Stats won't beat the tabloids who are scaring people stupid.
This week, the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London released the results of an Ipsos-MORI survey, which revealed that the British public are pretty out of touch with the modern world. Or, as the Independent put it, “British public wrong about nearly everything.“
Asked a series of questions about crime, religion, benefits, immigration and other hot topics from the Ukip manifesto, the public achieved about the same grade they’d get if they turned up to a GCSE exam and just scribbled "British Public" across the top of the first sheet. Apparently we all believe that the average Briton is an old, violent, criminal, Muslim immigrant, that the government spunks all our money on foreign aid and benefit fraud and that teenagers are squirting out babies faster than one of Bassett’s jelly assembly lines.
If these beliefs sound familiar, it’s probably because they’re the editorial line of papers like the Express and the Mail. If you're familiar with their reporting (let's face it, you are) it should be pretty clear why people are confused. It’s not surprising that people believe benefit fraud accounts for 24 percent of the welfare budget (real figure: 0.7 percent) when tabloids seem to be on an obsessive crusade to track down every last cheat in the land.
Then there’s teen pregnancy. Roughly 0.6 percent of girls under 16 get pregnant each year. Our survey says… 15 percent. On average, the British public believes rates of teen pregnancy are about 25 times higher than they actually are. Why? Well, take stories like the Evening Standard’s “Teen pregnancy soars,” which tells readers that “rates rose by 40 percent in some parts of London,” but never bothers to say what the actual rates are, for London or the country as a whole.
Even when reporters do give us numbers, they’re often framed in a misleading way. Steve Doughty’s Mail article lamenting Britain’s failure to “stem rise in teen pregnancy” tells us that rates have risen to around 3.1 percent, but defines teenage girls as anyone between 15 and 19. That’s technically accurate, but there’s a difference between pregnant schoolchildren and adults who are old enough to get married and have kids. I don’t see the Mail campaigning to raise the legal age for marriage to 21.
And it’s no surprise to see the same author behind another bit of wordplay, under the headline “Teen pregnancy fuels record abortion rates”. “200,000 abortions were carried out in Britain,” Doughty tells us, “including the highest number ever on teenagers.” That number turns out to be roughly 3,000 – or 1.5 percent – of the total. So teen pregnancy "fuelled" national abortion rates in the sense that you might "fuel" a bonfire by chucking a twig on it.
Immigration is another hot topic where our perceptions are about as close to reality as some tabloid spiel chastising Poles for wrecking the paradise of Slough. Incredibly, people believe on average that foreign-born immigrants account for 31 percent of our population, and a quarter of those surveyed believe that number is over 38 percent – nearly 4 in 10. The actual figure is barely a third of that, at 13 percent. Again, it’s hard not to draw links between these beliefs and popular press-supported conspiracy theories about a "Nu Liebour" plot to destroy Britain through the weapon of mass immigration, which is apparently the 21st century equivalent of a supervillain’s giant space death laser.
But the most worrying part of the survey is that even when people are given the correct figure, they still don’t necessarily believe it. The Royal Statistical Society survey singled out those who thought immigrants accounted for 26 percent of the population or more, and told them that the 2011 Census showed the actual figure to be 13 percent. Around half simply ignored the new figure outright, and nearly 6 out of 10 suggested a hidden, uncounted mass of illegal immigrants must make up the difference, hiding in tunnels like some sort of evil Womble army ready to rise up at any moment and fuck our teenagers.
So what can we do to improve public knowledge? This is where the Royal Statistical Society look a bit naïve. Their executive director, Hetan Shah, said in a press release that the results pose “real challenges for policymakers. How can you develop good policy when public perceptions are so out of kilter with the evidence?” He goes on to suggest that “politicians need to be better at talking about the real state of affairs of the country, rather than spinning the numbers,” that, “the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues, rather than use statistics to sensationalise,” and that “we need better teaching of statistical literacy in schools".
So that’s sorted then. All we need to do is just train everyone up in statistics, and make politicians and editors realise that things would be so much better if only they could learn to speak to the public in streams of ungarnished fact-nuggets. If people understood numbers better, all their fears about crime and immigration and swollen-bellied teenage daughters carrying the spawn of the violent Muslim hordes would disappear overnight. Problem solved. See you at next week's column.
Except it’s pretty obvious that at least two of these two suggestions (or roughly 100 percent of them) are bollocks. Sure, it’s barely worth saying that it’s good to educate people, and the RSS survey is an interesting exercise in quantifying something we already knew – that the windows of the Clapham omnibus are as distorted as fairground mirrors. What it fails to tackle in any meaningful way is why that’s the case.
I’ve spoken to a lot of cranks, quacks and conspiracy theorists in my time, and to a lot of people who aren’t in those categories but are fairly sympathetic to their views – which is actually a frighteningly large number of people. It’s pretty rare in my experience that they came to their beliefs by sitting down with a pile of facts and working out which ones were true or not. Nobody looked at a bunch of clinical trial results and decided to become a homeopath.
Instead, people tend to have a pre-existing model of the world, and fit everything into that model. That’s why so many anti-capitalist greens are seduced by the rhetoric of anti-Pharma homeopaths, why anti-regulation climate denial in political circles tends to overlap with libertarian euro-scepticism, and why writers spreading fear over the MMR vaccine tended to be suspicious of government in general and the Labour government specifically. Facts don’t exist in a vacuum, we interpret – or ignore – them according to whatever we believe – or want to believe – at the time. If somebody opposes further immigration, does it really matter to them whether the current figure is 13 percent or 33 percent?
Ally Fogg tells us in the Independent that if politicians want to get Britons turned-on by democracy, “the first step is obvious: start telling us the truth, and the whole truth”. Well that all sounds very noble, but Nigel Farage didn’t drag his collection of pub-bunkered eccentrics onto the forecourt of British politics by dropping his statistical truth-bombs on the British public; he did it by memorising every Richard Littlejohn column for the last ten years and turning up on telly more often than the Churchill dog to do his impersonation of Jeremy Clarkson’s dad.
Ultimately, politicians and editors survive in their jobs because they tell people what they want to hear. You can educate people and you can spout facts like a Wikipedia server until someone gets bored and punches you in the face, but that assumes that people are empty vessels, waiting to be filled with your nourishing wisdom. In reality we’re more like obese, sugar-addicted tourists in a theme park, ready to stuff our faces with whatever feels good. You can educate people about vegetables and you can plant a few carrots on the donut stand, but none of that really tackles the things that made them so unhealthy in the first place.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins