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30.8.07

Congratulations, You Know Where You Live

Mark Liberman reassures us that, contrary to the premises of a question recently asked of a beauty pageant contestant, only 6% of young Americans -- not 20% -- are unable to locate the United States on a map.

But Liberman then goes on to dismiss the problem of geographical ignorance as "periodic hand-wringing." He says "Needless to say, the 94% number was not featured [in the press release about the poll]." Well, duh -- that's basic knowledge you expect people to have. Whether an American can find the US on a map is only interesting if they fail, just like you don't see headlines about all the people who drove to work and didn't cause a 4-car pileup on the freeway. And it's not like the remaining questions produced similarly rosy results -- for example, well over half of the respondents couldn't find Iraq or Afganistan (who would have thought Ambrose Bierce was not cynical enough?). Unless Liberman has some evidence he's not mentioning that would show that the questions were asked, or the results reported, misleadingly, the poll shows exactly what it's billed as showing: Americans don't know where stuff is (and the level of performance is low enough that "Americans are ignorant" is a more important story than "Americans not quite as ignorant as beauty pageant judges think").

It would be one thing if Liberman thought that geographical knowledge was unimportant, or if he thought that the kind of formal trivia-quiz knowledge tested in the poll is a poor measure of people's real geographical competence. But I have a very hard time being impressed with someone's knowledge just because they can locate their own (very large) country on a world map.

Liberman also points out that poll-sponsor National Geographic obviously has something to gain if people take the issue of geographical ignorance seriously. This is true. But in the absence of any evidence that National Geographic is misleading us about the state of geographical knowledge or failing to deliver on their promise of aid, I don't see why this is so horrible. In fact, it seems like a good thing that for some problem, there's an entity with a vested interest in drawing attention to it and promoting a solution.

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