How Much Don’t You Know? The Epidemic of American Ignorance

The Boston Marathon Bombings, on the 15th of April, sparked a vicious manhunt that ended in the capture of one young Chechen and the killing of his brother. Across the Internet, people speculated wildly about the identity of the bombers, casting wild accusations against various minority groups and falsely identifying several suspects from photos of the scene. One young man, 22- year- old Sunil Tripathi, was found dead the week after web vigilantes singled him out as the bomber. But even once the identity of the genuine perpetrators was released, many Americans were still mired in misinformation. Matt Binder, on his blog, Public Shaming: Tweets of Privilege, compiled a collection of screenshots from Twitter and Facebook, where Americans both young and old demanded retribution against the Czechoslovakians for the Boston Bombings. However, as any rational, intelligent person will tell you, the bombers were not from Czechoslovakia. Nor, in fact, were they from the Czech Republic. A Chechen is someone from Chechnya, a region in southwest Russia. While this delightful little mix-up may seem like the mere blundering of some Wi-Fi-enabled buffoons, the confusion was actually serious enough to warrant a statement from Petr Gandalovic, the Czech Ambassador to the United States. When American public ignorance reaches the point where a foreign ambassador feels the need to intervene, something’s got to give.

Image courtesy of chensiyuan, © 2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of chensiyuan, © 2010, some rights reserved.

 The Pew Research Center, in the latest update of its semi-annual News IQ study, discovered that only 7% of the people surveyed could correctly answer all 13 questions posed. The questions, on various topics, covered both domestic and foreign affairs. Only half of the subjects, Americans ranging from age 18 on, with varying degrees of education, could identify Syria on a map of the Middle East. A full 43% could not pick the flag of the People’s Republic of China out of a lineup. A third didn’t recognize the euro symbol. Only two-thirds of the people asked could identify the current Secretary of State, John Kerry. In a world where the United States remains unequivocally the reigning world power, how can her citizens remain so blatantly ignorant? According to an earlier, more comprehensive study by the Pew Research Center, American news literacy has maintained a constant decline since 1989. With the advent of the 24- hour news cycle and the onset of mass social media, you would expect Americans to be more informed about their world. Unfortunately, you can’t give a bear a fishing rod and expect him to use it to catch a fish.

Even when people do make the effort to inform themselves, they often neglect to think critically about the information they’re being deluged with. Misinformation is a constant problem within both social media and professional news making. Fact-checking is often shunted aside to make room for more exciting spins. The two Chechen bombers, who were literally from the Caucasus, were identified over and over as non-Caucasian, due in part to them being Muslim. Americans would rather see two brown-skinned boys as villains than two white ones. Even though the FBI stated in their official press release that their suspects were white, the media and the public determinedly pictured the brothers as otherwise. Perhaps because Americans are so comfortable characterizing terrorists as dark-skinned, turban-wearing men from the Middle East, that thinking of the bombers as identical to themselves was just a step too far. It’s difficult to change your mental image of something, difficult to realign your worldview. In his 2008 article for the Washington Post, Shankar Vendantam said, “misinformation can exercise a ghostly influence on people’s minds after it has been debunked— even among people who recognize it as misinformation.” Because Americans find it easier to accept the information given them than to look critically at their own world, it is difficult for truth to invade the national consciousness.

So what, though? Americans are stupid, everyone knows that. It’s a stereotype not many have actively tried to debunk. But here’s the rub: the American people who can’t think for themselves, who are reticent to immerse themselves in current affairs, who can’t tell Chechnya from Czechoslovakia, that’s the same American people who, every four years, elect the leader of the free world. That’s the same American people who peacefully overthrow their own government on a regular basis. It’s the same American people who control both the world’s largest economy and the world’s most powerful military. Do you want the most powerful country in the world to be run by mass ignorance?

11 Replies to “How Much Don’t You Know? The Epidemic of American Ignorance”

  1. I have to say, the broad, sweeping statements this article makes are offensive, if not ignorant in themselves. While utilizing numbers such as the 7% full completion of the New IQ test makes an attempt to provide “data” supporting the propositions, it makes no note of the high percentages represented in the very high, though not perfect, scores. Presenting “data” in this way makes it sound as if only 7% of Americans are intelligent, which I think is grossly misrepresentative. I’d be interested to see statistics for knowledge regarding current affairs in other developed countries, and I can predict that they would yield similar results.

    To label a mass of people “ignorant” because they cannot answer a quiz flawlessly is highly vindictive. Let’s promote stereotypes by finding isolated results and applying them to massive demographics, why don’t we?

  2. This is the kind of hard-hitting and expert analysis that I’ve come to know and love on this website

  3. “Unfortunately, you can’t give a bear a fishing rod and expect him to use it to catch a fish.” Seriously?

    This article is ignorant. Good luck joining the US Foreign Service – why would the US want to be represented by someone who clearly has such poor opinion of her fellow citizens? If you really believe what you’ve just written here, then writing this article does nothing to correct the problem.

  4. This whole article is about how Americans generalize terrorists as Muslims and how ignorant this is, yet your concluding statement is “Americans find it easier to accept the information given them than to look critically at their own world”(sic). I hope you realize that this is just a bit hypocritical.
    Also, I know several people that can’t point out Syria on a map, yet I would not describe them as ignorant. Like the previous comment I feel like a test like that proves absolutely nothing.
    Also, when did the American people overthrow the government? Call me ignorant (haha) but I can’t recall the past time the US government was overthrown, considering no American president ever has been successfully impeached…

  5. I think that this article was fantastic and really points out a lot of flaws both faced by and created by the American public. A person shouldn’t have to be an IR student to recognize that, as an adult with the right to vote, you have a responsibility to educate yourself about the world around you so that you can make an informed decision. A lot of American “ignorance” definitely can be traced back to a culture (and education system) based on U.S.-centrism and insularity, and definitely does not account for every individual; however, debacles such as the Chechnya/Czech Republic confusion point to a serious deficit in U.S. society that no one in their right mind should be against rectifying.

    As for the quiz cited, many polls have pointed out that U.S. citizens are terribly behind in geography (http://edition.cnn.com/2006/EDUCATION/05/02/geog.test/). Saying that other populations may have a similar lack of knowledge isn’t a defense. Geography is the jumping-off point for knowledge about a country: how can a person understand geopolitical context without knowing a country’s location and history? This is especially pertinent to the American public because of the powerful position that the country occupies. Given the global nature of U.S. influence and, as the author said, the fact that this influence is wielded by an official elected by the public, perhaps it would be better to try and address this problem, rather than take offense.

  6. “This is the kind of hard-hitting and expert analysis that I’ve come to know and love on this website.” Here at the Foreign Affairs Review, we appreciate all our readers and analysts. In particular, we appreciate those who see the Review as inferior and still choose to partake and participate in its comments section.

  7. I would encourage Colin to submit a guest piece next year and elevate the analysis of the Review.

  8. I am eager to see the scores of any of the above commenters on the quiz mentioned in the article: http://www.pewresearch.org/quiz/the-news-iq-quiz/ There are thirteen multiple choice questions. I myself have seen them and my considered opinion is that a wrong answer on any of them, as they are presented in the quiz, is genuine cause for alarm.

    I am also eager to see any genuine and informed criticism of the methods used by Pew Research Center. It is my understanding that these polls are conducted by experienced social scientists according to established, widely accepted, and non-controversial protocols. My own anecdotal experience as a U.S. citizen and news consumer does not contradict their results.

    Populist isolationism and ignorance are an old American tradition, a curious reader can easily find historical material comparable to the findings of Pew Research. Current efforts, however, by the right-wingers to dismantle public education and vilify public school teachers make an old story particularly disturbing in a new way.

  9. Is this a joke?

    THESE are the questions you are required to answer to avoid being called ignorant? I’m sorry, but this is wide-eyed undergraduate self-righteous rubbish based on the assumption that your hobby is more important than the interests of others. Looking down on those who do not take a special interest in politics.

    You’re not talking about the kind of ignorance where people are completely blind to things in front of their noses. This isn’t “which of these is Obama?” or “how much is a pint of milk?”. Ask these kinds of questions to anyone from any country and you’d get very similar results. It really isn’t an American thing.

    “Only two-thirds of the people asked could identify the current Secretary of State, John Kerry.” That’s actually extremely impressive. And I’m sure it’s far lower in reality. How many Brits would be able to identify William Hague from a picture? Fewer than 2/3, I guarantee. How many would be able to point out Syria on a map? Less than half, I’m sure.

    You conclude with worry that the most powerful country in the world is run by mass ignorance. It’s a bit of a silly point though, and I suspect that’s not the main point of your article either. Rather, you seem more concerned with displaying your ability to pass this arbitrary test and look down on those that don’t.

    Are there points to be made, perhaps, on the American election campaigns, and the issues that are focussed on? On the American education system? On the levels of poverty and inequality in the country? On, perhaps, a project on global education? Yes. So write about that, not self-aggrandising faux-shock at America’s “ignorance”. The numbers surprise no-one. And European countries wouldn’t do much better.

    Congrats on your hobby though. I’m sure you’d pass similar tests on physics with flying colours as well.

  10. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that the author is being criticized for being “ignorant” and making “broad, sweeping statements”, but that no one else is even attempting to back up their claims with anything resembling any sort of evidence? If you’re so “sure” that you can “guarantee” that your criticisms are valid, why don’t you kindly direct all of us to any source that suggests that they are.

    And let’s not pretend that the entire argument that Americans are less informed about the world than they should be rests on the survey referenced in this article. Even just Google-ing “Poll of American political knowledge” paints a disturbing picture. Knowing basic facts about the world around you isn’t a “hobby”; it’s citizenship.

    If you want to talk about solutions then fine. The country’s education system is consistently outperformed by comparable countries (http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com/index/index-ranking) while the media could do a lot better as well (http://www.gallup.com/poll/157589/distrust-media-hits-new-high.aspx; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Press_Freedom_Index). Denying that there’s a problem will only make things worse.

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