Why we’re wrong about everything

The London Economic

By Phil Scullion 

The British public is wrong about nearly everything. When I first saw that headline in The Independent I thought it was from a satirical piece by the Daily Mash.

But no, it turns out we actually are woefully misinformed and there are the statistics to prove it.

Our biggest misconceptions are on benefit fraud, immigration, crime and teen pregnancy. No surprise that these four are all particular bugbears of the popular right wing press.

Ipsos Mori found that the public think £24 of every £100 in benefit money is fraudulently claimed, in a survey conducted for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London. Actually the figure is just 70 pence.

Considering we live in a climate where benefit claimants are increasingly vilified and dehumanised, the fact the public perception of benefit fraud is so out of kilter is not just concerning, it’s downright terrifying.

Skip over to immigration and the statistics are not much better. Media reports of an “invasion” of immigrants from overseas have led the majority to assume that 31 per cent of the population is made up of recent immigrants. Actually, it’s 15 per cent.

Teen pregnancy is another area in which we, as a nation, know nothing. Have a guess at what percentage of girls aged 16 and under become pregnant each year. If you said 15 per cent, you’d be in tune with the public but way out on the actual number. It’s estimated at just 0.6 per cent. That may well still be too high, but it’s far lower than I assumed and I’d wager that it’s lower than you did too.

And the inaccuracies keep on rolling. Crime – over half do not think it is falling, but government statistics say that it is down. Now we can question the veracity of those figures, but in order to do that we need to know what the official statistics say at least. The fact we don’t is less a reflection on the government’s honesty over crime and more an indication of the fact that the general public does not even care about the debate.

It’s difficult to imagine how frustrating that must be for the Conservative party press office.

A couple more topics we’ve no idea about. Foreign aid – a quarter think it is in the top three items the government spend money on, in fact it accounts for just 1.1 per cent of expenditure.

And pensions – almost a third believe we spend more on Jobseekers’ Allowance than we do on pensions. In fact we spend 15 times more on pensions. Some commentators would justifiably consider this the biggest outrage. We’re sleepwalking into an unsustainable pension crisis and the ordinarily alarmist media haven’t even told us about it. Perhaps that’s because most newspapers believe it does not suit the desire for self-enforcing opinions they attribute to their primarily older readership.

So, assuming Ipsos Mori’s survey of 1,015 people aged 16-75 is at least in some senses accurate, how has it happened and what’s to be done about it?

For a start, it’s important to acknowledge that this phenomenon is nothing new. Ask the average member of the public about major issues of the day in the 1980s and you’d be unlikely to get genuine statistical arguments.

Our politicians may be self serving and interested chiefly in re-election, but it has always been that way. The media are prone to sensationalism, but they are only reflecting what the consumer wants. Responsibility falls on the reader to accept or reject the information the media present.

It may seem as if all is lost and disinterested apathy is the price we must pay for peace and relative prosperity, but actually that isn’t the case. There is cause for optimism in this, the information age.

The difference today is that poor arguments, based on factual inaccuracies, are far more easily disproved. Think of a debate in the pub 30 years ago; there was no ability to bring out the iPhone and effortlessly prove someone who is spouting off to be hopelessly wrong.

The problem is that most people choose not to follow these basic principles of research to inform their opinions. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink or win the Grand National (especially if you’ve staked a tenner on it).

In a world of glossy headlines and short attention spans, the errant statistic or the misleading half-baked story is far more appealing to most people. We can’t decide what to trust online, so we either trust nothing or the wrong sources. Despite my disapproving sneer, I read the Daily Mail on my phone every morning, and I enjoy it very much.

The other thing I read every morning is my Facebook feed. Usually I get a special treat from a couple of my virtual pals; the kind I went to school with and have not seen for 15 years, who lament various political subjects from a variety of ill thought out positions. Usually I chuckle and let it slide. After all, I’m probably guilty of the exact same thing. And who knows, my argument with their position might be based entirely on my own misunderstanding. It’s happened before and I’m pretty sure it’ll happen again.

But as a result of this Ipsos Mori survey I’ve actually had a re-think. Our ability to acknowledge how woefully misinformed we are actually presents a big opportunity. We can’t ever put our 100 per cent trust in the statistics we find nor the articles we read.

But we can debate them. And if each of us applies the basic principle of researching our position, being prepared to change it when new information is presented, then it will undoubtedly increase our collective understanding.

Voltaire told us that no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. And a landslide of misinformed opinion on political issues could see international aid cut to those who most need our help, the vilification of benefit claimants and a switch to populist economic policies which will result in our financial ruin.

You’ll appreciate then that the stakes are high.

In fact they’re so high that next time I see someone posting an errant Facebook status, making an illogical inflammatory remark, or repeating a downright statistical inaccuracy, I’m not going to be polite and ignore it; I’m going to challenge them.

And I hope they’d do the exact same to me.

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