Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Sleepy, Grumpy, Larry, Moe, Krypton — that’s what seems to stick in the national mind-set these days. Americans are more familiar with the Seven Dwarfs, the Three Stooges and Superman than with current events and world leaders, according to yet another poll that reveals our trite side.

In a survey released yesterday, veteran political pollster John Zogby determined that although 77 percent of us can identify two of the Seven Dwarfs, only 24 percent could name two Supreme Court justices.

“Not surprisingly, Clarence Thomas, whose nomination was marked by controversy, was the most recognized justice — identified twice as often as his next best-known peer on the Supreme Court — Antonin Scalia,” the survey stated.

Justice Thomas was cited by almost 20 percent of the respondents and Justice Scalia by a little less than 11 percent. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were tied at 9 percent. Sixty-three percent were unsure just who was on the Supreme Court. Only 11 percent knew that Samuel A. Alito Jr. was confirmed as the 110th Supreme Court justice in January.

Sleepy, incidentally, was the most frequently cited Dwarf, followed by Dopey, Grumpy and Sneezy.

Meanwhile, a tidy 74 percent were able to name Moe, Larry and Curly as the Stooges in question — with almost an equal number able to name later members of the slapstick team. But alas, the majority of respondents were unable to name another high-profile group of three: only 42 percent knew that the legislative, executive and judicial branches made up the federal government.

Should such findings be worrisome? Surveys that bemoan the demise of scholarship in America are common. Research released in May by the National Geographic Society, for example, found 88 percent of our young adults can’t find Afghanistan on a world map, evidence of a geographic illiteracy that “isolates us from the world,” society President John Fahey said at the time.

Syracuse University communications professor Robert Thomson, who designed the questions on the Zogby poll, is not quite so concerned.

“These results are not about how ‘dumb’ Americans are, but how much more effective popular culture information is communicated and retained by citizens than many of the messages that come from government, educational institutions and the media,” Mr. Thompson said. “There are important lessons to be learned here.”

Still, more Americans knew boy wizard Harry Potter than British Prime Minister Tony Blair, 57 percent and 49 percent, respectively. And 60 percent knew Krypton as Superman’s home planet, but only 40 percent knew that Mercury was the closest planet to the sun.

The survey of 1,213 adults was conducted July 21 to 27 with a margin of error of three percentage points. It was commissioned by America Online.

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