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The meme of American ignorance in geography and world affairs seems to be pretty common in my experience. But, how much truth is there in it?


While I'm inclined to believe that the US population is generally less informed than its counterparts of other developed nations (a lot of data does indicate that the US at least lags behind in primary education), I find it hard to believe that Americans could be quite so ignorant as is widely purported.

When looking into the subject, I quickly found on-line sources refuting the well traveled 1 in 5 Americans can't find the US on a map claim. All such sources I've found back this up with a 2006 survey by National Geographic. What caught my eye about this survey was (1) all the other horrific statistics it produced instead and (2) the fact that this survey has been used as the sole supporting citation in many other articles discussing American ignorance of the world. In fact, I came across no article citing any other study, nor could I myself find another study.

I would expect to find more than one paper since 2006 if this were true. The report indicated that two-thirds of those surveyed couldn't identify northwest on a map, that 74% believed English to be the world's most commonly spoken native language, etc. It all just seems too far-fetched and the methodology seems questionable. The report states that "510 interviews were conducted with a representative sample of 18- to 24-year old adults in the continental United States." At first that may sound like a lot, but that would come out to about 10 interviewees per state. How representative of each state could a sample of 10 be? If much more than 10 people were interviewed per state, than which group states did the researchers decide would represent all of the US?

Are there any scientific studies within the last decade that support or refute National Geographic's report and the mass of claims which grew from it? Or, is this a lone study that many others have latched on to?

Insights from fresh eyes would be greatly appreciated. :)

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    One VERY SMALL sampling effort says they're really not too ignorant: xkcd.com/850 – Ask About Monica Jan 13 '14 at 17:08
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    I'd be interested to see comparative studies of people's geography skills in other countries - it might not be that Americans are bad so much as that most people are bad at geography that isn't near to where they live. Unlike most Europeans, Americans live in a very large country with only a couple of neighbors. – KChaloux Jan 13 '14 at 18:48
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    @Articuno There might be a slight bias for size and proximity. I expect most Americans could could pick out Russia, China or India on a map, due to their large size (similar to how most people in other countries can pick out America on a map). I expect identifying smaller countries is easier when you're near them - Europeans are going to be more likely to identify European countries correctly because they are nearby. A European is more likely to personally interact with those countries. But I didn't check the report - maybe the countries being identified were in Africa? – KChaloux Jan 13 '14 at 22:02
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    I never liked that counter-argument. US states are not equivalent to nations. Yes, many are as large or larger than nations, but so are many Russian republics & oblasts and Chinese provinces & regions. How many Americans or even Europeans could place those? In all cases, they are part of the internal structure of encompassing nations. – CircleSquared Jan 14 '14 at 10:27
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    @istepaniuk Not to split hairs, but wrong: North America is a continent, South America is a different continent, "the Americas" collectively refers both to North and South America and to the region of the world west of the Atlantic and east of the Pacific, but there is no continent called "America". The vast majority of the time, "America" refers to the United States of America, which, because that's too long to say, is usually shortened to "America", and whose residents, because there's no good demonym for "resident of the United States of America", are simply called "Americans." – Reinstate Monica iamnotmaynard Mar 24 '14 at 14:45
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The 2006 report you refer to is the last in a series of three. The pattern has been tracked across two decades, with surveys conducted by two separate polling organizations.

  • 1988 - performed by Gallup, sampling 18-24 year olds (New York Times article)
  • 2002 - performed by Roper, sampling 18-24, and 25-35 year olds in the US, and compared against the 1988 results (report)
  • 2006 - performed by Roper, sampling 18-24 year olds in the US (report)

1988 Highlights (from the NYT article)

  • no more than half those tested could answer correctly when asked to identify the country in which the Sandinistas and the contras are fighting
  • 52 percent were aware that the Soviet Union's war with rebel forces was in Afghanistan
  • 55 percent could identify South Africa as the country where apartheid is official government policy
  • only 25 percent could name four countries that officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons
  • more than a third could not pick out the westernmost city on a map

2002 Highlights

  • just 23% of young adults surveyed could name four countries that officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons
  • young adults in other countries in the study were better able to locate other European countries than American young adults are to locate U.S. states
  • close to onethird (30%) said that the U.S. has 1 to 2 billion people, or roughly one-third of the world s population. Only one-fourth of American young adults (25%) correctly identified the U.S. population as falling within the range of 150 to 350 million. Respondents in all other countries were better able to identify the U.S. population than are young Americans.
  • just 17% could find Afghanistan on a world map.
  • only 14% of young Americans could locate Israel on a Middle East/Asia map
  • young Americans did seem more geographically literate on current events that occur near or in the U.S. or that affect U.S. life
  • When asked to identify the western-most city on a hypothetical map, seven in ten young Americans (70%) answered correctly — up 12 points from 1988.
  • When asked to identify 12 countries on a map of Europe, the average young American could locate only about 3, compared to their counterparts in the other countries surveyed, who could locate an average of 5.
  • Just 37% could find England

2006

  • I'm not going to repeat all of the results, but some highlights are listed here (which you link to in the question).

Sampling strategy

To address your specific doubt about the representativeness of the sample, see p. 46-47 of the 2006 report. The sample was not intended to be representative of any particular state (and some states might have been poorly represented). The sample was intended to be representative of the 18-24 year old population in the continental United States.

A multistage, stratified area probability sample applied down to the Secondary Sampling Unit (SSU) stage (i.e. street/block group or similar classification) was used for this research. For the selection of households, interviewers followed randomly selected, pre-determined interviewing routes with skip intervals. At the household level, quotas for sex and age were applied for respondent selection.

Expectation of more than one paper

You expect more than one paper about American geographic literacy. There are many:

  • Carano, Kenneth T., and Michael J. Berson. "Breaking stereotypes: Constructing geographic literacy and cultural awareness through technology." The Social Studies 98, no. 2 (2007): 65-69.
  • Lukinbeal, Chris, and Jim Craine. "Geographic media literacy: an introduction." GeoJournal 74, no. 3 (2009): 175-182.
  • Gaudelli, William, and Elizabeth Heilman. "Reconceptualizing geography as democratic global citizenship education." The Teachers College Record 111, no. 11 (2009): 2647-2677.
  • Turner, Sally, and Joseph Leydon. "Improving Geographic Literacy among First-Year Undergraduate Students: Testing the Effectiveness of Online Quizzes." Journal of Geography 111, no. 2 (2012): 54-66.

There are multiple papers on the topic. They take their motivation from this series of three surveys.

A more recent survey

The American Geographic Society's Geographic Knowledge and Values Survey

This was an online survey, with volunteers soliciting responses from US residents. They had 4021 valid responses. This was not a random sample, and is not representative of anything other than the population of people who tend to answer surveys like this. Respondents had a high level of education.

  • Of the 3,972 respondents who answered regarding the axis on which longitude changes, 56% of the respondents answered incorrectly [...] This result is little better than what might be expected from random guesses.
  • The majority of the respondents said they did not know if a conformal or Mercator projection was appropriate for comparing the land areas of Russia and Kenya. For those who did choose an answer, 32.3% incorrectly said that a conformal projection was appropriate, while 34.8% correctly said that a Mercator projection would not be appropriate
  • The majority of respondents, 55.4%, correctly chose a map scale of 1:50,000,000 for a map of the entire earth at page size, compared to 14.7% who chose 1:5,000 and 30% who said they did not know. [...] this result is little better than what might be expected from random guesses
  • 23.3% correctly identified Florida as the flattest state
  • Most respondents (67.8%) correctly chose Africa South of the Sahara as the poorest world region

In my opinion, this survey does not overturn the results found in 1988, 2002, and 2006. It asked a very limited set of geographic literacy questions, and its sample was not representative of young Americans.

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    Wouldn't a similar study with non-US participants be required to decide if those numbers represent "ignorant" americans? – npst Mar 26 '14 at 17:14
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    Actually the 2002 study above does include other countries: news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2496427.stm – drat Apr 11 '14 at 7:23
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    Regarding the map scale question in the last survey, how is 55.4% vs. 14.7% "little better than what might be expected from random guesses??" If they had been forced to choose one or the other and still only 55% got it right, then, yeah, that would be little better than random. However, if the 30% that said they didn't know had instead been forced to choose, even if they really had no idea, that would still be 15% more, for a total of 70%. One would hope that educated guesses would have tipped the scales even more in that direction. As it is, of those who answered, nearly 4 to 1 got it right. – reirab Sep 8 '14 at 2:35
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    @jkerian: That's a little misleading. HEre's that question: " The most recent installment of the popular television series Survivor was filmed on the island of Nuku Hiva (pronounce: noo-koo-he-vuh), a distant neighbor of Tahiti that is part of the Marquesas (pronounce: mar-kay-suss) Islands. In what body of water are these islands located?" It was multiple choice. – Oddthinking Mar 29 '16 at 11:37
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    @jamesqf if you know where Tahiti is, why does this extra information disturb you? The TV show info is there to gain attention, nothing more. – Chieron Mar 31 '16 at 15:28

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