Ignorance about ignorance

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People — especially Americans — are ignorant. This is something that Everyone Knows, because we read or hear about it from time to time in the mass media. Thus we can listen to Robin Young tell us on NPR's Here and Now that

A new survey conducted by Chicago's McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, which has yet to open, finds that only 28 percent of Americans are able to name one of the constitutional freedoms, yet 52 percent are able to name at least two Simpsons family members.

Or we can read in the New York Times that

Diane Ravitch, an education historian […], said she was particularly disturbed by the fact that only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, which she called “very likely the most important decision” of the United States Supreme Court in the past seven decades.

And this is not just journalistic sensationalizing, because we can get similar opinions directly from the scholarly literature in the social sciences. Thus Ilya Somin, "Voter ignorance and the democratic ideal", Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society, 12:4, 413-458, 1998:

Overall, close to a third of Americans can be categorized as "know-nothings" who are almost completely ignorant of relevant political information (Bennett 1988)—which is not, by any means, to suggest that the other two-thirds are well informed.

Or Robert C. Luskin, ‘"From Denial to Extenuation (and Finally Beyond): Political Sophistication and Citizen Performance.’" In Thinking about Political Psychology, James H. Kuklinski (Ed.) 2002:

The average American's ability to place the Democratic and Republican parties and "liberals" and "conservatives" correctly on issue dimensions and the two parties on a liberal-conservative dimension scarcely exceeds and indeed sometimes falls short of what could be achieved by blind guessing. The verdict is stunningly, depressingly clear: most people know very little about politics, and the distribution behind that statement has changed little if at all over the survey era.

But I've always been skeptical of this particular received idea. In the passage quoted above, Robin Young states the survey result incorrectly — actually, 73% of respondents, not 28%, were able to name one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment — and she spins it in a doubtful direction to boot, because only 65% were able to name one of the Simpsons characters.

In the cited New York Times article, Diane Ravitch is referring to the 2010 NAEP 12th grade U.S. History test, in which 82%, not 2%,  of 12th graders correctly identified Brown v. Board of Education.

And I recently heard a talk by Arthur Lupia ("Challenges and Opportunities in Open-Ended Coding", presented at a workshop on The Future of Survey Research) that made me even less willing to accept  at face value claims of the form "Fewer than X% of Americans Know Y". Arthur reported on some forensic analysis, so to speak, of the internal records of the American National Election Study.  He learned that the standard methodology, used in this and other surveys for asking, recording, and scoring open-ended questions (and especially open-ended recall questions), systematically underestimates respondents' knowledge.

The way it works is that the survey designers craft a question like the following (asked at a time when William Rehnquist was the Chief Justice of the United States):

“Now we have a set of questions concerning various public figures. We want to see how much information about them gets out to the public from television, newspapers and the like….
What about William Rehnquist – What job or political office does he NOW hold?”

The answers to such open-ended questions are recorded — as audio recordings and/or as notes taken by the interviewer — and these records are coded, later on, by hired coders.

The survey designers give these coders very specific instructions about what counts as right and wrong in the answers. In the case of the question about William Rehnquist, the criteria for an answer to be judged correct were mentions of both "chief justice" and "Supreme Court". These terms had to be mentioned explicitly, so all of the following (actual answers) were counted as wrong:

Supreme Court justice. The main one.
He’s the senior judge on the Supreme Court.
He is the Supreme Court justice in charge.
He’s the head of the Supreme Court.
He’s top man in the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court justice, head.
Supreme Court justice. The head guy.
Head of Supreme Court.
Supreme Court justice head honcho.

Similarly, the technically correct answer ("Chief Justice of the United States") would also have been scored as wrong (I'm not certain whether it actually occurred or not in the survey responses).

Prof. Lupia explained, in a persuasive way, how the American National Election Study has changed its practices to minimize such problems. His list of fixes includes:

Increased documentation at all stages
Evaluation at many stages
Increased procedural transparency
High inter-coder reliability

My conclusions:

  • When you read or hear in the mass media that "Only X% of Americans know Y", don't believe it without checking the references — it's probably false even as a report of the survey statistics.
  • When you read survey results claiming that "Only X% of Americans know Y", don't believe the claims unless the survey publishes (a) the exact questions asked; (b) the specific coding instructions used to score the answers; (c) a measure of inter-annotator agreement in blind tests; and (d) the raw response transcripts.

Future ANES releases should meet these criteria, but it seems that very few other surveys do.


  1. Paul said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 7:52 am

    Thank you for this post. It was needed.

  2. jonw said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 7:56 am

    It's important to take into account publication bias as well. Few
    Organizations would put out a story which deviates from the 'public are stupid ' narrative.

  3. Rube said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 8:33 am

    Wow. That "Chief Justice of the United States" was scored as wrong is mind-boggling. How in the world did that happen?

    [(myl) The scoring rules for that question included the requirement that the answer contain both "chief justice" and "supreme court". The official title "Chief Justice of the United States" doesn't contain one of the required items, namely "supreme court".

    I'm not certain whether Prof. Lupia said that "Chief Justice of the United States" was actually given as an answer, or just noted that it would have been scored as wrong if it had been. I've amended the text of the post to avoid giving a perhaps-false impression…]

  4. Avinor said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 8:47 am

    If it weren't for outdated versions of the same type of stories, I wouldn't have known of the The Three Stooges.

  5. M (was L) said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    > How in the world did that happen?

    Easiest thing in the world.

    You have to give the scorers pretty objective guidelines, otherwise you can't tell WTF you've got. They gave them really bad guidelines, which depended upon whether this process:

    "The answers to such open-ended questions are recorded — as audio recordings and/or as notes taken by the interviewer — and these records are coded, later on, by hired coders."

    …resulted in capitalized or lower case transcription by the interviewer/coders.

    Since nobody speaks in capital or lower case letters, and since these were oral interviews, the point tells us nothing at all about the voter.

  6. The Ridger said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    I'm also very unconvinced that this is true in some important way of only Americans.

  7. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    If, indeed, as the old adage goes, "Ignorance is bliss.", is true, then America must be one of the happiest places on earth…. well aside from Disney World, of course.

    "Ignorance", although it has a common pejorative bias, really shouldn't, in that it means a state of being uninformed, or lacking knowledge; not a condition of innate stupidity, or mental deficiency.

    Most Americans in this age of instant-information (and misinformation) at our finger-tips via all manner of electronic/ digital media and hi-tech devices, are sadly so swamped by a tsunami of infotainment trivia, commercial advertising, and the like, that it's a wonder that any so-called knowledge of any significant import, gravitas, or intrinsic value re/ actual governance, politics, events happening in other parts of the globe, even registers with 'the average'* American.

    Granted, there are many educated, intellectually curious folks out there who have an abiding thirst for knowledge, and actually hold great value in being informed, and further, see the garnering of knowledge about the world, the dynamics of politics, economics, social intercourse, issues re/ the environment, the balance of nature and such. But sadly these 'informed' types are in the minority**.

    If we were to ask the average Joe(s) on the street, "Who is Ban Ki-Moon.",(the current Secretary General of the UN, of course), I'm sure several would ponder a spell, and blurt out, "Isn't he that crazy Reverend Moon*** guy who marries thousands of couples in one ceremony?…. or something to that effect.

    I shudder to think what response the name Kofi Annan (former UN Secretary General) might get.

    For some, perhaps younger Americans, the name Archbishop Desmond Tutu might be a puzzler, and yet this Nobel Laureate should be readily identified by most 'informed' folk around the globe.

    But ask 'the average' American young person, say under 30 today, to name the three currently airing singing-contest/TV reality shows, and without hesitation a very high percentage would likely come up w/ "American Idol", "The Voice" and "The "X" Factor"…. and maybe throw in the less high-profile, "Duets", for bonus points.

    Ask the same demographic who Karl Rove, Dick Morris, Mitch McConnell, or Rand Paul are, and many would be totally stumped. But pretty much the entire group could almost instantly ID pop-singers Katie Perry, Lady Gaga, or Adele.

    Unfortunately, we are in an era of increasingly dumbed down, sensationalist news coverage and reportage (particularly in the realm of TV), as the 'opinionators' and pundits, armed w/ their often slanted political biases, rant and rave, like bobble-head figures, incarnate.

    Life style hints, and health advice on local TV are great, but when these segments take up maybe a third of a newscast (?), frankly, something is amiss.

    *I know there is a danger in labeling 'the average" American. It's kind of a nebulous term, and hard to pin down. But I think most folk get my drift, in this context.

    **Of course, I'd like to think that the people who read and comment on LL and other lexicographic sites on the internet, and who STILL read newspapers (hardcopy, or online), are part of that informed minority.

    ***As many may know, the controversial Rev. Moon recently left this mortal coil….. ultimate destination?….. haven't a clue.

  8. SlideSF said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    "Wow. That "Chief Justice of the United States" was scored as wrong is mind-boggling. How in the world did that happen?"

    Further proof of how ignorant Americans are. They can't even answer their own questions correctly.

  9. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

    There may be a linguistic connection here. At least, my sense is that the indignation roused by these stories can sometimes be a cover for preening self-congratulation, not unlike reports of sightings of misplaced apostrophes. All grist for the "Kids (schools, folks, Americans, etc.) today, I'm here to tell you" file.

  10. Circe said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

    A new survey conducted by the Theodolite Group* has made the shocking finding that only 2% of Americans who do surveys actually know how to do one. Even more alarmingly, it has found that only one 0.5% of the journalists who interpret these surveys known how to interpret one. On the other hand, the survey found that 52% of the respondents had listened to at least one of Justin Bieber's songs.

    * which has the decency not to exist.

  11. Jeroen Mostert said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    You know a survey is completely and literally incredible when it insinuates that 72% of all Americans wouldn't know about the right to bear arms.

    I mean, for heaven's sake, you do have a stereotype to uphold.

    [(myl) No, I'm afraid you would be among the losers in this case. The specific survey question dealt with the "freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment" to the constitution, for which the correct answer is a list of five: religion, speech, press, petition and assembly. The right to bear arms is the second amendment.

    But this illustrates how tricky the question actually was. As I wrote at the time,

    … counting the Five Freedoms is confusing, after all: the Bill of Rights has 10 amendments, but the First Amendment covers 5 freedoms. And the wording of the First Amendment only mention 2 "freedoms" as such (speech and press), plus 2 "rights" (assembly and petition); and religion gets mentioned twice (no establishment of it, no prohibition of it), but only counts as one "freedom":

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    Then there are all sorts of other freedom-y things in the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights, like the right to bear arms, the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, freedom from forced self-incrimination, freedom from cruel and unusual punishments. And then there are later amendments that have a lot to do with freedom, like the abolition of slavery in the 13th amendment. I bet that lots of people started listing things like those, and then realized that there are a lot more than five of them, and that some of them are more rights than freedoms, and …

    So the basic design of the question was either seriously flawed (if the goal was to learn what people know about the constitution) or extremely clever (if the goal, as I suspect, was to provide evidence for the need for more of the education to be provided by the institution that sponsored the survey).]

  12. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    @Jeroen Mostert: Although it's not obvious from the bit that Dr. Liberman quotes here, I think the full radio show did make clear that the survey asked specifically about the First Amendment (whereas the right to bear arms is protected by the Second).

  13. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

    @Jeroen Mostert,

    Not to second guess you, but did you mean to type in "un-credible", or "non-credible", rather than your "incredible", in your last post?

    For me, in the context it was used, "incredible" doesn't make a lot of sense. Or is it just me?

    Back in the boonies, 'Hicksville', U.S.A., I've heard some folk have interpreted the 2nd Amendment* as the right to traipse around without a shirt on (bare arms), or at least, sport a T-shirt. (Groan)

    *Ran Ari-Gur kind of stole my thunder, there. 2nd Amendment, indeed.

  14. Chris Henrich said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    How many Americans, confronted with a dumb-looking questionnaire, deliberately give wrong answers just to mess with the poll-takers' minds?

  15. Jeroen Mostert said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

    @Alex: a little jest. "Incredible" can in fact mean "not credible", and some people love to point that out, or worse, insist that it's the only correct meaning.

    @Ran: then the survey is even dumber than it seems, because picking only the First Amendment from the Bill of Rights seems incredibly arbitrary. They might have as well have asked people to quote the First Amendment and record partial answers, then — more effective. But then, being effective was probably not the point…

    Annoyingly I can recite the Second Amendment by heart, thanks to Roy Zimmerman. Feel free to google that if you'd like to get it stuck in your head. (I've been trying, not very successfully, to put the First Amendment to a tune.)

  16. John Walden said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

    Hardly none of them don't.

  17. Rubrick said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

    @M (was L):
    "You have to give the scorers pretty objective guidelines, otherwise you can't tell WTF you've got."

    I think this is fallacious. If the scorers were computers, this would be true (though hopefully not for too many more years). But with human scorers who *themselves* know who Renquist was and what he did, the following guideline would work far better: "Was the answer correct?"

  18. David Fried said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

    Including Amendments beyond the First, and not counting the right to indictment by grand jury, I find I can name eight fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Although I have not watched the Simpsons regularly since the first couple of seasons 20+ years ago, I find I can name thirteen Simpsons characters, if you count both Itchy and Scratchy and are satisfied with "that Scottish groundskeeper, probably named Angus or something. . . ."

    My conclusion: We need either more fundamental rights, or fewer Simpsons. Also, if we approached Simpsons and rights with equal rigor, the scores would be a lot closer, and Americans' woeful ignorance about the Simpsons would be more apparent. "Two members of the Simpson family" is a gimme anyway, because they all have the same last name. Do we count "Moe the Tavernkeeper" or does he have a last name? Is Mr. Burns's first name required? Krusty the Clown's last name? Does Smithers even have another name?

    If you see my point, you're way ahead of me.

  19. M (was L) said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    > But with human scorers who *themselves* know who Renquist
    > was and what he did, the following guideline would work far
    > better: "Was the answer correct?"

    Yes, but with human scorers who are Americans, perhaps not so much…

  20. Nick Lamb said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    Rubrick, that is not a way to get reproducible results.

    Suppose we give two groups the same set of answers to trivia questions. If we give one group explicit instructions on how judge whether the answers are correct and the other group are told to rely on their personal judgement we will get much worse intra-scorer consistency from the second group. As a result the "comment sense" group's scores will need a larger sample size to get the same power.

    Lack of an explicit scoring scheme also opens you up in a big way to bias, whether conscious or unconscious. Not to mention some of the scorers statistically won't be certain of the correct answer to some of the trivia questions.

    The problem isn't the giving of instructions, the problem is that the instructions were no good. But so long as the instructions are provided in the survey results, that only leaves us with the usual overriding problem of lazy journalists. A good journalist could and should notice that the scoring method was lousy and move on to the next item on their desk.

  21. Laura said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    @David Fried: I don't know anything about fundamental freedoms and couldn't name you one, though I'm not a US citizen so my ignorance is partially excused. However, to my extreme pride/shame, I find that I know the answers to all of your Simpsons questions (Sizslak, Charles Montgomery, Krustofski, Waylon – and it's Groundskeeper Willie). Proof of nothing other than that cartoons travel better than constitutions.

  22. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

    @Alex McCrae:

    I'm reading your first comment and wondering whether you even read the post. The whole point is that the idea that everyone is getting dumber and more ignorant is based on flimsy or radically misunderstood evidence (though perhaps the fact that we so readily accept such poorly supported conclusions ends up proving the same point). Rants about American ignorance count among the least insightful, most unoriginal contributions one could make to this discussion.

  23. M (was L) said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

    @The Ridger

    > I'm also very unconvinced that this is true in some important way
    > of only Americans.

    Actually, if the truth were out there, my guess is that in fact Americans know their Constitution very well. We Americans are often obsessive about the Constitution and disagree endlessly about what certain phrases mean (eg, "reasonable doubt" or "unreasonable search and siezure" or "cruel and unusual punishment") and we disagree endlessly about what rights EXACTLY are guaranteed by each Amendment.

    If the question is to identify them, and the answer key is reasonably unbiased, then I think Americans will do very well. They (we) will also bore you to death about why the other side is wrong.

    I expect that all nations which have such a document, and in which said document is given more than just lip service, there would be pretty good familiarity.

  24. Jeff Carney said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

    I've actually heard what a lot of Americans believe their Constitution says, and overwhelmingly they are confused. Caveat: I mostly converse with my college freshmen and sophomores about such matters; but in my real life among adults, I have encountered only a few who have added to their teenage knowledge.

    For example:

    Many are familiar only with the Preamble and the Bill of Rights. The rest is boring.

    Many believe that the Constitution guarantees them a right to pursue happiness.

    Most are surprised when I explain the due process clause of the 5th Amendment and then point out that the 1st Amendment has no such clause. (If they understand the idea at all, I mean.)

    Never having read the 2nd Amendment, they are surprised to discover the militia clause, and even more surprised to learn that it has caused much controversy about interpreting the Amendment. To them, it's just extra words and really hard grammar.

    In related matters, they believe with all their hearts that it is "against the law" (everywhere, without exception, and simply by fiat) to yell fire in a crowded theater. –I would even speculate that this is the single most misunderstood idea in the corpus of Supreme Court opinions.

  25. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright,

    In fact, I DID read Mr. Liberman's post.

    But I do agree that perhaps I did miss the thrust of his argument in his piece re/ the ineffectiveness, or unreliability of surveys, in general, with my responding, as you put it, "rant" against alleged American ignorance.

    I appreciate your pointing out MY ignorance, in this instance.

  26. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

    This is related to something the Kevin Drum blogs about now and then, which is the almost universal belief that primary/secondary student achievement is declining, when in fact it's been rising. And, as Geoff Nunberg mentions (and probably partly why Mark wrote about this), it's also deeply related to a lot of prescriptivist peeving.

    Geoff suggests that there's an aspect of self-congratulation involved, and I do think that this is true about all these things in the larger sense that I often mention: a Bourdieuian impulse to defend one's cultural capital investment, which necessarily includes emphasizing how truly awful it is for one to lack. This is why there's always that very strong, negative, critical flip-side to that which one has invested — one attacks both the lack of that investment in others, and any investment in other, competing things. So it's almost always "my favorite band is great and your favorite band sucks" … rarely just the former. Yet, sadly, often the latter behavior is displayed alone. Which implies quite a bit involved in the theory of cultural capital, as well as about simple human psychology.

    But aside from that — that there's a strong impetus for people who know these things (civic knowledge, history, science, correct discernment in art and entertainment, prestige english, dining conventions, whatever) to defend them, their crucial importance, and to criticize those who lack them — there's also another powerful and basic element of human psychology involved, too. It's this pervasive and strong intuition that things are going to hell in a handbasket.

    A large portion of the population has a very strong emotional investment in the notion that things are worse than they were when they were younger. This has always been true and probably will always be true. It's hard not to think that there are times and places when this isn't true; but then I also believe that there's something implacable in human psychology about this which indicates that things would have to be incredibly wonderful, indeed, to convince almost everyone that's the case. Otherwise, a large portion will always believe otherwise. Because, again, I think there's a need to do so.

    Not just that this is a trick of memory … although that probably plays a role. Surely, normally, there's an increased sense of possibility and optimism during childhood for most people and this colors their worldview then and when they're older.

    Still, I believe that there's something fundamental that people get from being negative in this way. It triggers our fear-based motivations, maybe. Like xenophobia, it orients us toward something to oppose; which I think in many ways triggers a more powerful and persistent reaction than does the impulse to support. Or, at the very least, this is true for some large portion of the population.

    I'll allow the more problematic, though not unfounded, conjecture that there's a political asymmetry in this: conservatives tend, I think, more to this psychological orientation. Which makes sense as there's the strong correlation between conservatism and traditionalism; and traditionalism only has any relevance when there's both change and the change is perceived to be for the worse. So the belief that things have been changing for the worse necessarily has a relationship to the conservative impulse. This is why these stories tend to get more play in the conservative press. But the appeal is more wide than this.

  27. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

    Pew is generally pretty good about publishing their survey instruments and methodology, but I don't think they meet the other of Mark's criteria. On the other hand, they also generally don't do open-ended questions, so they can just have a single bin for "other/DK". They do occasionally break out "volunteered" answers.
    (Now if only someone could convince them that HTML has been able to do tables for fifteen years now, and "one in ten" is not normally hyphenated.

  28. Jeff Carney said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

    the almost universal belief that primary/secondary student achievement is declining, when in fact it's been rising.

    L M F A O !

  29. Ignorance About Ignorance - Subjective Delight said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 11:55 pm

    […] article by Mark Liberman at Language Log challenging the media's statistics behind the nearly constant reporting on how stupid […]

  30. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 1:00 am

    @Jeff Carney: take a look at this 2008 report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress on long term (40y) trends in reading and mathematics for 9, 13, and 17 year-old students. These results are similar to those found using many other tools and metrics.

    The idea that educational quality and achievement has been declining for many decades (or, more precisely and typically, over the course of one's adult life) is so intuitively obvious and certainly true that most people respond to any skepticism about this with ridicule, as you did.

    In this context, it's similarly self-evident to most that these reports Mark discusses about rampant ignorance are certainly true and so people don't bother to verify them, even though Mark demonstrates that this is often trivially easy. These sweeping claims about ignorance and educational decline reinforce each other and work from the same psychological impetus. There is, in fact, a strong aversion to verification of these intuitions and the consequent risk of discovering that one is mistaken.

    Of course, in some cases, some people have particular, personal investments in a certain worldview — those who make a living by prophesying doom, or those whose idiosyncratic personal experience is validated by selection bias and the concordance with general opinion. Perhaps you're one of these and, if so, no doubt you'll offer an anecdote that is presumed to solidly refute forty years of careful measurement.

  31. David Morris said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 1:34 am

    I suspect that in Australia, the challenge would be to find *any* interviewee who could produce *any* information about the constitution *at all*.

    One thing *I* know is that our constitution guarantees "interstate intercourse". It doesn't, however, say exactly how and where we can get any.

  32. Simon P said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 2:35 am

    I know more about the American constitution than about my own country's. I strongly suspect that Americans are the most well-informed people in the world when it comes to their own constitution. It plays a heavy role in their popular culture and as their popular culture is exported globally, we get people like me, who can quote several parts of the American constitution, can name several amendments (anyone who's watched a lot of US lawyer shows knows what it means to "plead the fifth") and yet I have only a vague idea of the corresponding laws of my own country.

  33. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 3:15 am

    I'm not sure that one can make that comparison (the US Constitution and citizens' knowledge of it) because the difference is more than just how large a role it plays in popular culture — it plays a much larger role in national law and politics.

    I admit to only a vague awareness of the state of constitutional democracies around the world with regard to their constitutions. But what I do know is that the kinds of constitutional limits elsewhere are often weak, or the constitutions are recent as part of another incarnation of a nationstate, or they're been frequently and greatly altered (because the protections against it were relatively weak), or they're just recent and highly technical and mostly persnickety, or in the cases of many old democracies such as England, they don't exist at all.

    These aren't criticisms, mind, just an observation that the US is rather unique in having a very strong constitution with strong limits on law and political power (which has practical effects on daily life that people experience and often support or resent) and, crucially, it's in relative terms unchanged for a couple of centuries and so has a great deal of effective political and cultural power compared to others. In some very real sense, the US Constitution matters in US political, legal, and even daily life in a way that constitutions almost never do elsewhere. So, in that context, it makes sense that Americans would be very aware of their constitution relative to others.

  34. Jeff Carney said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 7:02 am


    I was thinking specifically of my experience with college freshmen and sophomores. The NAEP report that you cited has this to say about that age group:, i.e., those who have just emerged from their secondary experience.

    "The average reading score for 17-year-olds was not significantly different from that in 1971."

    "The average mathematics score for 17-year-olds was not significantly different from that in 1973."

    And FWIW, I was laughing at the idea, not personally attacking you. Something to keep in mind, perhaps.

  35. Richard said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 7:14 am

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves, the unquestioning acceptance of any statement to the effect of "Most young people are ignorant now." Thanks for pointing these out!

  36. zythophile said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    Jeff Carney: I was thinking specifically of my experience with college freshmen and sophomores.

    And your experience, as an older, more experienced adult meeting much younger people, tells us objectively what, exactly?

    I feel confident that if, somehow, you could be beamed back to the past to meet your younger self and your contemporaries, you would be appalled at the apparent ignorance and shallowness.

  37. Jeff Carney said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 9:05 am


    I would not be appalled. I saved a lot of my undergraduate work and revisit it from time to time. I was utterly ignorant, shallow, and I'll even throw in mawkish. I am well aware of this. You'll hear no ubi sunts from me on that score.

    Uh, exactly what claim did I make that you seem intent on refuting? "LMFAO" is not what I would call a claim, supported or not. And so far as I know, Mark has never been concerned about stuff like that. I was laughing at the proposition that achievement was rising. Really, I'm not sure why a post consisting of nothing but an internet acronym warrants any response, much less two.

    If I were to throw out a hypothesis (and it would be a hypothesis or more likely a half-blind speculation, not a claim at all) it would be along the lines of the one supported by the NAEP report that I quoted — not because I have undying faith in that report, but simply because it's the one Keith offered as a response to my non-claim.

    And golly, since when have comments to blog posts ever been subject to even the most casual scrutiny?

    In any case, enough space has been wasted on me. The last thing I expected LMFAO to do was hijack Mark's post. So I'm throwing in the towel.

  38. Dave K said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    I have always thought that the 1st Amendment guarranteed four rights –I read the right to "assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances" as a single right, since all the other rights are in a set of clauses linked by "or".
    But more important, all these surveys show is that your information is only as good as your retrieval system. People are being interrupted and asked questions out of the blue by a stranger on the phone, while they're free to keep on watching TV, look out the window, or just think about what they were doing before the call and how much they'd like to get back to it. Under those circumstances, no one is going to perform well on a test of random knowledge.

  39. Richard Hershberger said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    An anecdatum about increasing academic achievement: My mother told me that she was appalled on my brother's first day in kindergarten (c. 1965) because each desk had a card with the student's name on it, and the student was expected to be able to find his or her desk from this alone. She thought this unrealistic, and likely to be traumatizing. I have a four-year-old daughter in preschool. There are hooks and cubbies and the like with the kids' names on them, and it is considered routine to expect them to recognize their own names. (Moving into shameless bragging, my daughter is reading at about a late first/early second grade level. I ascribe this to a combination of heavy exposure, both passive and active, to books from birth, and to PBS children's programming, which heavily pushes phonics in a surprisingly engaging manner.)

  40. Svafa said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    @Dave K: And then you also have people like me, who would probably do fine with a form on a website or a personal interview, but will become a nervous wreck over the phone.

    @Rubrick: "Was the answer correct?" To which, were I assessing the answers, I would reply, for what value of correct? That they recognize him as Chief Justice might be very important to the poll, or it might not; all they may care about is that he's recognizable as a member of the judicial branch or the federal government.

    I agree their requirements for a "correct" answer were poorly chosen, but had I been left with merely, "Was the answer correct?", I might reply favourably to an answer that he was a judge with no mention of the Supreme Court at all, which would skew the results in much the same way, only in the reverse direction.

  41. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    @Richard H.,

    Clearly, back in the day, your dear mom had kind of low-expectations for first-day kindergarteners, as regards to identifying their printed names, at any rate. (I'm not criticizing your mom here, merely making an observation.)

    Just anecdotally, even back in the early '50s when I entered kindergarten in suburban Toronto, I believe most of my young peers would have recognized their own printed names, since most parents would have taught their four or five year olds, even back then, at the very least, how to print their names. It seems like one of the first two words a parent would show their child how to write, even if their first attempts were relatively crude.

    To your point about the value of early exposure to PBS children's programming for a pre-schooler (and beyond), I echo your positive sentiments, and I'm sure your daughter's getting the early hang of phonics, numbers and the like at a formative age has only been a plus in her intellectual development.

    Plaudits to you and your wife for creating an intellectually nurturing, stimulating, varied home environment for your child at a pretty formative age; which can only pay dividends for her going forward on her educative journey.

    I believe youngsters, today, have so many advantages over the kids from the early 'boomer' generation, as we move thru this wired, connected, 'global-village' of a planet.

    With parental initiative and guidance, there appear to be so many interactive, fun, educative digital games and videos available, geared to pre-schoolers of this generation.

    But for me, Sesame St. has set the ultimate bar of excellence for so many years. Although if Romney & Co,. have their way, the long-running show's days may be numbered.

    But Big Bird ain't givin' up without a fight.

    And mercy! Don't get on Miss Piggy's bad side. (She'd likely say she doesn't have a 'bad side'. HA!)

  42. Joshua said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    @Alex McCrae: Miss Piggy is not one of the Sesame Street Muppets and would rarely, if ever, be seen on PBS. (Crossover appearances between the Sesame Street Muppets and other Muppets exist, but are limited due to different ownership of the characters.)

  43. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 5:39 pm


    Heartened that you could take time out from fittin' your eponymous battle, to set me straight on the fact that Miss Piggy wouldn't be caught with a hair out of place (caught "dead" sounds too darn gruesome) w/ the Sesame Street gang on the PBS set.

    Somehow I think Muppet 'stuffin' is thicker than water*, and the porcine-one would likely be out there in the Sesame Street trenches, on the front lines of protest, if her fellow Muppets, the Sesame St. motley crew at PBS, were in jeopardy of losing their long-standing public broadcasting platform.

    But thanks for the Muppet 'parsing', nonetheless.

    *I believe it was the late Gertrude Stein who wrote, "a Muppet is a Muppet is a Muppet is a Muppet….", or was that a rose. (Had to be a senior moment, there. Sorry.)

  44. the other Mark P said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 11:45 pm

    @Jeff Carney said,

    I was thinking specifically of my experience with college freshmen and sophomores. The NAEP report that you cited has this to say about that age group:, i.e., those who have just emerged from their secondary experience.

    When I went to University I was in very much a minority. Now I would be in the majority.

    If the reading level is the same now for university entrants as 1971, then the standard in the general population must be considerably higher than it was then.

    (This is also a part explanation to the rise in uncompleted tertiary studies – people go now who really shouldn't.)

    In fact I would guess that most people didn't even complete school in 1971.

  45. Chandra said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    Even if the first two reported statistics had been accurate, I would still consider it sensationalism to spin them as proof that Americans are ignorant. Being able to name exactly what freedoms appear in which section of the Constitution is not the same thing as knowing that, in your country, you can't be arrested for speaking your mind or assembling a protest demonstration. Knowing what specific court case "Brown v. Board of Education" refers to is not the same thing as knowing that African Americans won the right to attend school with white children at some point in the 50's.

    I would put myself in the same category as a couple of other commenters above – I'm a citizen of a country (Canada) whose population would probably score dismally low on a survey asking for specific knowledge about our Constitution. I actually just had to Google to check if we even call it a Constitution. But I, and I would guess the majority of my fellow Canadians, are perfectly aware of what most of our rights and freedoms entail.

  46. Jeff Carney said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    @the other Mark P

    To clarify, the NAEP did not look at scores of college entrants. It was more of a high school exit thing.

  47. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 7:58 pm


    But I, and I would guess the majority of my fellow Canadians, are perfectly aware of what most of our rights and freedoms entail.

    Really? Granted, my first-hand knowledge is now almost twenty years out-of-date, and at that time the Charters of Rights and Freedoms was only about ten years old, but back when I was married to a Canadian, she and others were remarkably unclear about it and it was sometimes the subject of joking. But it's what I had in mind when I mentioned "highly technical and persnickety" because back then I recall reading it and finding it so full of qualifications as to seem nearly useless — I don't mean for that to sound pejorative, just that there seemed to be a dearth of extremely bright lines in the law such that it was unambiguous that such and such freedom/right was universal and commonly applicable.

    There's freedom of the press, for example, but then there's notably some big exceptions carved out of it compared to the US. Mind, the US has numerous exceptions and most Americans fail to understand this.

    In conjunction with and partly consequent from this relative complexity is that insofar as Canadians have numerous freedoms and rights guaranteed by the CRF, I don't think that there's much of a cultural awareness of how one would legally defend those rights, when they are defensible, and how this actually plays out in Canadian politics and law. I think the contrast has much to do with the relatively absolutist/universalist nature of the Bill of Rights in conjunction with the long (though, in many cases, mostly beginning with the post-war period) history of challenges to laws and official conduct that reach the SCOTUS, where they've been decided in ways that have sweeping consequences in daily life.

    I'm sure this is something that political scientists and historians discuss all the time. I certainly don't have anything novel or much informed to add to that learned discussion. But, just my impression, is that the US Constitution's guaranteed rights are of particular relevance to Americans for a combination of technical and historical reasons in a way that is unusual and while the advantages of this situation are fairly evident, the disadvantages are many and varied and it's not clear that other countries should attempt to emulate such a structure. That is to say, I think that the CRF is what it is for reasons that, while underwhelming as an inspirational foundational document, are nevertheless quite pragmatic and reasonable.

  48. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

    @Jeff Carney,

    To clarify, the NAEP did not look at scores of college entrants. It was more of a high school exit thing.

    Yeah, for the population as a whole, the degree to which college education approaches universal will have a large impact on how achievement changes over time. I think this played a large role in the perception of declining university standards from the post-war period onward, as the US transitioned to a near universal post-secondary model, begun with the GI Bill. I suspect, though, that this effect peaked in the 80s. Just a pure guess, however.

    As to why your comment elicited the response that it did — I think you ought to reconsider your assumption that "LMFAO" is harmless and inoffensive. It's unambiguously (well, nearly unambiguously, as you seem unclear about it) a textual representation of laughing in derision when used as a response to a serious assertion (as opposed to something offered as humor) and laughing in derision is not inoffensive. It's certainly provocative. And, for that matter, in my idiolect, the inclusion of the "F" explicitly signals a particular kind of derisive intent. I'm not intending to beat up on you, honest. Just trying to express what I think is a more conventional view that "LMFAO" isn't mild and inoffensive in this sort of context.

  49. Weekly List Bookmarks (weekly) | Eccentric Eclectica @ ToddSuomela.com said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    […] Language Log » Ignorance about ignorance […]

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