Some of you have wondered why National Geographic asked a question about the television show CSI on the Roper survey. This question reads “Which of these cities is the setting for the original television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation?” The four possible answers are San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Los Angeles. (The correct answer is Las Vegas.)
On this blog, and in e-mails, several folks have commented that the question is not really a very good indication of geographic know-how and amounts to television trivia.
The pop culture question was included on the survey as a contrast to substantive, real-world questions. The issue is not actually what percentage of young Americans know where CSI is set, but how many correctly answered that question compared to questions that we would assert really matter—questions about cultures, peoples, landmarks, security, economics, etc.
With this as our basis of inquiry, we can now say that more young Americans (39 percent) know that the fictional CSI is set in Las Vegas than can correctly select Chinese from a list of four options as the world’s most spoken primary language (18 percent). Three times as many knew where CSI is set than could find Afghanistan on a map of Asia (12 percent). A map of Asia! These results speak to the power of pop culture.
Asking a pop culture question is not unprecedented. In the 2002 National Geographic-Roper survey, we asked about that season’s location of the show Survivor. That year, more people knew the correct answer was the South Pacific (34 percent) than could correctly estimate the U.S. population (25 percent).
We recognize that these are not top-level benchmarks of geographic knowledge, but pop culture references make good examples of how young Americans can sometimes pay more attention to where their favorite television characters are sleuthing than where their troops are fighting.
Any single question on the survey can, of course, appear trivial. But, taken together, the results paint a disturbing portrait of geographic illiteracy on a range of knowledge and skills in an increasingly interconnected world.
National Geographic Education Foundation