Monday, March 8, 2010

How much do you know about the census?

A friend sent me one of those online quizzes--this was on MSNBC, about census info:

He sent it to his stepkids-equivalents (both college students) and me and my spouse.

I got 30%; my spouse, 40%--and we're both pretty educated. Sigh.

I sort of dismissed it as a quiz about trivia, and one of the college students did too, making the sort of airy dismissal of demographic knowledge that liberal arts types are fond of making. And I sort of did too, saying I only knew significa, not trivia (though I notice that lots of other people think my significa are their trivia, to be honest).

But I had second thoughts, and here they are. These contain many spoilers for the quiz, so take it first (if you're going to take it at all) before reading further.

This whole discussion isn't directly about politics, but it is relative to the sort of prep people should do before engaging in political discussions. Like the Music Man said, "ya gotta know the territory."

So here are my thoughts [remember, take the test now before reading on; it's only 10 multiple choice questions]:

Given Google etc., this test raises the question of what should be in our heads vs. what should we have the skills/knowledge to look up if we need to vs. what’s just downright trivial.

I said a lot of it was trivial, but reconsidering this little quiz, I’m thinking it’s more useful than I gave it credit for.

1. Which state has the largest Asian population?
4. Blacks make up what % of the American population?
These really ask how much demographics should we know?
I suppose it depends on whether you want people to listen when you speak about anything besides interpersonal stuff.
Everyone on this thread is pretty numerate, yes? That means you know what numbers mean—and just as someone who can read sheet music hears it when he reads it, and someone who understands finances SEES the cashflows of an enterprise when he looks at a balance sheet—someone who understands demographics sees a country in those stats, senses the particularly multithreaded character of our nations…looks at our flag with big yellow eyes and say “I see you.”

3. How much candy do Americans eat annually per person?
This really asks whether public health issues matter to you (or, selfishly, whether the candy industry is a growth industry it would be practical to get into). Of course if you only care about yourself or just yourself and people you know personally, maybe it doesn’t matter.

5. Several towns are noted for their Christmas-like names…
Who cares? I dunno why anyone would give a rat’s patootie about knowing this. If you ever do need to know, that’s what Google’s for, right?

6. Which of the following occupations has the highest number of employees?
I got this wrong—I thought it was janitors & building cleaners. This actually falls under the rubric of demographics, like questions 1 & 4, only I knew the answers to those & not to this, so it must be different (!).
Sure, you can look this up if you have a particular need to know it. And obviously I didn’t feel that need. But it is nice to have a feel for this country as a sort of living tapestry of workflows—as a microorganism, collectively sessile, individually mobile, like a gigantic coral reef of sorts.

7. % of Americans with disability?
I estimated 10% while it was 15%. For my purposes that was close enough—in the ballpark. This quiz doesn’t distinguish between being close and being clueless. I don’t think you have to be spot on if it’s not a professional need. A quiz like this would be better if it gave partial points for close-to-correct answers, because that maps better to what laypeople like us need to know. Basically we just need to be in the ballpark.

8. Which state raises the most turkeys?
I don’t suppose it’s crucial to your grasp of Western Civilization to know this, and I didn’t. Minnesota was my second choice, but I went with Arkansas, a huge chicken state.
Some facts are inherently entertaining. I admit, this isn’t one of them. But people who can take an interest in facts that don’t glow all on their own have a huge advantage in life. Because they put their own glow on everything. Then the world, which is to so many a gray flat place with occasional fountains of light and even rarer fireworks, becomes a perpetual Indonesian scuba diving trip, and the extra-special stuff becomes even specialer.
And now you’ve heard poetic prose about turkey stats.

9. What % of households consider their neighborhood safe?
I was waaaaay off on this one, and I still find the stat on the test hard to grasp. And this question is probably the best reason for me at least to have taken this test, because it’s the only one where the answer matters and I was clueless—but thought I was clueful. You have to find out when and where your assumptions are seriously wrong, and the only way is to put them out there, as when you take a test like this. My parents both lived in separate alternate realities, in which their own dreams and desires and fears trumped the real world. It caused them pain and everyone around them as well. It made me passionate about the beauty of real reality as opposed to projecting my inner state on the world/universe. So questions like this, where I was so wrong, matter a lot to me.

10. Nation’s 2nd most frequently reported ancestry?
Here again I was one off (German, which is the most frequently reported). Probably close enough for us non-demographers. Again I make a pitch for the ballpark. When I was a teacher, I found that kids tended strongly to think you were either right or wrong, and they had no grasp of how important ballparking is. They think close means no kewpie doll. But in real life, have a pretty good general grasp of demographic reality is very useful. Tests would map to real life better if they followed this instead of reinforced the false perception kids have that it’s a universe dimorphic in all things.


Brian said...

Bah, I only got 20%. What is really strange is that I got 6,7,8, and 10 wrong--but answered the same as you did.

Ehkzu said...

...which means you were often in the ballpark, which matters more, actually...right?