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Don’t believe that splashy finding that 10 percent of college graduates think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court

- January 20, 2016
Judy Sheindlin with bailiff Petri Hawkins Byrd on the set of her syndicated show “Judge Judy” in 2006. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Maybe you’ve seen the finding in the headline of this post. Maybe you saw it here. Or here. Or here. Or here. It’s even in US Weekly.

It comes from a new survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which paints a grim picture of the state of civic education in the United States. And, yes, it’s true that many Americans cannot recall certain facts about American history and government when they are asked questions about those subjects in a survey interview. But this particular finding about “Judge Judy” isn’t as bad as it appears.

Here is how ACTA has described this finding:

That same study unearthed the shocking fact that nearly 10% of participants thought that Judith Sheindlin — “Judge Judy” — is on the Supreme Court.

And several media outlets dutifully reported it in the same way. Here is US Weekly:

A new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reveals that nearly 10 percent of college graduates think that the TV personality Judge Judy [real name: Judge Judith Sheindlin] belongs to the highest judicial body in the United States.

Reading this, you might have the impression that 10 percent of college graduates said that “Judge Judy” was on the Supreme Court. But if we take a look at the actual survey question, a different interpretation emerges. The question was:

Which of the following people serves on the U.S. Supreme Court?

a. Elena Kagan
b. Lawrence Warren Pierce
c. John Kerry
d. Judith Sheindlin

First, note that the question doesn’t say “Judge Judy.” It says Judith Sheindlin. Of course, the vast, vast majority of Americans do not know who Judith Sheindlin is, although they may have heard of Judge Judy.

This means that the answers people are choosing from include: the actual Supreme Court Justice (Kagan), a retired judge from the US Court of Appeals (Pierce), the secretary of state (Kerry) and Sheindlin.

So how many college graduates either knew the answer or were able to guess correctly? 66 percent. In other words, a large majority of college graduates got the answer correct. Somehow, this didn’t make US Weekly.

In addition, 22 percent chose Pierce, 6 percent chose Kerry, and 10 percent chose Sheindlin. What do we make of these respondents? Perhaps they have entirely wrong beliefs. But equally if not more plausible is that they simply guessed.

Perhaps “Lawrence Warren Pierce” was the most common second choice because his name sounds “judicial.” (It is highly unlikely that respondents would have recognized his name and identified him as a judge.) It is comforting that relatively few chose Kerry, who at least is a visible figure in an entirely different government position.

And as for those who said Sheindlin, I think the interpretation is quite different than what’s been implied by media coverage. It is not that 10 percent of college graduates “think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.” It is that a small minority of survey respondents did not know which of the four was on the Supreme Court, and so happened to guess that it was a person named “Judith Sheindlin.”

My point here is not to suggest that the state of civic education in America is fine and dandy, or that it wouldn’t be beneficial for Americans to know more about their history and government. But a closer reading of the actual survey question and the responses suggests a different interpretation than what has prevailed thus far.

Of course, “Most college graduates identified Elena Kagan as a Supreme Court Justice” doesn’t make for a “shocking” piece of clickbait.