New Poll Gauges Americans' General Knowledge Levels

by Steve Crabtree

Four-fifths know earth revolves around sun

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Thanks to the Internet and other trappings of the Information Age, facts and figures now come cheaper and faster than ever before. But where does that leave good, old-fashioned general knowledge, the kind people carry around in their heads?

A new Gallup poll includes three questions that tap Americans' level of general knowledge. Overall, most Americans did well, answering these questions correctly.

In anticipation of Independence Day, Americans were asked if they could identify the specific historical event celebrated on July 4th. Fifty-five percent say it commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence (this is a common misconception, and close to being accurate; July 4th is actually the date in 1776 when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration, which was officially signed on August 2nd.) Another 32% give a more general answer, saying that July 4th celebrates Independence Day.

When Americans are asked to identify the country from which America gained its independence, 76% correctly name Great Britain. A handful, 2%, think America's freedom was won from France, 3% mention some other country (including Russia, China, and Mexico, among others named), while 19% are unsure.

Groups that have higher degrees of self-reported patriotism (see Gallup's Fourth of July release), such as older people and whites, are also more likely to correctly name the country from which America gained its independence. Only 66% of those aged 18-29 know that America gained its independence from England, compared to 79% of those aged 30 and older. The knowledge gap is even wider on the basis of gender and race:

  • 85% of men compared to only 69% of women know that America's freedom was won from England
  • 80% of whites vs. 54% of blacks answered correctly

Four out of Five Americans Know Earth Revolves Around Sun
Probing a more universal measure of knowledge, Gallup also asked the following basic science question, which has been used to indicate the level of public knowledge in two European countries in recent years: "As far as you know, does the earth revolve around the sun or does the sun revolve around the earth?" In the new poll, about four out of five Americans (79%) correctly respond that the earth revolves around the sun, while 18% say it is the other way around. These results are comparable to those found in Germany when a similar question was asked there in 1996; in response to that poll, 74% of Germans gave the correct answer, while 16% thought the sun revolved around the earth, and 10% said they didn't know. When the question was asked in Great Britain that same year, 67% answered correctly, 19% answered incorrectly, and 14% didn't know.

The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,016 adults, 18 years and older, conducted June 25-27, 1999. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

As far as you know, what specific historical event is celebrated on July 4th?

Signing of the Declaration of Independence/day it was signed 55%
Independence Day 32
Birth of United States 1
Other 6
No opinion 6
  100%

As far as you know, from what country did America gain its independence following the Revolutionary War?

England/Great Britain/United Kingdom 76%
France 2
Other 3
No opinion 19
  100%

As far as you know, does the earth revolve around the sun, or does the sun revolve around the earth?

Earth revolves around the sun 79%
Sun revolves around the earth 18
No opinion 3
  100%
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