I do well on the serious tests, badly on the silly ones

Pew quiz2

The trend continues.

There was a story in The Washington Post this morning about the fact that “One third of Americans think the government spends more on foreign aid than on social security.”

Stupid one third. Of course, this is a continuation of the stubborn belief that we spend some huge proportion of our budget on foreign aid, when we spend about 2 percent on it. People continue to get this wrong, against all reason, even though their foolishness has been written about over and over and over and over and over. This is related to the increasing irrational hostility toward government in general — most people don’t like the idea of foreign aid, so they overestimate how much is spent on it.

It’s the sort of thing that makes you want to give up on democracy. On your bad days, anyway. At the least, it underlines the superiority of representative democracy over the direct kind.

Anyway, the story said the findings came from one of those Pew quizzes I like so much, so I immediately went and took this one. I got 11 out of 12 right, putting me ahead of 96 percent of those tested.

But… and here’s the really, really embarrassing thing… I missed the same question as the stupid one-third did. No, I didn’t say “foreign aid.” I gave a different wrong answer. I knew the right answer, and if I had just done it in a hurry, I’d have gotten a 100. But I thought, “I haven’t compared these things in awhile. Maybe this other thing has overtaken the one I think it is. Maybe this is a fargin’ trick question.” So I chose the other thing. But it was, of course, the first thing.

The irony is that if I had done what I have to do taking the weekly Slate News Quiz, I’d have gotten it right. That test is timed, and I hate that about that test. I also hate that it is deliberately about details in the news, rather than about whether you know overall what’s going on, and the relationships between different facts (which is what Pew tests).

Anyway, this being Friday, I went and took that one. And bombed. See the results below.

I would do better on that if it weren’t timed. I can usually see through the red herrings and at least intuit the right answer if I take a little time. But you’re penalized for taking time. So I do badly. Note that I completed the test in one minute, 47 seconds. Which for me is barely enough time to properly consider one question, much less 12.

And yet, I took too much time on the other test. Go figure.

slate quiz

7 thoughts on “I do well on the serious tests, badly on the silly ones

  1. John

    I think it’s pretty reasonable for people to get the foreign aid vs social security question wrong. Foreign aid is officially defined as exclusive of military spending, but much overseas military spending is justified because it aids the stability of external governments. When we support protective military presences in places like South Korea we are providing a form of aid to the South Korean government. I imagine there are quite a lot of people out there who count those costs in the “foreign aid” category regardless of the budgetary source. The picture is complicated even more by the way much of the Iraq war spending was moved off-budget to “emergency spending” and therefore not summed in the budgeted expenses.

    It is also complicated by the nature of “paying” social security. If you trust the Social Security Administration’s numbers they have paid out about $11 trillion in benefits from 1937-2009 (http://www.ssa.gov/history/hfaq.html). They have taken in (from taxes and investment) about $13 trillion over that same period. So although a big portion of our budget involves social security it isn’t really fair to compare tax-and-spend numbers like foreign aid or foreign military aid to tax-invest-and-spend like social security.

    I fault the test, not the takers. The test asked if apples were oranges in a multiple choice format and didn’t give “no” as an option.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Good job!

      I had to guess on that and minimum wage. But I got them right because they were informed guesses. Based on everything else I knew about the world, those were the numbers that made sense.

      1. Doug Ross

        When I was in high school, we’d have current events quizzes every week… they should be mandatory in every school. But then some government bureaucrat would want to control the questions asked instead of letting teachers do their jobs.

        How hard would it be today to ask high school students to use their phones to take the Pew quiz once a month? And then go over the questions. Much more useful than reading some old English novel…

        1. Norm Ivey

          “…some government bureaucrat would want to control the questions asked instead of letting teachers do their jobs.”

          Thank you, Doug.

          I imagine that there are some high school teachers using the Pew quizzes. I have a SS teacher in my school who uses CNN student news every day. I’ll suggest the Pew quiz to him. That’s part of my job. Good idea, and thank you.

  2. Doug T

    10-12. embarassed I picked Sudan vs Liberia. Thought poverty was 25 %. I swear I heard that somewhere.
    I did look up where 1 in 5 children live in poverty…1 in 4 children in the South.
    Other test 7-12 in 1:25. It’s Friday night, I’m tired, and unlike Lake Wobegon I’m below avaerage.


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