age, and when we heard about strife between Greece and Macedonia, or the failure of the Senegambian Union, or conflicts between India and Pakistan, we usually knew not just the location of these places, but also the underlying reasons behind these events, and any number of similar situations by which we could discuss these topics through comparing and contrasting. And bear in mind, we had far less access to materials about places outside Yugoslavia than Americans did, and little hope of seeing much of the rest of the world.

Sadly, Americans don't seem to care much about education. This is a country, unlike all but the most ideologically insane authoritarian regimes, that actually has managed to make an insult out of the term "intellectual." It's let a Pot Pol-styled backlash against intelligence drag it down. It's a scared country, too self-absorbed for too long to look its problems straight in the eye and commit to the historically American act of dealing with them straight on, in a manner the rest of the world would respect and admire. There's so much opportunity here, but Americans seem to be too busy shoving their heads more and more deeply in the ground to notice.

So Johnny doesn't know where Iraq is? Who cares, because America is number one!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:27 PM on July 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

Here's a very good youtube video with an informative and articulate answer to your question.
posted by Autarky at 7:39 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

A couple of years ago I read a good book which I am always wanting to recommend and can't because I can't remember the title well enough to find it again. It was something like, "Making Sense of Research in Education," and it talked about the kinds of "American kids are stupid" reports that show up in the media all the time, and looks at the quality of the research behind them. One I remember is the regular reports that America has finished (say) 37th out of 39 countries in some international academic achievement test. The book pointed out two things about this kind of report (that I remember). One was that America was one of very few countries (Canada is another) that actually provide a national, random sample of students for the tests. Many other countries are more heavily tracked, and the tests may be taken only by students in certain schools, or even by specific chosen students. So it can be like comparing "all American students" to students at the equivalent of The High School of Science and Technology.

The book also said that if you break the American stats down by race, and pretended that white Americans were one country and black Americans were another, White America would move up into the top 10 while Black America fell deeper into the basement. Which certainly points up a serious problem in US education and wider culture, but doesn't so much support the claim usually being made.

I offer that as just another "for instance" of how some of these stats can be manipulated.
posted by not that girl at 8:15 PM on July 8, 2008

I'd bet many people couldn't point out the largest American oil reserves or nature preserves on a map, but does that mean they don't know anything about deforestation or the energy crisis or what have you?

If our policy leaders couldn't identify Iraq on a map, I'd be very worried. I also think that voters have a responsibility to learn as much as they can about the world, so as to make informed decisions. But do I think Ms. Brown, a Detroit engineer, is stupid for not knowing how to identify Saudi Arabia on a map? No.

There are probably several countries I would fail to find on a map, I'm not the best at geography. If someone felt like implying that I somehow wasn't sensitive to world affairs I would have to laugh. I'm majoring in French and Arabic and can speak some Swahili - but a geography test wouldn't reflect that, would it? If I answered a question incorrectly people would simply assume I'm just a dumb American teenager, dragging the world down.

So, to sum up and specifically answer the question: perhaps in many cases the statistics are correct, but I think there is a serious problem with using geographical knowledge as shorthand for general intelligence. "Is America that stupid?" Maybe. But those statistics don't prove it.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:25 PM on July 8, 2008

Previously asked by me.

I think geography is a particular Achilles Heel. From some of the comments in that thread, it appears that geography isn't really taught in high school at all as a subject. People talk about learning the states and their capitals in elementary school and nothing after that. Add in the fact that educational standards are set locally, not federally, add a bit of xenophobia and the belief that the USA is the only country which matters, you have your perfect storm.

So if I wanted to talk about how stupid people were, I'd know geography is the right subject to test them in.

And it's not right to call it "stupidity" anyway. It's ignorance, which is a very different thing.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 11:14 PM on July 8, 2008

Solon and Thanks: If our policy leaders couldn't identify Iraq on a map, I'd be very worried.

Related. See this story in particular.

The US government has an unusually high degree of turnover at the top; people join the government, stay a couple years, and then return to the private sector. So it's not so surprising that ignorance among the general public translates to ignorance among top officials. In countries where there's a stronger tradition of professional civil servants who stay in government for their entire career, this is less of an issue.

I would also say that in other countries, public opinion isn't as important as it is in the US. In Canada, for example, if the prime minister and the cabinet decide on some change in policy direction, they can rely on party discipline to make it happen. They don't need to convince public opinion to the same extent that US politicians do. The Canadian government reformed the Canada Pension Plan (the equivalent of Social Security) back in 1997, making it sustainable; I doubt that most Canadians even know about this. So even if Canadians are more or less as ignorant as Americans, it isn't as big a handicap for Canadian policy as it is in the US.
posted by russilwvong at 11:49 PM on July 8, 2008

Oh, this old chestnut. I think media outlets are required once per year or put on the po-faces and report on how dumb we are.

Do you care if your car mechanic knows what triboluminescence is? Do you care if your thoracic surgeon can't change his oil? Do you care if your nanny can't find Nauru on a map?

You know who should know these things? People whose jobs it is to care about these things. Everyone else should just mind their own fucking business. Happily, most people do, and it's not just Americans. Throw out the broad brushes; they're useless for detail work.
posted by Skot at 11:56 PM on July 8, 2008

dee xtrovert, my Croatian father-in-law is a product of the same Yugoslav system, maybe a few years before you, and he was forced out of school and into the navy at 16, and before that it was a terrible system full of rubbish and propaganda. But Yugoslavia certainly developed in the second half of last century, so maybe that's it.

Solon and thanks, what if your policy leaders couldn't differentiate between the two significant warring parties in Iraq and the near east (shia and sunni)? Would that be a problem?
posted by wilful at 12:01 AM on July 9, 2008

I think media outlets are required once per year or put on the po-faces

On the other hand, I'm too stupid to construct a grammatically correct sentence. America!
posted by Skot at 12:02 AM on July 9, 2008

Response by poster: Just a couple of things: I really am more interested in the demographic breakdown in these surveys, as well as what those say about the state of our education system. I find the argument that "Americans are intellectually lazy" to be, well, an intellectually lazy argument. It's also an argument that glosses over the real problems in our education system. I wish not that girl could find that book she mentioned, because that sounds like it has what I am looking for.

I honestly don't care about geography.
posted by Weebot at 12:16 AM on July 9, 2008

The school where I attended K-9 (then went to college) had a huge fortune in maps, in every grade school classroom, as well as the appropriate rooms in Jr. High. I grew up loving maps. I know my geography. But I have to think, lots of Boomers would bring averages down because of all the places that have changed names since we learned our basics.

But I did not learn to appreciate much what I had there, until much latter, when surveys like this started coming out, and also, considering how I skipped high school. To learn geography you have to see it. If you don't work with good maps, it's not likely to happen, IMO.

In other words, partly I'm saying, when it comes to education, you get what you pay for.
posted by Goofyy at 3:52 AM on July 9, 2008

70% believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11

I'd like to see how that poll question was phrased to people. If it was "do you believe Saddam Hussein (or someone like him) could possibly be in any conceivable way, shape or form responsible for anything that happened on 9/11?" that's a whole lot different than a multiple choice quiz with al Qaeda as one of the four answers (with the fourth answer being "None of the Above").

Does an inability to answer Google- and Wikipedia-able (or if not that, look-up-in-a-book-able) trivia questions make you stupid?

> Ok, lots of people would call me stupid or uneducated
> Do you care if your car mechanic knows what triboluminescence is?

These comments reminds me of Snob Appeal. A writer I know used to have this little micro-essay hanging on her wall years and years ago. "I'm great at X but lousy at Y" is a concept every reasonable person can identify with.

Also, I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Fark on this thread yet. Drew's book has some good stuff on distorted statistics and shock headlines ("Americans Are Dumber Than Damn Near Everybody").

Also keep in mind memorizing something isn't the same as understanding it. There's a chapter in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman where he's criticizing a Brazil university (well, really Brazil's entire secondary education system) for teaching students to memorize things without understanding them. (See also: his "map of the cat" episode in the same book.) I wonder very much if these other countries have superb test-takers who can "prove" they're "smarter" (whatever that means) on paper. And if they do I'm sure they're driven to do well on tests by their teachers, parents and governments. But I guess that's the problem with quantifying smarts or knowledge - there's no reliable standard.

Or how about this - an expert abacus operator can do basic arithmetic faster than any calculator, which is kind of impressive if you're into that sort of thing (there are huge competitions in Japan with insanely long numbers to add and multiply and so on). But can he calculate the area of a cylinder to the ninth decimal faster than a computer? Or map a set of points on a curve faster than a graphing calculator? Or solve the traveling saleman problem? Or beat Kasparov at chess? An expert Morse code operator can transmit faster than a kid can text message on a mobile phone (this was done largely as a joke on The Tonight Show in the US, but the message was clear) - so what? OK OK, so a student can identify Iraq on an unmarked map - wonderful. What information doesn't he know about Iraq? How about regions, people, customs, culture, food, and every other interesting thing about Iraq, and how much "stupidity weight" should be attached to each unknown item? Is this person ever going to use this information other than on a test asking for it, with a blank map and lines drawn to fill in the country names? Yet it's very easy to say because so-and-so scored such-and-such on a test that equates to an "A," the highest mark you can get, they are smart. How dumb is that?

Rote memory shouldn't be a measure of intelligence, yet it's widely accepted as such. How doth the little busy bee...

I say screw it - from now on, in order to be considered smart, you must be able to draw all seven continents, freehand, and fill in all current countries and capitals. In under ten minutes. (Aren't all things like this arbitrarily decided anyhow?)
posted by ostranenie at 8:06 AM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

> your policy leaders couldn't differentiate between the two significant warring parties in Iraq and the near east

That would definitely be a problem, but that's based on the fact that those policy leaders are making significant decisions based on that information--a far cry from knowing what amounts to some geographical trivia. Not defending Bush (groan), but politicians make lots of mistakes when they're speaking in public by virtue of the fact that they speak in public so often, have very tight schedules and are forced to absorb an astonishing amount of information to make decisions on. When someone bumbles their answer at a reporter's question, the media is on it like piranhas on a cow carcass because that's interesting news (OMG politicians be incompetent!). The chance of public figures mis-speaking goes up every time they talk to the press, and if you cherry-pick comments and actions you can make almost any public figure - celebrities, politicians - look like a scumbag, an idiot, or all of the above. (Conversely, you can make idiots and scumbags look like heroes by picking positive things they've said and done and only reporting on those.)

I'm just saying the media lies, is all.
posted by ostranenie at 8:23 AM on July 9, 2008

I didn't mean to start a discussion about politician's geographical knowledge - (I'm fully aware of the lack of it sometimes/the Sunni comments.) I should have phrased that tidbit in the way others did: I care more about people whose jobs (not necessarily high-profile politicians: bureaucrats and the like also) are to know that sort of thing.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:26 AM on July 9, 2008

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