August 29, 2007

What she should have said

The question: "Recent polls have shown, a fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?"

The (famous) answer:

I personally believe
U.S. Americans are unable to do so
because uh some uh
people out there in our nation don't *have* maps
and uh I believe that our ed- education like such as in
South Africa and uh the- the Iraq everywhere like such as and
I believe that they should uh
our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. or- or- should help South Africa
and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries
so we will be able to build up our future
((for our children))

But what she should have said was:

That sounds like an urban legend to me --I don't believe that my fellow Americans are so ignorant. According to the Final Report of the National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study, "Nearly all (94%) young Americans can find the United States on the world map".

The last time I checked, 100% minus 94% was 6%, not 20%. So what's your source for the claim that 20% of us don't know where our country is on the map?

I don't know where the pageant organizers got "one fifth" from. My guess is that they just made it up -- or more charitably, one of the them dimly misremembered a number from one of the periodic hand-wringing "People are so ignorant of X" press releases distributed by the purveyors of X.

Let's note in passing that the National Geographic gave its study the same shocking-ignorance-is-rife spin in its press release, duly picked up by the press, e.g. "Study: Geography Greek to young Americans",, 5/4/2006):

The National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study paints a dismal picture of the geographic knowledge of the most recent graduates of the U.S. education system.

"Taken together, these results suggest that young people in the United States ... are unprepared for an increasingly global future," said the study's final report.

"Far too many lack even the most basic skills for navigating the international economy or understanding the relationships among people and places that provide critical context for world events."

Needless to say, the 94% number was not featured. In fact, the key paragraph of that news story is the last one:

The release of the 2006 study coincides with the launch of the National Geographic-led campaign called "My Wonderful World." A statement on the program said it was designed to "inspire parents and educators to give their kids the power of global knowledge."

In other words, it's designed to inspire parents and educators to give the National Geographic the power of their dollars.

(I hasten to add that geographical knowledge is a wonderful and important thing, and everyone needs more of it. But let's be clear about what's going on here...)

[Update -- Michael Kwun thinks this might be another example of inability to deal with simple proportions:

I don't know what really happened, but it could be that a question about geographic failings accidentally demonstrated an innumeracy problem.

If 94% can find the US on a map, that could easily be reported or remembered as 95%.

And that would mean 5% can't find the US on a map. Five percent can morph into 1/5 through a simple error in recollection... or because someone doesn't understand how to translate percentages into fractions.

Or you could turn 5% into 1 in 20... which could then similarly turn into 20%, and then 1/5.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 29, 2007 02:12 PM