The Land of Stupid

What to make of this latest study charting American ignorance?

Well, let’s see. Are we flunking history? Check. Are we flunking geography? Check. Are we this flunking basic science? Check.

So it should come as no surprise that Americans are a wee bit challenged on the basics of climate science.

I have two questions: Do other countries similarly track how stupid their citizens are? And, whose fault is it that only 1 in 10 Americans (surveyed by Yale) are “very well informed” about climate change issues?

UPDATE: In the comments, an objection to my word choice (which I find a fair criticism) has been made here. Also, a contextual (and to my mind, more accurate) take on that 1 in 10 statistic I cite can be found here.

25 Responses to “The Land of Stupid”

  1. NewYorkJ says:

    1st question:  I’m not sure there’s this level of detail, but there are plenty of international polls.
    2nd question:  media, disinformers, Americans
    The media plays the false balance game.   They’re also more likely to cover “compelling” controversies like ClimateGate rather than actual climate science.  Other media spreads obvious disinformation.
    Contrarian outlets do their part (CEI, Heartland, blogs).
    Many Americans are ideologically opposed to government action and are thus averse to accepting the science.  Others are simply disinterested in science.  Polls show that many Americans don’t know much about evolution, much less believe it.
    Some poll clarifications.  The question on cause of global warming needs some clarification, which is provided in one of the poll questions:
    Global warming refers to the idea that the world’s average temperature has been increasing over the past 150 years, may be increasing more in the future, and that the world’s climate may change as a result.

    Discouraging results:

    Only about 25% have heard about coral bleaching or ocean acidification, and only 1/3 of those who knew about acidification identified CO2 as the culprit.  Epic media failure.

    38% disagree with the above statement on global warming.

    Only 39% agreed “most scientists think global warming is happening”

    38% agreed with “There is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening”

    While I can’t find a single notable scientist who thinks it hasn’t been warming, there are certainly media/blogs that attempt to push the idea that it’s cooling, using every cold weather event as “evidence”, or claiming surface stations are unreliable.  I think many Americans are unable to distinguish qualified expert opinion from that of politically-motivated hacks.

    Only 6% knew roughly how much CO2 concentration there was pre-industrial.  It does bring up the question of how much detail should Americans be expected to know.  Should they be expected to know how much CO2 concentration was in the Earth’s atmosphere in 1850?

  2. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Disclaimer at the bottom of the fourth linked page:
    ‘Editor’s Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.’

  3. JohnB says:

    I love the Yale survey.

    Those who accept without question are right and those who question or whos opinion doesn’t fit in their predefined little boxes are wrong.

    I thought the survey was very poorly done and a number of the questions poorly worded. Too much “Black or White” when the picture from the science isn’t quite that clear.

  4. Stu says:

    These kinds of surveys always make everybody look bad. I haven’t seen a comparable survey for Australian students, but my feeling would be that most are disinterested in climate change, apart from some of the activist types,  most of whom are probably busy sucking up and proffering the most outlandish claims they can find on this issue… I probably wouldn’t like to call some of these types ‘informed’. Of course, there are ‘big mouths’ on the other side as well- the ‘I know what I’m talking about’ kind of person, who’s probably never read an article/paper on CC in his/her life, but is convinced that it’s all some kind of hoax and therefore no further understanding is necessary.
    I think, if students aren’t doing science, then they will simply ignore CC as an issue because they intuit that the claims which filter down into popular discourse are heavily corrupted from both sides of the debate. They know there is no real way of teasing apart these claims unless they really jump in there and do the work. There is a despair about just who to trust. Depending on who you ask, you might get a ‘trust the experts’, ‘don’t trust the experts’, or a more generalised doubt response. A shrug of the shoulders is what you’ll probably receive from most students. And I don’t mean to say that they are not concerned, but I get the impression that people really have no ability to judge how much they should be concerned,  which I would call a fairly natural response.
    So yeah… a mixed bag, but not a very positive picture.

  5. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    I find it insulting to see words like “stupid” being used when talking about people who don’t know about a subject.  If such a large portion of the population doesn’t know something, do you really think it is because of stupidity?  Are those who do know it just that much more intelligent?
    Of course not.  Issues like this show a failure of education more than anything else.  People do poorly at math?  Of course.  Schools teach math horribly.  They are “flunking” history?  That’s hardly a surprise.  Half of the history taught to people in school is wrong.  People don’t understand global warming?  No duh.  This country picks as science adviser a man who said sea levels would rise 13 feet.  People are inundated with catastrophism instead of education.
    And you call them stupid?  I’ve known plenty of the people you are insulting.  Growing up, I might have been one of them.  If I am allowed in your elitist group, it is only because I did not blithely accept the things I was told by people in positions of authority.

  6. Keith Kloor says:


    I think your criticism of my word choice is a fair one. I did wonder if I was being unfair. Alas, I went with the provocative choice.

    That said, I don’t agree with all the reasons you give. This part, though, I concur:

    Issues like this show a failure of education more than anything else.  People do poorly at math?  Of course.  Schools teach math horribly.

    But I would go further than say it’s just about education, and say it’s also a lack of engagement, borne out of intellectual laziness, lack of curiosity, mindless distraction, and more pressing, immediate needs taking precedence, such as working to pay one’s bills and feed one’s family.

    And just in case Michael Tobis is paying attention, I’d say journalism deserves a share of the blame, too.

  7. Stu says:

    PS, I saw a survey the other day focusing on primary school kids and their general knowledge.
    Most kids thought that it was Buzz Lightyear, not Buzz Aldrin, who was the second man on the moon.

  8. Stu says:

    I just read the article you linked to Keith and the last paragraph seems interesting…
    “Americans also recognize their own limited understanding. Only 1 in 10 say that they are “very well informed” about climate change, and 75 percent say they would like to know more about the issue. Likewise, 75 percent say that schools should teach our children about climate change and 68 percent would welcome a national program to teach Americans more about the issue.”
    The first sentence here reads differently to me than how you’ve described it in your post. Being ‘very well informed’ and having an understanding are not totally compatible concepts, imo. Being a musician, I’m aware of the old saying that ‘the more you know about music, there more you know there is to know’. I’m sure there are variations of this idea across many different disciplines.
    Seems to me that American kids are just being realistic about what they don’t know, which is a good thing. Another quote which comes to mind here is… ‘it’s not what you don’t know which gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure which simply isn’t so’… this is basically my guiding quote in navigating life actually 🙂
    Also, that 75% of students would like to know more about CC, goes against the idea that there is a disinterest here. That’s interesting to me.

  9. Keith Kloor says:


    Thanks for the close reading of that. I think you’re right. I suppose this is what happens when I don’t “pause” and “reflect.”

    In an update in the post I’ll link to your more discerning interpretation, and to Brandon’s objection at my word choice.

  10. Schollenberger predictably complains:
    “I find it insulting to see words like “stupid” being used when talking about people who don’t know about a subject.  If such a large portion of the population doesn’t know something, do you really think it is because of stupidity?  Are those who do know it just that much more intelligent? V[/quote]

    You’re right.  Those who know it are  more *informed* or *educated*.  As opposed to *uninformed* or dare I say even *ignorant*.
    [quote]   Half of the history taught to people in school is wrong”[/quote]

  11. David44 says:

    Life’s most important lessons are the ones you learn after you think you know it all.

  12. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    #10 Steven Sullivan, your post made me laugh.  Thanks, even though I don’t think it was your intention.

  13. Lazar says:

    … a bundle of papers on media coverage of climate change.

  14. Pascvaks says:

    Kids today are just as smart as they ever were, it’s the teachers who have the deficiencies.  It is evident that the problem extends to the Ivy League as well.  Seems the authors “proved” their premise and made their “point”; so easy if you try, why you don’t even have to leave your computer these days.

  15. kdk33 says:

    Public education sucks.  Solution:  school choice, competition, abolish the dept of education.

    On a related note.  The CC debate is unique, perhaps, in this: 

    CAGW promoters have had many years and ridiculous finding to communicate their fears to the public (nobel prizes, blockbuster movies, UN panels, NASA funded bloggers…).  They have been heard, but not believed.

    Normally, this would be cause for self-reflection.  Perhaps we are wrong.  Perhaps we have lost perspective.  Perhaps it is not good to act precipitously on uncertain predictions of the future.

    But not here.  Instead, CAGWers conclude they’re not believed because the people are stupid.  So, children should be indoctrinated at an early age (fix the schools) and people can’t be allowed to hear opposing views (blame media or the disinformation campaign).

    Eventually, the people have enough.

  16. JD Ohio says:

    My son goes to a reasonably good moderate inner ring suburban school.  His elementary education is fine.   The problem is not so much the schools, but many stupid or disinterested parents.   There was a project that was one-fourth of the social studies grade, and only about 1/3 of the students in his third grade class even turned it in.  This is a problem of parenting, not schooling.

  17. JD Ohio says:

    My earlier post no. 16.  I wrote a little too quickly.  What I would say is that a major portion of the problem is disinterested or incompetent parents.  In this context, I should shy away from the term “stupid.”  Also, I would agree that many schools are poor, However, the bigger problem to me is the failure of the parents.

  18. kdk33 says:

    JD Ohio,

    You’re gettin’ there; so close.

    Now recognize that no government program and no amount of government spending can replace a parent.

    Lastly, if you had the option of sending your kids to school where almost all of the kids did almost all of their homework almost all of the time…

    I’ll leave you to connect the dots.

  19. Ed Forbes says:

    Love studies like this.

     In my stats class for Pub Admin, studies like this were case studies on what NOT to do.

    The stats classes spent quite a bit of time on what to look for in studies such as this. A manager needs information and also  needs to be able to separate the “wheat from the chaff” so to speak.

    and for:    “..50% of Americans understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities..”

    Kind of goes to the entire argument does it not, being as it is highly debatable?

    Damm…I keep forgetting…..the science is settled and you are stupid if you do not follow the other sheep.

  20. Tom Gray says:

    From the NY Times article
    More than a third (37 percent) think climate models are too unreliable to predict the climate of the future.
    From the context, it seems that the NY Times writer (and maybe the study authors) think that this is a bad thing. 3% of the public understand that climate models cannot predict the climate of the future. Climate models predict outcomes that range from benign to catastrophic. The IAC has strongly criticized the IPCC for making confident predictions for which there is little or no evidence.  The  IAC has criticized the IPCC  for confusing computer model runs with empirical reality

    It seems that the IAC would fall under the rubric “stupid” if the Kloor criteria were applied to them. So if you disagree with Keith Kloor or the New York Times blog  writers, Roepick and Revkin, you are both stupid and a slave to your prejudices and preconceptions. The IAC should hang it’s collective head in shame.

  21. Lazar says:

    “From the NY Times article […] climate models are too unreliable to predict the climate of the future
    “It seems that the IAC would fall under the rubric “stupid” if the Kloor criteria were applied to them.”
    … so, where did the IAC agree that “climate models are too unreliable to predict the climate of the future”?… or make any negative statements about their usefulness?…
    answer… they didn’t
    giggle… watch the switch…
    “The  IAC has criticized the IPCC  for confusing computer model runs with empirical reality”
    mmmhmm… here’s the relevant part from the IAC report, p4;
    “Recommendation: Quantitative probabilities (as in the likelihood scale) should be used to describe the probability of well-defined outcomes only when there is sufficient evidence.
    Authors should indicate the basis for assigning a probability to an outcome or event (e.g., based on measurement, expert judgment, and/or model runs).”

    “The IAC has strongly criticized the IPCC for making confident predictions for which there is little or no evidence”
    and the relevant section from the IAC, p33;
    “The Summary for Policy Makers primarily uses the confidence scale in Table 3.2, which is intended to be used when there is “high agreement, much evidence” in the literature. However, many of the conclusions in the “Current Knowledge about Future Impacts” section of the Working Group II Summary for Policy Makers are based on unpublished or non-peer-reviewed literature. For example, the following conclusions, each of which was based on a small number of unpublished studies, have been questioned (e.g., PBL, 2010):

    Towards the end of the 21st century, projected sea-level rise will affect low-lying coastal areas with large populations. The cost of adaptation could amount to at least 5-10% of GDP. (High confidence; IPCC, 2007b, p. 13)

    Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries and regions is projected to be severely compromised by climate variability and change. The area suitable for agriculture, the length of growing seasons and yield potential, particularly along the margins of semi-arid and arid areas, are expected to decrease. This would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition in the continent. In some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020. (High confidence; IPCC, 2007b, p. 13)

    The use of the level-of-understanding scale (Table 3.1), rather than the confidence scale (Table 3.2), would have made clear the weak evidentiary basis for these statements.”

  22. Lazar says:

    forgot to link the report… it be here

  23. TimG says:

    Yikes. It looks like the authors of that Yale study failed science in school. Many of their so called “facts” are nothing but opinions (the bit about climate models being useful is  a perfect example).

    The science daily link to the questions on science was also kind of silly. Who cares whether people remember a factoid about how much of earth is water or the exact timeline of species evolution? The scientific facts that I think an adult should know are stuff like: “what is a double blind study and why is it important”?

  24. Tom Gray says:

    re 21 written by Lazar
    Lazar deserves credit here (but not too much). The IAC strongly criticizes the IPCC for making statements that have little to no basis in scientific fact. Lazar tries to turn this around to the credit of the IPCC by quoting a lot of words that really do not support the point that he is trying to make. Lazar deserves credit for trying to defend an untenable position but not so much since he/she does so by using a common rhetorical trick. So a B- for effort but only a weak D- for execution. Overall grade a weak D.

  25. Lazar says:

    no… i was merely pointing out your claim…
    “the IAC would fall under the rubric “stupid” if the Kloor criteria were applied to them”
    … is unsupportable… that fact has nothing to do with “the credit of the IPCC”… that is your distraction…

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