Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Poll Shows Americans are Dumb as what

Kathleen Parker is one of my favorite columnists. I don't often agree with her, but, she writes very well, will skewer her own kind when they are wrong (an odd thing for hard ideological writers), and she makes me think.

She is a regular in our Sunday paper here, usually trailing several days her columns from WaPo. The headline for her column today says it all: "Bailing Out Ignorance."

This is another in a cottage industry of stories about what Americans don't know. Now, I recognize that for a college professor to suggest that only 21% of American's recognize phrases from the Gettysburg Address may not be the cultural fracture that the "illuminati" like to suggest it is, is odd, but the fact is, the only effect that can be shown with such ignorance is the ignornace it self. Instead of only 0.8% of the sample getting an A, that 80% earned an A, what tangible differences would it make?

Remember the early 80s with the conservative push on a loss of traditional values/culture? Allan Bloom and his ilk of elitist illuminati?

How many Christians do you suppose would score highly on bible trivial pursuit?

In a book that I am a third author on, "Tabloid Justice," in data I don't recall if we really delved into, it seems I recall finding a negative relationship between people who watch TV and their knowledge of the criminal justice system. But, so what? This is not to suggest that judges, lawyers, and cops don't know enough to work the system, but regular folks are going to serve as jurors, but lawyers like ignorant jurors, so that seems to be potentially a good thing.

A quick Google search shows how many similar such polls demonstrate ignorance:

A Pew Center study shows that the proliferation of new media isn't necessarily informing people any better, indeed, in many areas, there is a reduction, but not across the board:

"Most Americans Don't Know 'Better Fats' Benefit Heart Health" Even in something as self-serving as their health, Americans are dumb:
Fewer than half of Americans know that the "better" fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) can help reduce their risk of heart disease, according to a recent survey(1) by the American Heart Association.

Heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. Go figure why people don't know about that either.

Even Pravda has noticed how damn dumb we are, citing a National Geogrpahic Study (American's geographic ignorance is well known and little repaired since being discovered nearly 20 years ago). I like the headline on this one: "Being too proud of themselves, many Americans don’t know where New York is"

Most of the story looks lifted directly from Nat'l Geographic, but this study is of youth, which paints an ominous picture of the future. Some of the startling findings:

The results showed causes for concern. Here are the most evident examples of young Americans’ illiteracy.

Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map - though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.

6 in 10 young Americans don't speak a foreign language fluently.

20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia. (It's the largest country in Africa.)

48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It's Hindu—by a landslide.)

Half of young Americans can't find New York on a map.

Three-quarters cannot find Indonesia on a map – even after images of the tsunami and the damage it caused to this region of the world played prominently across television screens and in the pages of print media over many months in 2005.

The majority of the American young adults overestimate the total size of the US population and fail to understand how much larger the population of China is.

Three-quarters believe English is the most common spoken native language in the world, rather than Mandarin Chinese.

Only Two-thirds (67%) can find Louisiana on a US map and half (52%) can find Mississippi – leaving a third or more who cannot find these states, in spite of months of intensive media coverage of the 2005 hurricanes and their aftermath.

From over 20 years ago, another ignorance poll about our constitution. What Americans Don't Know About the Constitution (I wonder if our current President wsa one of those surveyed?) Remember, these facts are from a study in 1987:

Well over half of those surveyed believed:

The president, acting alone, can appoint a justice to the Supreme Court.
The Constitution established English as the national language.
The Constitution guarantees the right to a free public education.
Here are some other findings from the survey:

Almost half of those surveyed mistakenly thought that a Supreme Court decision can never be overruled.
Nearly half believed that a president can suspend constitutional liberties in a time of national emergency.
Eighty-five percent thought that any important case may be appealed from state courts to the Supreme Court.
Forty-six percent of adult Americans did not know that the purpose of the Constitution was to create a federal government and define its powers.
Twenty-six percent believed that the Constitution's purpose was to declare independence from England

And a fifth example:

Nanotechnology And Synthetic Biology: Americans Don't Know What's Coming (yet it is still coming and some of those responsible are dumb ass Americans)

At least this study suggested specific problems with ignorance, specifically in the public policy realm:

Early in the administration of the next president, scientists are expected to take the next major step toward the creation of synthetic forms of life. Yet the results from the first U.S. telephone poll about synthetic biology show that most adults have heard just a little or nothing at all about it," says PEN Director David Rejeski. The poll findings are contained a report published September 30.

Okay, this entry is getting way to long, and my hope is that Kethleen Parker might actually read it.

Three points: first, we have no idea what our citizens knew in the past. The assumption is that we knew more in the past. But what evidence do you really have? 20 years ago we didn't know the constitution, and I could demonstrate more of the same from the past, but I didn't simple search produced enough to make these points.

Second, this measure of knowledge, a multiple choice test, is a BAD measure to measure cultural knoweldge. Would conducting the test with a group composed of a cross section of 5 people do any better? Based on my own testing procedures for multiple choice exams, yes. Knowledge is social. And telephone surveys are especially bad at tapping knowlege like this. What would focus groups demonstrate, after all, we discuss things as we need to.

Third, how many people need to know stuff? We have a specialized division of labor. In simpler societies, every one pretty much knows the same stuff, but in more complex industrial societies, and now global societies, we are very interdependent; we rely on a variety of authorities to signal the right stuff to us. If i have a constitutional question, I listen to Jonathan Turley; if I have a medical question I listen to my doc. Now, I also try to find stuff out myself. A far better study would be to see how people use the tremendous information available to them. It is one thing to not know stuff on a random multiple choice test, it is far another to show the ability and wherewithall to find it out.

Kathleen Parker fears a "demogogue." You mean like the unitary executive of the
Bush Administration? Fear, in the form of fear of terrorism, will overwhelm rational action, which is fact based, no matter what. Ms. Parker cites a history prof, a member of the condescending illuminati:
In his book, Shenkman, founder of George Mason University's History News Network, is tough on everyday Americans. Why, he asks, do we value polls when clearly The People don't know enough to make a reasoned judgment?

The founding fathers, Shenkman points out, weren't so enamored of The People, whom they distrusted. Hence a Republic, not a Democracy. They understood that an ignorant electorate was susceptible to emotional manipulation and feared the tyranny of the masses.

This is an old argument. What knowledge would you test to establish rational?
Give drivers a book test after 20 years of driving, will they pass it? Could I pass my phD prelims again, today, without preparation?

Knowledge is a use or lose it proposition. On what occasions do most Americans need to know what is contained in the first Amendment...this doesn't suggest they don't know they have a right to free speech; or what the electoral college does..that hasnt made it any easier to get rid of!; or that Congress has the power to declare war: well, since the last formal declaration of war, we have been to Korea (a UN action, right), Vietnam (War Powers Act basically gave the Pres power to go to war without Congress' approval...subverting the Constitution....that was over 30 years ago);

Had Americans shown incredible knowledge, instead of ignornace, what would be different today? No Iraq war? No terrorist attacks? No economic crisis? Would we have freed ourselves of our dependency on foreign oil back in the 70s? Would we have traveled to Mars intead of just to the moon? Would diabetes not be a epidemic? Would we have not developed cable tv, the internet, and cell phones for their dumbing down effects as Parker suggests?

Such studies make for great American bashing...and I'll admit to having done it myself (see early post on ignornace abounding in the income tax discussion), but as far as a harbinger of the end of America as we know it, I doubt it. I am not even sure it reflects poorly on our educational system. That Americans are "anti-intellectual" is nothing new. And these tests merely show that. And yet, we survive, thrive, and lead.

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