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Ukraine crisis: Could geographic ignorance spark a war with Russia?

A survey conducted by a trio of political scientists and published on the Washington Post’s Web site has found the more wrong Americans are about the location of Ukraine on a map, the more likely they are to support US military intervention.

War, goes a saying usually attributed to Ambrose Bierce, is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.

Now, a trio of researchers might have found corollary to this maxim: Those who don’t know their geography are more likely to want to go to war.

At least that seems to be the case with the crisis in Ukraine. A survey conducted by political scientists Kyle Dropp, Joshua Kertzer, and Thomas Zeitzoff, published on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, found that just one out of six Americans could find Ukraine on a map. 

By itself, this isn’t surprising. Americans are famously ignorant about geography. But there is a twist: The farther a person’s guess was from the actual location, the more likely that person was to support US military intervention. Overall, 13 percent of respondents favored deploying US troops against Russian forces. This correlation held up even after controlling for education and general attitudes about foreign policy.

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The researchers surveyed 2,066 Americans, asking them to identify Ukraine by clicking on a high-resolution world map. Sixteen percent correctly clicked on a point on or within Ukraine’s borders, and most people correctly identified Ukraine as existing somewhere in Eurasia. But the median click was 1,800 miles off the mark. Kazakhstan was a popular choice, as were points in the middle of Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

As for the rest, some 80 respondents clicked in Africa, and 50 or so placed Ukraine in Greenland. Two clicked in Australia. Three placed Ukraine in Canada’s Hudson Bay. One clicked just off the coast of Antarctica.

At least 11 people apparently thought that Ukraine was Alaska, and another six placed it in the United States, raising the prospect that at least some Americans believe that parts of the United States are currently occupied by the Russian military. 

“If I thought Ukraine was in Kansas, I would have perceived it to be a larger threat,” says Dr. Dropp, a professor of government at Dartmouth college.

Dropp believes that it is more likely, however, that those who clicked in the United States misunderstood the question, or perhaps they just didn’t care. When he and his colleagues prepare their findings for a peer-reviewed journal, Dropp says that they will largely ignore data generated from clicks outside Eurasia and Africa.

The method devised by Dropp and his colleagues is unique in that it uses a measure of geographic distance. “Many previous measures of political knowledge have been dichotomous. You’re either right or your wrong,” Dropp said. “We’re excited that this measure can be continuous.”

When asked to speculate why there exists such a strong correlation between geographic ignorance and willingness to wage war with Russia, Dropp suggested that “familiarity with geography could be associated with the amount of news that people are exposed to, and that could be associated with the perceived cost of action.”

Thinkers since Socrates have argued that wisdom begins with awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge. In 1999, Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger sought to test the relationship between people’s ignorance and their awareness of their ignorance by asking undergraduates to rate their own abilities on humor, grammar, and logic. They then tested them on these subjects (the humor skills were assessed by professional comedians).

Dunning and Kruger found those scoring in the bottom quartile grossly overestimated their abilities, while those scoring in the top quartile tended to slightly underestimate their abilities. “We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden,” wrote their authors in what would become a landmark study in social psychology. “Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

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Dr. Dunning said that he had actually been in the middle of reading Dropp, Kertzer, and Zeitzoff’s article when the email from the Monitor requesting an interview arrived in his inbox. He said that he saw in their survey some aspects of the Dunning-Kruger effect, as it has come to be known. “I’m not surprised that a lot of people would misplace Ukraine,” he said. 

As for the respondents’ support for military intervention, Dunning said that without seeing the data, there is no way to tell whether their ignorance led them to support a war, or whether their support for war fueled their ignorance. “There are a lot of ways to get a correlation,” he said. “You don’t know which way the influence flows.”

It’s easy to feel superior when it comes to other people’s ignorance – writing for Mother Jones, journalist Kevin Drum has fun speculating that “[i]gnorant folks are more likely to be jingoistic supporters of military action” or perhaps that “[l]ow-information respondents are more easily manipulated by rabble-rousers” – but the point of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that it is universal. No matter how educated we may be, we all have our gaps, and we all lack awareness of the size of those gaps. “For each of us, our knowledge is amazing,” he said, “but our ignorance is infinite.”

“The thing to remember about all these studies,” Dunning says, “is that they are always about ‘us’ and not ‘them.'”