Poll: What Americans (Don't) Know
We asked Americans about current events, history and cultural literacy. And we got some pretty disheartening results.
By Brian Braiker
July 2-9, 2007 issue - For our What You Need to Know Now cover story, we asked our polling firm to test 1,001 adults on a variety of topics, including politics, foreign affairs, business, technology and popular culture. The results were mixed, to be charitible. NEWSWEEK's first What You Need to Know Poll found many gaps in America's knowledge—including a lingering misperception about an Iraqi connection to the September 11 terror attacks, an inability to name key figures in the American government and general cultural confusion.
Even today, more than four years into the war in Iraq, as many as four in ten Americans (41 percent) still believe Saddam Hussein’s regime was directly involved in financing, planning or carrying out the terrorist attacks on 9/11, even though no evidence has surfaced to support a connection. A majority of Americans were similarly unable to pick Saudi Arabia in a multiple-choice question about the country where most of the 9/11 hijackers were born. Just 43 percent got it right—and a full 20 percent thought most came from Iraq.
Still, seven in ten (70 percent) are aware that the United States has not discovered any hidden weapons of mass destruction in Iraq since the war began. And perhaps because most (85 percent) are aware that Osama bin Laden remains at large, roughly half of the poll’s respondents (52 percent) think that the United States is losing the fight against his terror group, Al Qaeda, despite no military defeats or recent terrorist attacks to suggest as much.
Closer to home, more Americans are able to name Jordin Sparks as the winner of the most recent season of American Idol (18 percent) than can identify John Roberts as the Supreme Court’s chief justice (11 percent). Only one in three (31 percent) know that Ben Bernanke is the current Federal Reserve chairman; a quarter (26 percent) think Alan Greenspan, who retired in early 2006, still holds the position. Still, more than half of those polled (59 percent) could identify Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker in a multiple-choice question. (Younger respondents had a harder time with this question though, with 46 percent of those under 40 able to identify Pelosi compared to 68 percent of those older than 40.)
One-third of the public (36 percent) correctly answered a multiple-choice question showing they knew that both Al Gore and Andrew Jackson had lost a presidential election despite winning more popular votes. A similar number (37 percent) could identify Abraham Lincoln as the first Republican elected president.
Our understanding of broader global affairs and history is sketchy at best. Less than half (42 percent) of the public was aware that Iraq only existed as an independent nation since 1920; 15 percent think Iraq existed as a country before and nearly half (43 percent) refrained from even guessing. Conversely, more than half (60 percent) could identify Vladimir Putin as Russia’s leader. Only three in ten (29 percent) are aware that nine countries posses nuclear weapons. Four in ten (38 percent) think only five countries posses such technology; 21 percent put the number of nuclear countries at 11.
Roughly half (53 percent) are aware that Judaism is an older religion than both Christianity and Islam (41 percent aren’t sure). And a quarter of the population mistakenly identify either Iran (26 percent) or India (24 percent) as the country with the largest Muslim population. Only 23 percent could correctly identify Indonesia. Close to two-thirds (61 percent) are aware that the Roman Empire predates the Ottoman, British and American empires.
NEWSWEEK also quizzed respondents on business, technology, science and medicine. About one third (37 percent) have an idea of the current value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and even fewer (23 percent) could correctly select 2000 as the year that the dotcom bubble burst. The business question most respondents (55 percent) could answer correctly was the approximate price of oil (about $70).
Americans could only answer one of our three science and medicine questions correctly: 54 percent seemed to know that the human brain does not stop producing new neurons until after the age of 65. Only 15 percent, however, are aware that childbirth kills one woman a minute each day around the world. A quarter (28 percent) mistakenly thinks the top killer of women is AIDS and more than half (54 percent) thought it was heart attacks. Furthermore, only a small minority (17 percent) correctly chose “greater output from the sun” from a list of items as the lone factor that does not contribute to global warming (with 65 percent mistakenly believing that rice patties are not a contributing factor).
On the cultural front, even though there have been many popular television shows and movies based on her work, less than half (40 percent) of Americans can identify Jane Austen as the author of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.” Women (44 percent) were somewhat more likely than men (36 percent) to answer the question correctly. Still, nearly two thirds (65 percent) of Americans correctly identified soccer as the most popular sport in the world; just 17 percent believe it’s America’s pastime, baseball.
Geography is not the strongest subject for many Americans either. Less than half of the poll’s respondents (45 percent) know that South Korea is closer to Japan than Vietnam, the Philippines and Australia. Close to two-thirds (64 percent) do know that the Amazon River is in South America. And despite Iraq’s ongoing relevance to current events, just half (50 percent) could select Libya as the only country out of a list of four that doesn't border it.
The NEWSWEEK Poll, conducted June 18-June 19, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for questions based on Census Current Population Survey parameters for gender, age, education, race and population density. In conducting the poll, Princeton Survey Research Associates International interviewed 1,001 adults aged 18 and older.
Sunday, June 24, 2007