Where Did Miss Teen USA Come Up With That Geography Question?

Most of you are probably sick to death of hearing Miss Teen USA Contestant Lauren Caitlin Upton stumble over a simple response to a seemingly benign question about geography. But after two whole days of watching the video and subsequent commentary take over the internet, TV and radio spectrum I think it's time to expose the question for the fraud that it is.

The question to Upton was stated as follows:

Recent polls have shown that a fifth of Americans can't locate the US on a world map. Why do you think this is?

I immediately suspected the veracity of the question from the moment I heard it. Recent Polls? What polls? I found this pretty hard to believe.

Nonetheless Lauren Upton's fumbled answer took center stage and allowed the question to be perpetuated as fact across message board, blogs, TV and radio talk shows. The perfect springboard to launch into the stupid American meme; and few seemed to be questioning the question.

So I did a little research and couldn't come up with any poll that led me to this claim. Perhaps it was because most searches were being supplanted by people who had posted on Upton's primetime train wreck. Perhaps it is because such polls don't exist except in some obscure context; a one off poll that can be used as an underhanded swipe against the American education system.

I did however find a authoritative poll by National Geographic that pretty much decimates the Miss Teen USA claim. In fact the 2006 National Geographic - Roper Survey of Geographic Literacy Poll (GfK) stated explicitly that "Pinpointing North America on a Map Is a Breeze" and found that 94% of young Americans can find the United States on the world map. For those staffers at Miss Teen USA that are mathematically challenged that's only 6%, a far cry from the 20% number they are using. (download the whole survey here)

Pinpointing North America on a Map Is a Breeze

Nearly all (94%) young Americans can find the United States on the world map, and Canada (92%) and Mexico (88%) are nearly as familiar. Wide majorities can find bordering bodies of water including the Pacific Ocean (79%) and the Gulf of Mexico (75%). Trends from 2002 suggest that more young adults can pick out Canada and Mexico (with few signs of change for other countries). However, it is concerning that one in ten of those with up to a high school education cannot identify the U.S., and one in five cannot find the Pacific Ocean.

There are plenty of questions that Miss Teen USA could have used to make their point. In this case it appears that they are full of it. Unfortunately they took the most outrageous of claims and presented it as fact. This is the typical modus operandi of activists that feel compelled to over exaggerate wild claims to make a point that would otherwise be less alarming.

The Miss Teen USA pageant may get a little wiggle room here because the National Geographic - Roper poll only covered young Americans below the age of 25. On the flip side that could actually indicate an improvement in younger adults as compared to the general population. Even so, the GFK poll states that results vary little with age and that educational background is the biggest factor. Thus we can extrapolate to apply the results to the general population as a whole with some expectation of variance but not likely on the scale of 20% failure as stated by the pageant. With luck the failure rate could possibly decrease on that particular question.

I don't doubt that some poll exists with an ominous claim about the stupidity of geographically challenged Americans. But I also don't doubt that the poll in question, if it exists, has a giant asterisk that takes NBC's Miss Teen USA pageant to task for being a little loose with the facts when it comes to overplaying the dumb American card.

Terry Trippany is the editor at Webloggin.