Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Who makes the public ignorant?

I was interested to be pointed to these survey results in '12 things the British Public Are Completely Wrong About' on Buzzfeed (and finally to the actual survey results here at IPSOS Mori). This is partly fascinating because two of the results simply don't show what the headline suggests, yet no one seems to have noticed this, and partly because it's interesting to think about why public perception is wrong on these issues - and a large part of the blame has to go to politicians, TV and newspapers.

Let's deal with that little quirk where the figures don't reflect what's being said. We are told that 29% of people think that the government spends more on Job Seekers Allowance than pensions and, by coincidence, 29% of people think foreign aid is one of the government's top three expenditures. (In reality we spend 15 times more on pensions than JSA, and foreign aid is not even in the top 10.) The actual figures were 29% and 26%, which surely don't support the headline hypothesis 'Things the British Public are Completely Wrong About'. The title tells us that most of the public are wrong, and yet we are talking about a quarter of those polled. My suspicion is that one reason some people did get this wrong is that it involves doing comparisons with ridiculously large numbers, because the numbers spent on the health service, say, makes anything else seem negligible. In reality, for normal people, as opposed to the government, the £7.9 billion spent on foreign aid is still a massive number, which could easily make it sound like one of the higher expenditures.

But it is particularly interesting to take a look at some of the other assertions (which do seem to be more representative of public views) and see where they might have come from.
  1. On average, those questioned thought that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year. This is the most bizarre statistic of the lot. Assuming girls can get pregnant from around 12, this would require more than half of those who could get pregnant to get pregnant every year. In fact if you look at the breakdown of responses, around 70 people thought that 40% of girls under 16 got pregnant - which means every single girl who was capable of becoming pregnant doing so, plus rather a lot of others. Boggle. It certainly demonstrates a poor understanding of basic statistics. Where does the wrong impression come from? Probably right wing politicians, reinforced a bit by the media, who talk about teenage pregnancies far more than the actual data (which is a rate of about 0.6%) suggests is necessary.
  2. 58% do not think that crime is falling and 51% think violent crime is rising (again the Buzzfeed article got a number wrong). There's an element of politicians talking too much about this, but the fault is primarily with the media. Admittedly I have heard several times on the news that crime rates are falling, but there is always a 'but' immediately afterwards where after some scraping around they manage to find some crime statistic (any crime statistic) that is rising. They can't just report good news, it goes against their miserable natures. And, of course, day after day crimes are reported in the way many other things that happen day after day aren't.
  3. We think that there are nearly as many muslims (24%) in the country as christians (34%) where the figures are actually 5% and 59% (sort of, though that second figure is an overestimate by most measures). This has to primarily be a news agenda thing. I can't remember when I last heard a news bulletin that didn't mention muslims in some way - in large part because a lot of world problems are happening in muslim countries. So the religion gets more media coverage than is representative of the muslim presence in the UK. It isn't helped when we get the silly halal meat type blowups, when people will assume that surely restaurants wouldn't make a change like that to accommodate such a small percentage of the population. This is a hard one to do anything about because the news agenda is so driven by strife.
  4. We thing 31% of the country are immigrants and 30% are black and asian, where actual numbers are around 13% and 11%. The immigrant side of the equation surely comes from the politicians making such a fuss about it. My suspicion is that the black and asian misjudgement is mainly because the media is so London-based, so whenever they, say, visit a school it has a different black and asian mix from that you would expect in the country as a whole. The media also tries so hard not to exclude minorities that there is a tendency to have a higher representation of black and asian presenters in some parts of the media than reflects the national average, though strangely the percentages tend to be too low in many dramas.
It seems a mix of poor understanding of statistics (I still can't get over that '15% of girls under 16 getting pregnant'), disproportionate focus by political parties and imbalanced reporting in the media, which is always happier, for instance, to tell us about crimes than about the eradication of crime, means that the British public is sadly misinformed. 

If you'd like to see some more detail on the data behind the headlines, take a look at these slides:

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