Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Wait, where am I?

I had a read through this discussion on ask metafilter about levels of geographical knowledge amongst the general public (possibly inpired by these kinds of videos). While we can all indulge in the old pasttime laughing-at-the-ignorant-Americans, it's also important to remember how selective presentation can bias the views of these kinds of results, both in terms of compilations of clips, where we don't see all the people who got the question right, and in stats we're just given at face value:

For example with the "33% of young Americans cannot find Louisiana on a map" instance, you could have a situation where you took 100 people and asked them to correctly label certain states or even all 50 states. Regardless of their overall performance at the task, you could just take the one they most frequently failed to identify correctly and highlight that single data point, even if the complete statistics reflected a much higher level of geographic knowledge. I'm not saying that's the case here but that's a general way these things can be distorted.

And linked from the thread is this discussion of the different ways that survey results can be deliberately and accidentally misinterpreted.

Some of the points in the thread were also about the actual difficulty in some apparently simple tasks:

Have you ever looked at an unlabeled map and tried to identify Iraq? It's a dinky little country that's smushed in the middle of a bunch of larger countries. It's pretty hard to identify. [...] Anyway, the point of maps is that they are labeled [sic] so that you can look at them to find out where things are. In fact, the whole idea of a map presupposes that you don't know where things are.

While it's important to have a general sense of geography, I take this poster's point that being able to point out the location of a particular country on a map says nothing about general geographical knowledge, or indeed anything else. I'm not sure I could place Iraq on a map, or even on a map of the Middle East.

In any case, it made me want to give my geographical knowledge (or lack of it) a test, so I trawled through my old links and found some tests to try.

First this relatively simple general world trivia test, on which I scored about 75%. It gives a good breakdown of the correct answers afterwards, so you can see how you compare to the rest of the public.

Then there's a series of 'name-as-many-as-you-can' games. I did ok on European countries, worse on US states and abominably on African countries.

In case you want to try these out, I've put my results behind links so that it doesn't spoil your efforts:

Embarrassing lack of knowledge about Europe.
Embarrassing lack of knowledge about US states.
Embarrassing lack of knowledge about Africa.

(The ones in red are the ones I failed to identify.)

Finally, according to this data, consistently over the last 20 years, 25% of people are unsure whether the earth goes around the sun or vice versa, and up to half of respondents were unable to say how long the earth takes to orbit the sun. However you try to spin that, that's bad.

No comments: