Look, we're not saying that Americans aren't ignorant, or that ignorance is okay …
Coverage of America's ignorance epidemic is in no short supply. Whether people are harshing on our education system, politics, or religious beliefs, it's clear that the U.S. has a reputation for having more brawn than it does brains.
That's not to say Americans aren't actually ignorant, or that ignorance is okay. What we are saying is there are reasons for American ignorance that are beyond our control; reasons that are rarely given credit in a time where stereotyping American ignorance is easy clickbait for news websites. Furthermore, these reasons are unique to the U.S., which makes comparing American ignorance with international ignorance in other countries both pointless and factually inaccurate.
To illustrate our point, we'll start with a Bloomberg article titled "Way to Go Americans: We're Almost as Ignorant as Italians,” in which they had a little conniption about America ranking as #2 on an index of the world’s most ignorant countries.
The Bloomberg article tried its darndest to call out Americans for being ignorant by citing a survey conducted by U.K.-based polling group Ipsos Mori. In the survey, Ipsos Mori interviewed over 11,000 people around the world to determine which countries were the most ignorant, willfully or otherwise.
Ignorance was measured by a participant’s ability to correctly answer questions that were what Bloomberg called the “stats that track the most basic contours of our society.”
Here are some of the questions they were asked to determine their level of dum-dum.
What percentage of the U.S. population identifies as Muslim?
Americans guessed: 15%
What percentage of the population do you think are immigrants to America?
Americans guessed: 32%
Do you think this statement is true or false: The murder rate is rising in America
70 percent of Americans guessed: True
What percentage of American girls aged between 15 and 19 years give birth each year?
Americans guessed: 23.9%
… and here are the top five most ignorant countries, based on surveys tailored to fit each country:
- United States
- South Korea
And that was how America won the silver medal in the dumb Olympics in the Ipsos Mori survey. That's also how the concept that we're uneducated and uninformed has spread. And it's a great lead-in to talking about the reasons behind America's label as the planet's leading ignoramuses.
The most prevalent of these reasons why America is “ignorant” are the size and demographic makeup of the U.S. As the third most populous country on the planet, nearly 5 percent of the world's population live here.
Here is a new list of the five most ignorant countries, with their respective populations included.
- Italy (Population: 60,783,711)
- United States (Population: 319,026,000)
- South Korea (Population: 50,423,955)
- Poland (Population: 38,496,000)
- Hungary (Population: 9,879,000)
Looking at this list, you can see that the U.S. has more than five times more people living there than Italy, the next most populous country on the Index of Ignorance. From this perspective, try to imagine how difficult it is to regulate educational levels of a population that is almost twice as big as the other top four most ignorant countries combined.
In addition to a dense population, America is also home to one of the most heterogeneous, culturally diverse populations in the world. There’s a reason we have an international reputation as a melting pot; there are people from every single country here, who practice every single religion, have every level of cash flow, every color of skin, and believe almost every single thing. We mean, come on … Scientology? Everyone here is very, very diverse. And not only is diversity prevalent and systematic, it’s encouraged. Thanks to the media and our national history, we are a country full of people who like to stand out.
Here's why those two factors, population size and heterogeneous demographics, matter: People who answered questions on Ipsos Mori survey are most likely to respond based on what they see around them on an everyday basis. If the survey is given to someone in El Paso, TX, they're likely to report a much greater immigrant minority population than people would in say, Boulder, where 91 percent of people are Caucasian. If a survey respondent lives in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, they're more likely to report a higher Muslim population than someone who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. If someone lives in Knoxville, they might guess there’s a higher teen pregnancy rate than someone in Orange County, California.
Not to mention the massive variation in education levels and styles across the country. There are so many people with so many different beliefs about and budgets for education that expecting all of us to know the same things is a joke. Whereas in a smaller country with less socioeconomic striation, it would be safer to assume most people receive the same education, it’s not so with Uncle Sam and Company. Not everyone can afford to know the answers to the Ipsos Mori survey questions. And so varying enormously from the correct answers on those statistical questions isn’t really that surprising.
Furthermore, on the subject of education, it may well be that the survey respondents did learn the statistics asked about in the Index of Ignorance at some point, but they may have since changed since they were taught about them. Or they might not have gotten to that particular part of their education although they’re on their way.
Additionally, America is one of the most technologically plugged-in countries. We have access to all sorts of information, to the point that sometimes there is too much information to know. How can you be expected to know everything that is available to know solely because it’s available? We mean there’s only so much we can cram into our brains.
We don’t mean that it’s okay to lack basic education; that’s inexcusable and within the control of both individuals and society to regulate. We’re talking about knowledge of specific, independent facts like the ones Ipsos Mori asked. They might as well asked how many Americans have snakes named Petunia or what percentage of the country is covered in AstroTurf. Sure you, can look those things up, but they really things that you should be expected to know at all times?
Point being that the U.S. is such a massive, sprawling, diverse place, that it's almost impossible for people to keep track of national trends. It's much easier to wrap your head around what's happening locally.
This starkly contrasts with the other countries that scored highly on the Index of Ignorance. Those countries are much, much smaller than the U.S. and have more culturally and ethnically homogenous populations. It should be easier for them to keep track of country-wide statistics like teen birth rate and immigrant population, which is why it’s okay to be surprised that developed, first and second world countries make up the top five on the Ipsos Mori list.
This brings up an interesting point. In these countries, there is educational infrastructure. None are politically restrictive to the point of systematic informational supervision. Theoretically, these are countries that “should” have access to information these things. So why are they listed as "ignorant?"
It has to do with the definition of ignorance. In this instance, the Index of Ignorance seems to define it as an inability to know exact demographic statistics, a definition we wholly disagree with.
Just because Americans, or people from other countries for that matter, don't know the exact figures in a statistic doesn't mean they can't engage in meaningful, informed conversation about it. Isn’t that what we’re doing right here, right now? We mean, we sure as shit couldn’t have guessed that there’s a pregnancy rate of 3.1% among teen girls aged 15-19, but that doesn’t mean we can’t comprehend the reasons for that rate and the consequences of it, much less discuss what that means to us personally.
And as for the examples given in the Bloomberg article that showed Americans being way, way off the mark on guessing different statistic like the teen pregnancy one, it's likely that the results they published were the most salient examples of the point they were trying to make: that America is ig'nant.
All these factors add up to a defense of American ignorance. Again, we’re not saying that it’s right to be uninformed, whether willfully or not. We’re not proud of America’s consistent ranking as one of the poorly-educated developed countries. The world would be a much sparklier, magical and peaceful place if everyone was perfectly informed about everything all the time. But it’s unrealistic to expect that, especially in countries like America with such a large and diverse population. The factors that make American “ignorant,” like vastly varied socioeconomic levels, sprawling physical layout, and cultural heterogeneity are all things beyond individual control. So, to Bloomberg and Ipsos Mori — those companies proliferating the stereotype of American ignorance — we have but one thing to say to you:
… Yeah. But what we really think is going on is that the U.K. is just jealous of our nice teeth.