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The Worst And The Dumbest

Remember that civics test? Well, this should inspire confidence in our political "leadership":

US elected officials scored abysmally on a test measuring their civic knowledge, with an average grade of just 44 percent, the group that organized the exam said Thursday.

Ordinary citizens did not fare much better, scoring just 49 percent correct on the 33 exam questions compiled by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).

But they did fare better. What does this say about our so-called "elites"? Forget about a literacy test for voters. How about one for candidates?


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Jim Harris wrote:

Dumb and dumber is right, but it's a better description of ISI itself than anyone subjected to their obnoxious survey.

I took the quiz too and I got 32/33. Like several other people in the comments section, I had to read the trickier questions more than once. Some questions had half-right answers, some had two right answers, and some confused precepts with facts. I sometimes guessed correctly by thinking like a conservative. I got the Roe v Wade question wrong because I guessed that the question was a conservative zinger.

Most of the questions are not the "straightforward civics questions" that ISI says they are. A question that begins with "Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas would concur that" isn't straightforward, and that one isn't American civics either.

Still, it's an obscure but fun quiz if you can read the questions. But that's not what ISI did. They gave it as a telephone survey. It would be very difficult to keep track of the tricks in these questions by phone. And that's assuming that you don't get bored and frustrated while being quizzed for most of an hour. That explains why less than 1% of respondents in the general population got 30 or more questions right. It just wasn't consistent with so many people claiming near-perfect scores in the on-line version.

Basically a partisan think-tank cheated with its own survey in order to get the desired result and insult Americans. If they weren't American conservatives themselves, conservatives would have rightfully slammed them for their arrogance and even for anti-Americanism.

Paul Milenkovic wrote:

"Dumb and dumber is right, but it's a better description of ISI itself than anyone subjected to their obnoxious survey.

Basically a partisan think-tank cheated with its own survey in order to get the desired result and insult Americans."

Richard Feynman called something the "Gell-Mann" effect upon observing the reaction of his friend, colleague, and fellow Nobel-laureate Murray Gell-Mann to stories in the newspaper.

Professor Gell-Mann would read something in the New York Times commenting about the new discoveries in particle physics, and having intimate knowledge of the subject, he would wonder to himself, "How could those reporters give this subject such a superficial treatment and get so many basic facts of this work wrong?"

Next, Professor Gell-Mann reads an article in the New York Times outlining how Israel treats Palestinian demonstrators. Gell-Mann is an expert on physics, but he doesn't know the first thing about what is happening in the Middle East apart from what he reads, and he thinks, "Hmmm, this is terrible how Israel is acting against those demonstrators."

I have taken this survey (on-line of course), and I know that ISI promotes the "Conservative cause", and I was especially watchful for slanted questions. I thought there was one question "slanted Conservative" -- one about the advantages of free enterprise, but there were two other questions in that vein, one sympathetic to Keynesian economic approach to reviving and economy in recession, and another acknowledging the role of government and taxation in overcoming the "free rider" problem.

But to listen to Mr. Harris. This was not a survey, it was an "obnoxious survey." ISI is a "partisan think tank" (what think tank out there doesn't have a general point of view?) Oh, but they asked the questions by telephone, and I guess it is harder to answer that way when you don't see the questions written down (do you get to ask them to repeat the question and answer choices?) You see, asking people questions over the phone constitutes "cheating."

The survey is something I know something about, and I see Mr. Harris vent his righteous wrath about what I know to be the most innocent and innocuous of survey questions. On the other hand, when Mr. Harris gets bothered about something I know nothing about, I think, "Hmmm, Jim Harris is making me aware of a grave injustice in the world." There you have it, the Gell-Mann effect.

Jim Harris wrote:

I thought there was one question "slanted Conservative" -- one about the advantages of free enterprise, but there were two other questions in that vein

That was the only question whose answer had an open conservative bias. There were several others whose emphasis clearly pointed to conservatism. For instance the line-up of four ancient philosophers to endorse the philosophical doctrine of objective truth. The question clearly pointed to conservative sentiment and that's how I chose the correct answer. The question basically said, "All you relativists out there, you're outvoted by the ancients" --- I got it right by reading it that way. In fact the idea that ancient philosophers are fundamental to American civics is itself conservative ideology. Many of the questions were like this.

Anyway the larger is issue is that the quiz would indeed be much more difficult by phone. A phone respondent would be caught off guard for several reasons. He wouldn't be revved up to do a College Bowl quiz in the first place, the questions are too complicated to do by phone, and he probably couldn't care less to have them repeated five times to get a high score.

The survey is something I know something about

If you do the survey on-line and get a great score, you can respond in one of two ways. You can either flatter yourself that you're in the top 1% of civics knowledge, the creme-de-la-creme of adult Americans. Or you can admit that you read the quiz at your own pace, when you felt ready, whereas the field was ambushed by phone. Certainly I had the second reaction.

The irony is that ISI drips with the elitism that a certain popular vice presidential railed against. Zingers from people who aren't as smart as they think they are. But hey, maybe that's the point. Maybe the point is, "See, we can do it to you too."

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on November 24, 2008 6:14 AM.

Continuing Fantasies was the previous entry in this blog.

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