Intelligence varies more than it may appear. I tend to live and work with people near my own intelligence level, and so―probably―do you. I know there's at least two tiers above me. But there's even more tiers below me.

A Gallup poll of 1,016 Americans asked whether the Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun revolves around the Earth. 18% got it wrong. This isn't an isolated result. An NSF poll found a slightly worse number.

Ironically, Gallup's own news report draws an incorrect conclusion. The subtitle of their report is "Four-fifths know earth revolves around sun". Did you spot the problem? If 18% of respondents got this wrong then an estimated 18% got it right just by guessing. 3% said they don't know. If this was an exam, then we would conclude that only three fifths of Americans know the Earth goes around the Sun.

The NSB, which gets its data from the GSS, found 27% of Americans got this question wrong. If we assume those 27% were guessing, then 46% of Americans know that the Earth goes around the Sun.

It could be worse. 59% answered correctly the sex chromosome question, which indicates that 18% know the true answer. 45% answered correctly about whether lasers focus sound waves which means that −10% of Americans know that lasers don't focus sound.

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How valid is it to assume that (approximately) everyone who got the heliocentrism question wrong got it wrong by "guessing"? If 18% got it wrong, then your model says that there's 36% who had no clue and half guessed right, but at the other extreme there's a model that everyone 'knows' the answer, but 18% 'know' the wrong answer. I'm not sure which is scarier - 36% clueless or 18% die-hard geocentrists - but I don't think we have enough information here to tell where on that spectrum it is. (In particular, if "I don't know" was an option and only 3% selected it, then I think this is some evidence against the extreme end of 36% clueless?)

My guess at the truth of the matter is that almost no one is 100% guessing, but some people are extremely confident in their answer (a lot of the correct folks and also a small number of die-hard geocentrists), and then there's a range down to people who haven't thought about it in ages and just have a vague recollection of some elementary school teacher. Which I think is also a more hopeful picture than either the 36% clueless or the 18% geocentrists models? Because for people who are right but not confident, I'm reasonably ok with that; ideally they'd "know" more strongly, but it's not a disaster if they don't. And for people who are wrong but not confident, there are not that many of them and also they would happily change their mind if you just told them the correct answer.

That's a good point. Human intuitions are geocentric, so the number of people guessing on the heliocentrism question is probably less than 18%. From an expected value perspective, we can treat 18% as guessing, whereas from a default geocentric perspective we can treat 0% as guessing.

But it goes both ways. For questions matching human intuition, if % guess wrong then we should assume >% got it correct by guessing.

This is where the word "belief" gets fuzzy. I think that's what's actually going on is that going on with the laser question is people read "Lasers work by focusing <mumble>" which does match the truth. Due to bad heuristics, it's possible for more than 50% of a survey population to guess wrong on a true-or-false question, which means the things they guess right need to be adjusted downward of else we get nonsensical results.

Forget about science. Most people can't use computers really.

What Most Users Can Do

(Skill level 1), [60% of users]

- Little or no navigation required to access the information or commands required to solve the problem

- Few steps and a minimal number of operators

- Problem resolution requiring the respondent to apply explicit criteria only (no implicit criteria)

- Few monitoring demands (e.g., having to check one’s progress)

- Identifying content and operators done through simple match

- No need to contrast or integrate information 

Data from the OECD study of technical skills show the distribution among skill levels across countries as well as the average for all OECD countries.

Wow. "Level 2" includes things like "the respondent may have to make use of a novel online form".

Those are great links! They help me understand Apple's business model so much better.

This is so outside my personal experience. The most non-technical person at my company uses spreadsheets, which puts him well into Level 3.

You might like this classic 4chan greentext: link.

I just can't believe the claims in that greentext. 95% of <90 IQ cannot understand "if you had not eaten all day yesterday, how would you feel in the evening?". That's 25% of the population. It's over 50% of certain large demographic subdivisions.

I do! Never seen that one before. It's interesting. I wish I had an easy way to confirm its accuracy, but the more I think about it, the more of my real life experience I connect it to.

The recursion example rings especially true. It's not just in writing that the ability to do recursion seems to have a hard cutoff.

That greentext helps me understand other people so much better. I take the ability to distinguish ethical anachronisms for granted, and hadn't realized how difficult it must be for other people.

There's another post in that series the first link missed. Look at the end of this one: link (sorry, low res image).


Well it's definitely related to the other topic this week :

Apparently "human level" isn't too hard to reach at least in the domain of "question and answer".  I wonder how often the 'gotcha' questions that current LLMs usually fail can be solved by even 50% of Americans...

Yup. I feel similarly about "human values". The values of specific people are great. Humanity's declared preferences are contradictory and incoherent. Humanity's revealed preferences are awful.

What do most people gain from knowing this trivium? It's useful if you're signaling that you're on the side of "Science!" (which requires you to similarly "know" a lot of things that're a lot more dubious, and many things are are meaningless or outright false) but otherwise, unless you're an astrophysicist or similar, it makes no difference to you one way or the other.

Not much. I'm using it as a proxy measurement for general knowledge.

I was thinking about that scene when I wrote this post.

Is there a list of "basic scientific knowledge" somewhere? I am imagining a project where someone makes a 1-minute video for each item in the list, and then... dunno, the playlist is played on repeat e.g. in every bus all day long.

Trying to determine what your point here is.

Since "intelligence" (thorny definition) could be said to be distributed in a normal distribution (if it's even possible to plot "intelligence" (let's say, "intellectual" or, dear me, "IQ")), and those people below the median would be less likely to be well educated (making assumptions here), then it would be expected that a significant proportion of every population will have people that won't answer these questions as well educated people with higher intelligence (to me these are obvious points, though maybe I'm missing something here).

I think a lot of people in high school (and otherwise) had little motivation to learn, so their knowledge may seem painfully inadequate compared to that readers of forums such as this. But, then, if you ask these people what practical use is knowledge of genetics or whether a star revolves around a plant of vice versa, their answer would probably not surprise you.

But, then, perhaps they could gut a fish in 30 seconds or fix the carburetor on your car as the zombies are closing in (faster than you* or I would whilst we're frantically speeding up the youtube video or sending the photo to chatgpt), so pluses and minuses (I won't judge in which direction the pluses and minsues tally for any person at any particular time in any particular universe).

On the other hand: Idiocracy (2006)

  • I make the assumption that you can't fix a carburetor. I'm not sure I spelled it correctly.

The thing I'm trying to do is calibrate my model of the distribution of human intelligence. The actual distribution is way lower than my immediate environment makes it appear. Here's another post I wrote which should provide some context on what I mean when I write about "human intelligence". The basic idea is that things like "can fix a carburetor" and "understands genetics" are correlated, not anti-correlated.

If the subtitle of the report is as quoted, the report writers are even wronger than that.

Here's the exact title and subtitle.

Title: New Poll Gauges Americans' General Knowledge Levels

Subtitle: Four-fifths know earth revolves around sun

Why are they even wronger?

I don’t know, I seem to have misread it as “ Four-fifths know sun revolves around earth”.

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