Friday 12 July 2013

The ignorance of the Great British Public

A poll has just been produced by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London, which reveals a high level of ignorance among the British public about various social statistics.

But before you read the results and get too smug, take this test published by the Guardian to check your own level of knowledge. (I managed ten out of ten, but only by guessing on the basis of choosing the opposite of likely tabloid newspaper prejudices).

IPSOS Mori’s results reveal a shocking level of ignorance among the Great British Public:
  • On average, the public thinks that teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates.
  • 58% of people do not believe that crime is falling, even though it has been falling for many years.
  • 29% of people think we spend more on Jobseeker’s Allowance than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions.
  • 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top two or three items of government expenditure, when it actually comprised only 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 (£51.5bn).
  • People estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates. On average, the public thinks that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of 70p per £100.
  • On average, the public thinks that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figure is 13%.
Since I am writing this blog and you are reading it, it is safe to assume we share membership of a minority with an interest in public policy issues. Most people do not share our level of interest and cannot reasonably be expected to have a detailed knowledge. So the issue here is not ‘ignorance’ so much as the fact that perceptions vary so wildly from reality, and that this variance distorts the political climate in which decisions are made.

The Guardian’s analysis reports that the Royal Statistical Society cites three main reasons for popular misconceptions:
  1. Political spin – Politicians tend to twist numbers for their own ends rather than discussing statistics even-handedly.
  2. Tabloid journalism – The researchers argue “the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues, rather than use statistics to sensationalise”.
  3. Data literacy – If statistics were taught differently in UK schools, the public would have a better ability to critically assess evidence for themselves.
Politicians’ dishonesty, sensationalist journalism, poor education or merely popular indifference? All play their part but the most important question appears in the least likely of sources.

Of all the daily newspapers, you might expect the Daily Express to defend popular prejudices most but, to be fair, the Express’s report is even-handed. It quotes Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, who poses the key question:
Our data poses real challenges for policymakers. How can you develop good policy when public perceptions can be so out of kilter with the evidence?
This question reveals the risk, or rather two risks; two (small ‘c’) conservative responses.

The populist response – which is more likely in an age of followership – is for politicians to adopt policies intended to mollify popular prejudices irrespective of the evidence, for example by demonising welfare recipients. But why must public policy genuflect to popular ignorance? Yes, we live in a democracy and government should reflect the will of the people, but that does not absolve politicians of respect for the truth or responsible leadership. If an opinion poll says that a majority believes that 2 + 2 = 5, it remains the duty of politicians to remind people that it equals 4. To do otherwise is to abdicate all responsibility. After all, it’s not as if rank populism has succeeded in raising popular respect for politicians.

The elitist response is expressed by Alex Massie in the Spectator. He seems to suggest that popular ignorance can justify ignoring the public and concentrating power still further. His message seems to be, “leave it to the grown-ups”:
The public mood matters – and measuring it is important – but when it comes to the detail of actual government policy the public is, generally speaking, clueless.
Massie adds:
...the next time you find yourself outraged by some politician’s witless stupidity you might pause to remember the clay with which they have to work. It’s not a pretty business.
No, it’s not a pretty business, but we seem to have forgotten what true political leadership entails. It is neither the craven populism of “give ’em what they want” nor is it Massie’s contemptuous elitism. It is about standing up for truth and justice, even at the risk of short-term unpopularity.

As everyone involved in politics knows to their cost, the age of deference has gone. The Great British Public has no fear of challenging any politician. But what poll-fixated politician would risk reciprocating by telling the Great British Public when they are talking demonstrable bollocks? Paradoxically, such brutal honesty might earn more popular respect. Challenging popular falsehoods treats the falsehood not the believer with contempt. Repeating popular fallacies to curry favour with the public treats the believer with contempt, and is why such rank populism has contributed to the decline in popular respect for politics and politicians.

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