Well what do you know?

Surveys are good at mapping our ignorance, but terrible at mapping our knowledge
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The Independent Online

We know nothing! At least we should know that by now. Every few days, a survey is published to show us how little we know - or, since the reports are always couched in tones of horror, to show us how little other people know.

We know nothing! At least we should know that by now. Every few days, a survey is published to show us how little we know - or, since the reports are always couched in tones of horror, to show us how little other people know.

Wherever survey takers go, all basic knowledge of our culture and geography seems to have been wiped out. Shocking news! Half of British people cannot identify the English flag, according to a survey carried out earlier this year by the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And as for where we are on the map, horrors! Fewer than half of British children could point out London on a map of Britain and more than a third had no idea Edinburgh was in Scotland, or so said a survey carried out by Microsoft.

Survey takers have most fun with our ignorance of our history. Half of all 12-year-olds think that Britain was invaded in the Second World War, according to one poll carried out by The Daily Telegraph, while a survey taken last month to mark the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain found that 10 per cent of young people thought that the said battle took place in 1066. But that really isn't so surprising, when you note that another poll once found that fewer than one person in six knew that the millennium marked the 2,000th anniversary of Christ's birth.

One of the most recent surveys of our ignorance was conducted by Country Life, and it found that two out of three children couldn't say where an acorn comes from, and 39 per cent couldn't say what season harvest took place in.

Our growing ignorance is often taken as evidence of the dumbing down of our society, and the Americanisation of our culture. Maybe that's right, except that we also don't know much about the United States, either. Recently, American Airlines ran a survey that showed that 12 per cent of Britons think that Canada is a state of the USA, and 24 per cent of us think that Mexico is. Americans return the compliment by knowing very little about Britain: only one in five of them, according to Gallup, can name the prime minister of the UK. Still, they don't know much about their own politicians, either: a quarter of young people in the US cannot name both presidential candidates, according to a survey by MTV.

But just where these issues get interesting, surveys tend to give up. The intriguing questions behind the boring questions can never be asked. If a quarter of young people in the States can't name the presidential candidates, what do they think about politics? And why? If people in Britain don't know what the millennium marks, have they turned their backs on Christianity? Or has the church opted out of their lives? And why?

A new survey by The Guardian, published over the weekend under the title "Dumb?" is just the latest of all these shocking, horrifying, amazing inquiries into the state of our stupidity. If you missed it, relax, it doesn't tell you anything you couldn't have guessed: only 3 per cent of young people can name four British prime ministers between 1900 and 1945, and so on, and so on. But it shouldn't necessarily send us the signal to despair about the state of our ignorance.

For a start, why do we tend to assume that things are getting worse? There may have been a time when more children knew that acorns came from oaks and more people knew what the millennium marked, but even now people seem to have a shared knowledge of culture and science, seeing that - according to The Guardian poll - one in two people know that Virginia Woolf was a novelist and 80 per cent know who invented the telephone.

And though surveys are pretty good at mapping our ignorance, they are terrible at mapping our knowledge. If you talk to people rather than rely on surveys, you might notice that almost everyone knows a lot about something, even if it's rarely a subject that you know about, or a subject that would turn up in a survey.

After all, if anyone starts to get interested in anything, they will swiftly tend to acquire a vivid understanding of it that will never be uncovered by the pollsters. So only a third of the British public know who JK Rowling is, according to this Guardian poll. Maybe so. But there are thousands of kids out there who don't just know who she is, they know in intimate detail all about the world that has sprung from her imagination, and they can tell you the spell for getting chewing gum out of keyholes, or what Harry Potter's wand is made of, or any other arcane lore of the Rowling world.

This ability to screen out the mass of information that surrounds us, and to dive single-mindedly into a particular subject isn't necessarily a sign of doltishness, but rather of true, lively curiosity. Perhaps the reason why it's the under-25s who seem to be scoring worst in all these surveys is because they have been passing through the sausage machine of their test-obsessed schools and the barrage of information yelling at them from their computer and television screens, and they find that they have to block out much of this trivia if they are to live individual lives. At least they probably know where to find information if they have need of it, and isn't that more useful than being able to shout accurate answers at the television screen during University Challenge and Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

It's the ignorance of personalities - both political and showbusiness personalities - that I often find most telling in these surveys. Much of the media currently seems to be predicated on the idea that anything will sell if it participates in a banal round of gossip - emanating from Westminster for the broadsheets, or the Met Bar for the tabloids. What Charlie told Gordon that Peter said to Geoffrey about Tony, and how Alistair reacted; or what Grant told Anthea that Della had said about their marriage, and how she reacted - this is what passes for news everywhere. But what does all this mean to the wider public? Very little, apparently.

The surveys I treasure include the ones that show how few people know who any politician is, despite a barrage of publicity on behalf of the besuited ones from every newspaper and television station in the land. Fewer than half of the electorate (MORI, August 1999) even know who Gordon Brown is or what he does, and that suggests that much of what passes for political debate has no resonance with most people. It doesn't matter how many books by Geoffrey Robinson or Andrew Rawnsley are splashed over front pages; people aren't reading, and they aren't listening. One survey carried out over the summer found that young people were four times more likely to recognise the video game character Super Mario than the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So-called celebrities don't always score much better than politicians in the radar of the general public. Although Anthea Turner's tale of her marriage break-up and photographs of her new nuptials have been making front pages all over the tabloids and Hello!, only a quarter of young people - according to the latest survey - know the name of her current husband.

We are often encouraged to believe that we are living in the society of the spectacle, and that people are living vicariously through the gossip they are fed by the media. But perhaps this widespread ignorance of the identity of many of the people who clutter up those channels shows that most people would still rather gossip about their own friends than about some distant semi-star. After all, who knows, if so many people aren't listening to the chatter that comes from their screens, perhaps they are just too busy living.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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