How Americans fare on the ignorance index

October 30, 2014

Guess how many U.S. girls aged 15-19 give birth each year. Go ahead, guess. If you calculated the number at 3 percent you’re correct; if you guessed 24 percent, you’re American.

The idea that nearly a quarter of high school teens are walking around pregnant at any given time is one of a number of topics about which Americans are woefully misinformed, according to Ipsos MORI polling results released Wednesday. In a comparison of 14 industrialized countries, the United States trailed only Italy in the pollsters’ index of ignorance about the realities of modern life.

As this Reuters graphic shows, people in the U.S. significantly miss the mark on the proportion of the population that is comprised of immigrants, guessing 32 percent against the true number of 13 percent. Americans also overestimate the number of Muslims in the population, 15 percent versus only 1 percent in reality, and underestimate the number of Christians, 56 percent to 78 percent.

Reuters’s Ben Hirschler quotes Bobby Duffy of the Ipsos Social Research Institute that succinctly describes the problem: “People are just not very good at math and they find it particularly hard to make estimates about very large numbers or very small numbers.”

Do you think you’re better informed than your fellow countrypeople? Take the perils of perception quiz and find out how you stack up across a range of issues.



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The teaser paragraph itself is wrong: “In a comparison of 14 industrialized countries, the United States trailed only Italy in the pollsters’ questions about modern life.” The most obvious interpretation of this is exactly the opposite of what the article says.

Posted by therealsjr | Report as abusive

It’s because Americans get their information about the world from television–a notoriously poor source of information.

Posted by scarr34 | Report as abusive

Dear Mike Corones and Ipsos Mori Company, please learn what a ratio is. The US did better than all but three countries when guessing teen pregnancy, and better than all but six when guessing for immigration (and we have a far greater percentage of illegal immigrants than other countries because other countries deport illegal aliens).

You need to compare the guesses to actual figures in each country, not guesses to guesses between countries. Guesses to guesses is meaningless.

Posted by JoeChi | Report as abusive

The answers reflect the amount of news coverage devoted to the issues/groups involved in the survey. Pick your “special interest group” – active voters, the elderly, immigrants, Muslims, the unemployed, gay rights groups, sexually-active teens, however you want to ‘lump’ citizens together to foster division, but alike those listed occupy a resulting niche in the respective nations’ psyche larger than their smaller-than-perceived populations would suggest (for good or for ill). Perhaps it’s because portraying themes involving “white, straight, Christian, employed, 40-something males” (i.e. the core of’s US user base/3.8 million monthly visitors per Quantcast) over and over again must seem so horribly passé in the US. 😉
It is a bit silly to say someone is “ignorant” for choosing a current length-of-life estimate off by a mere two years, though. Silly too to think that much less-religiously and ethnically diverse countries (e.g. Japan) would have a hard time scoring better on some of the requisite questions. Still, an eye-opening piece and worth the read.

Posted by johannesg | Report as abusive

If you think that is all to American ignorance, you haven’t seen anything yet. Ask them randomly who is Nelson Mandela or where is Singapore. Other than wild guesses, you might get a reply such as “why would I need to know these stuff?”
Why do you think americans get a particular reputation as a stereotype?

Posted by axioum123 | Report as abusive

Most of the information in the West comes from media in particular television/cable. In US one can go to Fox and other TV station who continue to spit venom day in day out against Government and Muslims. So the data is not surprising.
Also note the general trend, the more religious the country the wider the gap between fact and fiction.

Posted by Alpha01 | Report as abusive

“People are just not very good at math and they find it particularly hard to make estimates about very large numbers or very small numbers.” – perhaps consider that the writer of this article is in this boat as well. The NUMBER of girls who are pregnant cannot be 3% as that is a percentage, not a number of girls. 24% of girls (first paragraph)is not equal to 1/4 of all teens (second paragraph) unless Americans predominantly believe that 50% of teen girls are pregnant or alternately, a proportion of teen boys are getting knocked up. Editors and science writers, where are you?

Posted by skcup | Report as abusive


Posted by MacDaddyWatch | Report as abusive

Titling the subject, “Teenage Pregnancy”, then asking how many girls aged 15-19 give birth every year is, pardon me, ignorant! Being pregnant and giving birth are two different things. Why don’t you ask the question that relates to the subject heading? Seems to me this whole “survey” was designed to come up with an intended outcome. What a waste of time!

Posted by beofaction | Report as abusive

Your immigration question can easily be misinterpreted, and should have been more detailed. By asking what percentage of the “population” are immigrants, many could easily, while looking as a whole consider themselves and their families “immigrants” on the grander scale. My grandfather came to America, so we’re “immigrants” in that context. The question is much too broad, but then again this whole survey seems to be flawed with predetermined designs.

Posted by beofaction | Report as abusive

Wow. Maybe the problem is not the answers, but the questions.
For example, “what percentage of girls aged between 15 and 19 give birth each year” must be WAAAY below 3%. I in fact have never a met girl that gives birth every year.

Posted by raymonderb | Report as abusive

“and underestimate the number of Christians, 56 percent to 78 percent”

Actually – this may be different for some. There are many fundamentalist “Christians” who do not consider other christian religions (Catholics in particular) to be truly Christian. Therefore – they believe that “true Christians” comprise 56% – the “majority of real Americans” But they are wrong here as well as I do not believe the fundamentalists have that large a proportion.

Posted by jmmx | Report as abusive

Americans are woefully ignorant. We seem to like it that way, and so do those who now run our country, the wealthy plutocrats. Much of it can be blamed on FOX News, a rightwing propaganda broadcast that sells itself as a news source. For example, Obama faked his birth certificate; Obama had “In God We Trust” removed from some of our money; Obama traveled around the world apologizing for America; Obama is a socialist; Obama is a Muslim; Obama is to blame for the government’s poor response to Katrina; Obama might be the anti-Christ. US survey results would probably be even lower if the questions had to do with politics. This is why it’s so easy for politicians who have no business serving in our government to get elected to those positions. They just tell us what we want to hear and make up lies about their opponents. And we’re so easily impressed. Conservatives will vote for someone just because they like guns. Only in America.

Posted by carnivalchaos | Report as abusive

Amazing. Our school system spends more money on security, busing and athletics and we’re ignorant. I don’t understand.

Posted by EyeForget | Report as abusive

The political propagandists are really, really successful at fear mongering as shown by the results of this poll. I note in the small print that the poll cut off at 64. The results would have been even more bizarre if the those 65 and up had been included.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

And this all explains how the far Left in this admistration
got, ” elected”, and twice.

Posted by grassroot | Report as abusive

In regard to U.S. teen girls giving birth vs. those are pregnant you need to add abortion to the list. It should be obvious the amount of teen girls giving birth is going to be much less than those who become pregnant.

Posted by eoc61 | Report as abusive

Well, we know the illiterate segment of the USA gets the misinformation from FOX News. Does Italy have a version of Fox News? If so, then we know why these statistics hold.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

Actually, a great deal of the blame for the American lack of “common” knowledge is the news media. It spits facts and figures that could have only emerged from the dark orifices of political hacks and Issue driven activists hoping to skew the demographics of a given situation to their favor. Some would have us believe we are drowning in illegals, about to die massive deaths from Ebola, HIV, Polio (just pick something you’ve read about in the news). Their sincere faces of trust jar the nerves and dull any desire to care. Which might be their point. But are the facts we are fed solid? No. Sadly, the reporters don’t seem to do much more than carefully repeat what they read. No fact finding, no confirmation of the data received. Which of course leads us all down the merry path of Ignorance. Sometimes I have to wonder if something is being put in the water.

Posted by Gneiss | Report as abusive

Perception is 9/10ths of the law!

Posted by alowl | Report as abusive