More Evidence of Seemingly Willful, or at Least Very Casual, Ignorance

Last month, I reported on the results of an annual study conducted by the National Science Foundation that measures the interest in and knowledge of basic science among a large sample of American adults. The study showed that the professed interest in science far exceeded the demonstrated knowledge of science. In fact, in some respects the lack of even the most basic knowledge led me to assert that something else is at work beyond some failure of our schools and teachers. Among the most dismal results, the most shocking was that about one in four respondents answered incorrectly on whether the Earth orbits around the Sun. I suggested that one doesn’t even need a school or a teacher to learn such basic things. If one is an adult, one needs only to have been intermittently conscious over the first two-plus decades of your life in order to have absorbed such basic information.

Well, here we are at least two to three decades into the information age, in which personal computing devices and the Internet have become not just commonplace tools or toys but almost universal elements of our daily lives, and a recent survey demonstrates that American’s basic knowledge of technology is as deficient as their knowledge of science.

Conducted by, the study involved almost 2,400 adults from across the United States.  Participants were not told that the study was measuring their knowledge of technology-related terms, and there was a mix of terms related both to technology and other aspects of daily life. For each term, they were provided with three definitions and asked to choose the correct one.

Here are some of the most unsettling results:

40% identified a “motherboard” as “the upper deck of a cruise ship”

25% identified a “gigabyte” as “a giant insect from South America”

23% identified “MP3” as a “Star Wars robot

18% identified “Blu-Ray” as “a marine animal”

15% identified “software” as “comfortable clothing”

12% identified “USB” as the “postal abbreviation for a European nation”

11% identified “HTML” as “a sexually transmitted disease”

In case you are about to say that these results aren’t nearly as bad as those produced by the survey on basic knowledge of science, let me point out that that survey had presented participants with true-false statements. In contrast, this survey presented participants with three multiple-choice options. So they did not have to generate the correct answer; they simply had to identify it. I am guessing that the results very well might have been considerably worse if participants had, instead, been given true-false statements. Furthermore, it seems to me that the only item in this survey on technology that might legitimately be tagged as a “trick question” is that on “MP3.” There have been advancements in digital audio formats that have made “MP3 players” seem almost as dated as the original series of Star Wars films.

Over the course of my academic career, I have given some multiple-choice exams (or, much more frequently, sections of tests) for which the results were, let us say, disappointing. But I can recall only one item for which the results were as comparably dumbfounding as the misidentification of “gigabyte” in this survey (which, by the way, seems to suggest that a quarter of the respondents either don’t know how to spell “bite” or somehow think that the spelling changes if the word is used in reference to something in Latin America).

In a course on postcolonial literature, we were reading Derek Walcott’s Omeros. When I off-handedly asked what a “pygmy” is and the only answer that the class of 35 could generate was “Isn’t it a type of goat,” I started to ask what many of the other words in the poem meant. One of the most frequently used words is “pirogue,” which is a type of flat-bottomed canoe carved from a single log that carries the Afro-Caribbean protagonist metaphorically back to the African homeland of his ancestors. We looked very closely at the fairly long and detailed section of the poem treating the process by which the protagonist creates the boat, and I pointedly drew the students’ attention to the term “pirogue” and discussed its origins and uses, not just in West Africa and the Caribbean islands but also among the Cajuns of Louisiana.

When I was writing the multiple-choice questions for the next exam, I decided to include a question on “pirogue.” I fairly quickly came up with two incorrect definitions related to other prominent objects in the poem, but I was stuck on the third wrong option. So, drawing on my Eastern-European ancestry and my fondness for pierogis, I wrote this as the fourth option: “a type of dumpling commonly eaten in Eastern Europe and containing a filling of potatoes, sauerkraut, meat, or cheese.” To my absolute astonishment, that was the answer chosen by about 80% of the students in that class. Never mind that Walcott’s poem never makes any references to eastern Europe. Never mind that I had never referred to my ancestry or to eastern Europe even once in that course.

So, again, I would like to assert that there are limits to what we, as teachers, can be blamed for. To paraphrase the timeworn axiom about horses and water, we can teach students how to think critically, but, ultimately, we cannot compel them actually to think.

4 thoughts on “More Evidence of Seemingly Willful, or at Least Very Casual, Ignorance

    • The problem with reportage on virtually all of these surveys–including the exam question cited–is that we aren’t informed what was going through the respondents’ heads. That follow-up is absolutely crucial to understanding what the issues are.

      For instance, in the pirogue question: Was it truly not thinking about the poem? Or was it thinking, “Hey, here’s a word I know! I heard about these meat-cheese-whatever thingies somewhere, I recognize that. It’s pronounced, yeah, could be that word. But what’s that got to do with the poem? Must be a trick question! He’s just trying to see if we can be misled into faking a foreign-sounding word into that poem; but I know this word.”

      Similarly: For “motherboard,” I’ll bet the thinking was, “I’ve never heard this word. What could it possibly mean? Cruise ship? Hell, Idunno–could be. Certainly doesn’t have anything to do with a computer.” (It takes a fair amount of techie exposure ever to have heard the word “motherboard”.)

      For the sun going around the Earth? At a guess, I’ll hazard there was a deal of misreading going on. No need to search for nearly incredible limits of scientific ignorance, when we can lay the answer to careless reading.

      Follow-up could make a huge difference in interpretation or results.

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