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Americans Overestimate The Number of Muslims And Teen Moms, But Not By As Much As Reported

A poll out last week showed that many American adults will bring incorrect beliefs about their country into voting booths Tuesday. Respondents greatly overestimated the country’s number of Muslims, seniors, immigrants, unemployed people and teenage mothers.

Americans are not alone. Ipsos Mori conducted the poll online in August in 14 countries: the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea and nine European nations. In every country, respondents overestimated those same five numbers, averaging an answer on the percentage of residents who are Muslim that was more than five times as large as the truth (or as close as religion measures get to the truth) and by more than 10 times for the percentage of girls age 15 to 19 who give birth each year.

Amid so much ignorance, Americans scored particularly poorly. They ranked second, behind only Italians, in a measure Ipsos devised and named the Index of Ignorance.

When I saw the results, I wondered if they’d been skewed by outlier responses. Muslims, for instance, make up no more than 8 percent of the population of any of the countries surveyed, according to Ipsos. Perhaps a small minority of respondents guessed their countries were majority Muslim, and that made the rest of the answers look worse than they are.

At my request, Ipsos sent along the median responses — as opposed to the mean responses that the firm had originally reported — for every country for every question. These looked a little closer to the right numbers — but not by much.

For instance, 1 percent of Americans are Muslim, according to Ipsos. (More precisely, 0.6 percent according to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.) The mean guess for Americans in the Ipsos poll was 15.4 percent. The median? 10 percent.

The median was also a little closer to the reality of the unemployment rate. It’s about 6 percent among working-age people in the job market. The mean response was 32.1 percent. The median was 25 percent.

The same pattern held for nearly every question in every country: The median response was a little closer to the right one, but still very wrong.

Here’s a little good news, though: By median or mean, Americans did get a couple of things right. Their consensus responses on life expectancy and turnout rates were nearly exactly right.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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