There’s a pretty shocking survey out this week from the Royal Statistical Society. It explores the difference between reality and public opinion on several key social issues. There is in many cases a gaping chasm between the two. The RSS has compiled a top ten, and here are a few of them:
- Crime: I’ve written about this one before, but 58% do not believe that crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows a 19% fall between 2006 and 2012. 51% think violent crime is rising, when it has fallen from almost 2.5 million incidents in 2006/07 to under 2 million in 2012.
- Unemployment benefits: 29% of people think we spend more on Job Seekers Allowance than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn).
- Benefit fraud: The public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100. The public’s estimate is 34 times the actual figure.
- Foreign aid: 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year. More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions,(which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn).
- Immigration: the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%. There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11%.
These misperceptions matter. If you think foreign aid is too high, you’ll argue that it should be stopped. You’ll tolerate arbitrary cuts to benefits if you think many of them are being claimed unfairly. And you’ll join UKIP if you are labouring under the false impression that a third of the country wasn’t born here.
The danger of course is that it’s far easier for politicians to play to the perceptions rather than the reality. Deal with facts, and the public is all of a sudden not on your side. The result is populist policies that pander to falsehoods, and a political culture that is ultimately based on lies.
The same goes for the media. You’ll sell more papers by telling people things they like to hear. Propagating these false perceptions reinforces our prejudices.Without wanting to name any names, legitimising their readers’ bigotry seems to be the raison d’etre of some of Britain’s papers.
The executive director of the RSS, Hetan Shah, sums up the challenge well: “We need to see three things happen. Firstly, politicians need to be better at talking about the real state of affairs of the country, rather than spinning the numbers. Secondly, the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues, rather than use statistics to sensationalise. And finally, we need better teaching of statistical literacy in schools, so that people get more comfortable in understanding evidence.”