Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


Failing U.S. History

Apparently, over a quarter of Americans don't know from whom we declared independence in 1776.   Gee, even if Americans got their history from Bugs Bunny they should know that. (Sorry about the commercials in the link).  And there's always School House Rock.

On a related topic, President Coolidge's speech in honor of the one hundred fiftieth aniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence always bears rereading.  Too bad it's seldom taught in our schools.

Categories > History

Discussions - 7 Comments

What is interesting is that according to some historical theorists, i.e certain strict epistemologists, only 20% of the folks gave the right answer. That is sure you could give an answer to this question, and certainly you would have sufficiently justified belief simply by watching bugs bunny or school house rock, but do you have absolute certainty? Would you be willing to wager eternal damnation(or your inheritance) for a bowl of soup on the plus side?

In many cases there is something refreshing about someone who doesn't know something and admits not to know. I like to think that the folks who answer I don't know are simply being type A personalities.

Of the six percent who said France, China or Russia they were probably being sarcastic and purposefully screwing with the pollster, after all answering creatively or giving an answer such as I don't know probably gives more pleasure than answering correctly.

If you are asking me, why is it in my interest to give you the right answer?

On a scale of 1-10 if someone asked you to answer this sorts of question, how tempted would you be to deviate from "sufficiently justified belief/accepted answer"?

I would suggest that there is a incentive structure at which drastically more than 74% of people know that we declared independence from merry old england. Either folks in New York are fairly intelligent, or the Cash Cab is a good test of this. Very rarely does even a lone passenger miss a $50 question.

I also think that maybe if the right answer gave only a pitance(say a dime) and the cost of a wrong answer was being waterboarded to death, that maybe less than 74% would say England provided the "I don't know" was a pass answer, that forfeited both the reward and punishment.

On the other hand there is always the argument of Justice Holmes in Buck v Bell that
the "feeble-minded" of people need to be prevented from breeding. Such doctrinaire utilitarianism run amock has been grounds for damning him as a moral relativist. But again I think if the getting of this answer wrong was enough to subject someone to sterilization then the question would be correctly answered by more than 74% of those polled.

FYI, I am still annoyed by the Wiki description of Buck v Bell.

"She was an avid reader of coloring books until her death in 1983."


I have good documentation that she was an avid reader of books from Lexis Nexis....someone inserted the word "coloring" in the sentence that should read "She was an avid reader of books until her death in 1983."

Wiki is great but this is just one example of folks pranking the system.

I went ahead and fixed Buck v Bell, still there is no real controversy on wiki about independence from Great Britain. Another possibility is that the 20% of folks who said I don't know are the types who don't use memory for anything and depend upon outside sources for collaboration and certainty. That is Wikipedia, dictionaries, google searches are the equivalent of calculators for people who refuse to do mental math. Its amazing the number of I don't knows you will get on a simple math question, where the answer has to be comfirmed by calculator. (in this case the 6% with incorect guesses are about par for course on math problems where instead of doing some precise mental math folks just guess.) I actually know a couple folks whose driving is so pathetic that they would be totally lost without Garmin telling them where to turn.

I think when it comes to certainty, 20% computer dependency sounds about right. (it is probably even higher when it comes to math skills)

"What is interesting is that according to some historical theorists, i.e certain strict epistemologists, only 20% of the folks gave the right answer."

What's interesting about it? Nobody with sense operates on a level of Cartesian doubt about the creation of America. There is no more ground to doubt that we declared independence from Britain than there is ground to doubt that the earth is round.

When one-fourth of Americans are ignorant of the most basic history of their liberty, that is a lamentable fact and an indictment of the politically correct education system that did the most to make it a fact.

"What is interesting is that according to some historical theorists, i.e certain strict epistemologists, only 20% of the folks gave the right answer."

And we can cheerfully blame that on "the politically correct education system that did the most to make it a fact."

Any grounds for that Michelle, other than a burning desire in you to turn anything that's thrown your way into a political tool?

Didn't think so.

What's more puzzling is that 76% of Americans declare themselves to be Christian. Where does THAT level of delusion come from?

Must dash. Got to feed the fairies at the bottom of the garden (I've no evidence for their existence, but ... they've got to be there)

This doesn't suprise me given the fact that 80% of the media and 100% of the public failing public school system thinks that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution and when he wrote it put the separation of church and state in it.


fta: "So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, "the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion," the report concludes."

I do think Michelle is right that no one with sense operates on Cartesian doubt about so basic a question of american history.

That said I do think it is an equal travesty that a certain group of people would need a calulator to tell you with any certainty what 10*10 is. So tech dependence I think comes into the picture.

If things are really this bad, maybe Buck v. Bell wasn't such a bad decision(ignoring the bad facts, and sexism involved in labelling promiscous women of the lower classes as incompetents).

But I think my fellow americans are a bit smarter than this research. Either the people answering are bored with the question, or they are not interested in answering it,(I don't know is a typical catch all for this mood).

I mean even had I not interfered with the comments, it would be improbable to think, that someone leaving a comment would spit out the right answer and feel any pride in knowing it.

"How do the pollsters know that 26% of people don't know who we declared independence from?"

Duh, John they do the math, need a calculator?

But seriously how do they know? I think studies like this show that 20% of people are not interested in answering such a question that does nothing to flatter the intellect and that 5% are in a mood to answer it in a silly way.(another 1% really don't know and are bad at guessing)

The actual number of americans who don't know is probably closer to 6-5%, and this includes those who have a brain freeze(due to computer dependency/knowledge?) and guess wrong.

Some percentage of americans are also mentally handicaped but even in this group I think some of them who are not severe get it right if properly incentivized.

For $5 I think you could encentivize folks to give correct answers to these sorts questions, and get the results back showing that 90% of americans know that we declared independence from Great Britain. For $50 I think you could get 95% (but the amount you use might not be that important, as long as there is some financial hook to disuade the 20% who answered "I don't know" i.e. leave me alone, and perhaps to weed out the pranksters who answered China)

I think for example that the answer to this question is easier than the average $50 cash cab question, and ball park percentages from watching Cash Cab the $50 questions tend to trip up less than 5% of the time (albeit in the Cash Cab a lot of times you have multiple people.)

In the cash cab you have nervousness/excitement from being on TV.

It shouldn't be that hard to do the same study twice, once as done here, and a second time involving a sum of money for answering correctly.

Also in terms of testing certainty one could ask 10 questions and offer $5 per question answered correctly, with the caveat that answering incorrectly forfeits the total amount of money earned. In this case it would again become somewhat rational/cautious to expect 20% of americans to take a pass on answering the question. After all if you could use $40 after getting eight correct, do you really want to risk $40 to win $45?

If you are on question 9 and you are 90% sure of the answer, the answer is no, but it is close. 100%*40=$40 but 90%*45= $40.50 (so technically you would answer at 90% if and only if there were only 9 questions, but since there are ten, and passing lets you get to the 10th question with the guaranteed $40, you are better off on the chance that you are more than 90% certain about the answer to the 10th question).

Note certain characters are greater risk takers, and interestingly enough more money will tend to bring more caution. At $100,000 a question folks will start to get cartesian, I think you can witness this on Who wants to be a millionaire, where at a certain point the questions cease scaleing in difficulty becomeing instead somewhat specialized, but dependent upon financial pressure for uncertainty.

Paradoxically if you want to call this form of doubt cartesian, the strick mathmatical view of risk taking will actually bend our sense of certainty. At 100k a question depending in part upon order, I think more than 20% uncertainty about whom we declared independence from might surface. In part because at 100k a question, some subset of folks would just shut down risk taking and answer I don't know to all remaining questions, as soon as they got the first softball right.

An interesting study on certainty would have a ton of softball questions and let people sort them by certainty using I don't know as a pass to the next question. Still at some low pressure level of $5 a question a person with 100 correct answers would need more than 99% certainty to be rationally justified in answering an additional question. Since 500*100% is greater than 505*.99. If you had enough questions it would also be a test of greed.

Then you could ask how often did someone pass at the 99% level on a given question. The interesting part is that with an unlimited or large enough group of potential questions the calculation might always be made assuming 99% certainty. Even if on the second question you are only risking 5 to win 10, 50% certainty is a bad deal, while technically if you are 60% you win $6 vs. $5 but you forgo a potentially infinite number of easy questions, such that on question 2 you should even pass on 90% certainty when EV is $9 vs. $5+expected value of endless softball questions.

You could run the test and learn something about how people reason, or you could give them a well reasoned strategy ahead of time and discover what answers folks were absolutely certain about.

My feel is that maybe 70% of americans would be 99% certain that we declared independence from great britain but that a certain number would still overplay the certainty game and bust out on really easy questions. That is people will tend to overestimate how certain they are or they will overplay by risking a large amount/number of questions answered correctly for one last question. Given this supposition and provided a general pass of rate 30% per question on the group, it is hard to argue that more than 70% of americans should be 99% certain that we declared independence from great britain.

In fact it is perhaps the easy view that 100% of americans should be 99% certain that we declared independence from great britain that in the scheme of things tends to propel people to think they should be certain and convince themselves that they are of things which they are not.

At its worst the survey is a weak argument for Eugenics, albeit few would elevate the question to such an importance that it would be a threshold question for determining if one was intelligent enough for procreation.

That is in the scheme of things we can live with 70% numbers at 99% certainty. I think we are actually closer to 95% at Michelle's more proper level of common sense/justified belief, the study just didn't properly incentivize the respondents.

I mean as Dr. Adams points out this stuff is in pop culture, While Locke is probably right about Tabula Rasa, you don't have to believe in innate ideas to know it's in the mothers milk. Folks know this stuff, but it an entirely different question to get at its significance or to speak more deeply about the declaration as president Coolidge did.

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