Wednesday, June 19, 2019

SearchResearch Challenge (6/19/19): How much DO we know about history / math / geography?

It's common to point out that people don't know much about much... 

And it always makes me wonder:  How much DO people know about history, about math, or about geography?  

More importantly, how would you assess "our" level of knowledge?  What does the "public" really know? 

This came up for me the other day when I was chatting with someone who (we discovered) didn't really know where Syria was. Is it near Iraq?  How close is it Turkey? 

That struck me as odd because Syria has been in the news for the past several years as it struggles with an ongoing civil war. Surely they must have seen a map of the country and its position in the Middle East!  And yet, the location somehow didn't stick in their brain.  

How many Americans can describe the Declaration of Independence and what role it played in the US Revolutionary war?
Does it matter if you know what year this document was signed?  (Painting by John Trumbull, 1817-1819) 

Last year, in 2018, I heard a brilliant talk by Roddy Roediger about what our collective memory is for historical events.  Who won World War II?  If you have an interest in education (especially history), it's worth an hour of your time. 

This brings me to this week's SearchResearch Challenge.  What DO we know, and how to we know what we know? 

1.  Can you find a high-quality (that is, very credible) study of how well the citizens of the United States (or your country, if you're from somewhere else) understand (A) history, (B) geography, (C) mathematics?  

In this Challenge I'm hoping to learn some methods for finding reputable resources for assessing broad public knowledge.  Next week we'll discuss some of the SRS methods I use when I try to answer questions like this.   

And more importantly, for our SRS purposes, how does one frame a question like this to a search engine in order to find those resources?  AND... how do you assess the quality of the resources that you find?  

Obviously, asking a few friends a couple of calculus questions isn't a great way to measure the public's knowledge of math.  Doing a man-in-the-street interview of geography questions also probably doesn't work well either--so what would work well?  

In other words, what can one do to make a measurement like this?  How can you tell how much the citizens of your country know?  

Obviously, this kind of Challenge can take an arbitrary amount of time.  But if I can motivate you to spent a few minutes searching for this kind of information, I think you'll get a good sense of the issues involved.  

As always, please let us know how you discovered the sources that you find credible.  

Search on! 


  1. Roddy Roediger's talk is fascinating, but makes me realise this a most complicated Challenge. More so than I initially thought. j

    1. Hi Jon. I'll watch Roddy Roediger's talk later and I agree, it is a complicated Challenge.

      Thanks, Dr. Russell for sharing the link and for asking us. I am sure my nephew will love it too. I think now we humans don't learn many things because we don't see reason. I have listened saying, why learn that if we can ask Google and fill our brains with other stuff. And that is sad. Google is awesome and we need to know, learn, discover the jewels we have in our planet and lives. Your Challenges are perfect for that and to increase our view instead of being happy being like those people that doesn't want to improve. Another example are phone numbers. Years ago most of us knew family, friends and other numbers and now, many people doesn't even know their own number

      About the Challenge, minutes before reading it, found something that can give us a clue even when they asked about vaccines and not our topics.

      Interactivo: ¿cuánto confían en las vacunas en tu país? Interactive: How much vaccination is trusted in your country?

    2. I finally watched Roddy Roediger's talk. It is very interesting and full of surprises. Some of them expected. The biggest surprise for me was China! I never heard of them on WWII and even less that they were the second country with more deaths.

      About Dr. Russell's Book The Joy of Search, found the MIT press link with description and buying options. I am sure many others will be available soon, like Google Play, Amazon (Kindle version)and Rakuten Kobo The Joy of Search
      A Google Insider's Guide to Going Beyond the Basics

  2. …weird — I recall signing my Jóse Hancock, but none of the rest seems familiar… was this the Third Continental Congress in Malibu… it was the Declaration of Interdependence,
    I think… sometimes the interwob confuses things… the GooglePlex is complex.
    …W_hen in the Course of Katie events it becomes necessary…

    …wait, that doesn't sound like Timmy Jefferson…

  3. think I recall some Canadian guy who wanted this to be the anthem… will have to search more

  4. Well, I started with the Statistics Canada website, but didn't have much luck. So I googled "canadians knowledge of history" and found some news articles reporting on national surveys along these lines (such as This led me to the work done by Historica Canada (including this now-dated survey - and this more recent one on women's history -

    A similar search related to geography led me to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the work that they've done on Geographic Literacy ( See also

    Unfortunately I didn't have much luck with a similar search regarding mathematical knowledge - most of those search results related to education outcomes in schools and how math is being taught to students.

  5. I started by searching for but got hits for education and children's skills. So I added and then changed to which led to "Survey of Adult Skills: Pacific adults' literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills",-numeracy-and-problem-solving-skills.
    This page mentioned an international "Survey of Adult Skills", part of the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). That looks promising.

  6. 1. [canadian study of historical knowledge] finds:

    Scholarly articles for canadian study of historical knowledge
    … in Canadian history: The importance of" historical … - Lévesque - Cited by 55
    A modest proposal for change in Canadian history … - Seixas - Cited by 39
    Clio in Canada: the interpretation of Canadian history - Morton - Cited by 58

    Canadians don't know their history, study shows : Globe and Mail APRIL 26, 2018
    A study explores how many young Canadian adults, age 18 to 24 can pass a 30-question exam on this country's history identical to one given to the same age group 10 years ago.
    In the study, 1,004 young people were asked 30 basic questions about Canada's past. Average for Canada was 18% answered correctly. SOURCE: IPSOS REID/DOMINION INSTITUTE j

  7. This is Anne and Deb still here in NJ before heading down to DC for the ALA conference tomorrow. We will do this in parts. First the question on credibility. As school librarians we talk about finding credible sources all the time. We teach a lesson on this and use 2 different sets of criteria - The CRAP detection method and the 5 W's. Here is the libguide (library research guide) we created for this - - We realize that this is very basic and there are a lot of nuances involved in the various criteria but for our level this works. So when we look at a source to find if it is credible we would be using either or some combination of both of these criteria. We might use Wikipedia to get a basic overview of a topic but then would look at the sources listed and confirm Think Dan you use the term triangulation?

  8. 2nd part. To find where you get this kind of data we first thought about the census to see if they ask any type of knowledge/content questions. So we did a search on census questions and found that they don't ask any type of questions to assess citizen's knowledge of content areas. Then in talking about this we figured that this type of research would be done in an academic institution possibly. So we did a search using these terms -academic research on us citizens knowledge - and one result that came up was PEW research. We also saw Annenberg institution came up. So we realize that it would be public policy institutions that would do research on knowledge of history, civics govt.etc. For math we would think that it would be some type of math advocacy group or think tank. So we will do another post looking for this type of research. Will be back hopefully with more on our research methods!

  9. tried this: [source credibility checklist]
    list - from the search box suggestions as I entered the above
    Khan Academy
    Consumer Affairs
    it may seem like the longest day, but that is today…
    using ⌘-F, see that there are three "Russells" total, but the other two are first names, yours is the only surname…
    …sometimes librarians can be alpacas in sheep's clothes – potential wild times in the D.C. - that seems redundant…
    fwiw, thought the 6th was the longest day… but that's history.
    New History… 7 Days in June
    old history… 1964… 7 Days in May

  10. off subject, but related to your recent Boulder church query… what becomes of former church structures…
    maybe a retreat/sabbatical nodule for burnt out Google-ers to recover/recharge at? a break from the teeming valley…
    and a boon to the Island…
    …was looking at: (have you ever met?)
    D. Searls
    his blog
    on the T

  11. Related to this very question - WNYC's Radiolab is doing a miniseries of podcasts (they're currently on number 3 of 6) examining the idea of 'General Knowledge' - the first two episodes delve deeply into the history of the IQ test from a number of angles. (The Radiolab producers are really good at their craft, weaving together narrative and interviews to great effect)

    The first episode is here: