The Perils of Perception

The Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London published last week the results of their study The Perils of Perception which was conducted to tackle the divide between public views and the evidence on key social issues such as crime, benefit fraud and immigration.

The results were shocking.

|| We think that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when only 0.6% do.

|| We don’t think that crime is falling, when incidents of crime are 19% lower than in 2012.

|| We think that we spend more on JSA than pensions, when in reality we spend 15 times more on pensions.

|| We think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, when it is £0.70 of every £100.

|| We think that foreign aid is one of the top items government spends money on, when it only made up 1.1% of expenditure in 2011/2012.

|| We think 24% of the British population is Muslim, when it is 5%.

|| We think 31% of the population is made of immigrants, when it is 13%.

|| We think that 36% of the population is over 65, when it is 16%.

|| We think that capping benefits will save the most money, when it is thought to save £290m compared with the savings of £5bn for raising pension age and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit in wealthier households.

|| We think that 43% of the population votes, when 65% does.

We are off the mark. And the consequences of this could be severe. In her article for the Guardian on Sunday, Tanya Gold wrote that “the politics of fury and disenchantment must not be based on ignorance.” She warns that if they are, society will break down.

It is vital that you and I have a handle on the issues society is facing and policies relating to them if we are to contribute positively, by voting wisely and working in our (political or non-political, if there is such a thing) spheres.

So what’s the solution?

Hetan Shah suggests three things:

1. Politicians must stop spinning numbers and present the real state of affairs.

2. The media must stop sensationalising issues and aim to illuminate instead.

3. Schools must teach statistical literacy so that the next generations have a better grasp.

These recommendations are valuable. Politicians have a duty to inform well: and, it must be said, to also be informed themselves. But back to us – it is our duty to also be informed, and if politicians aren’t doing that for us, we must make the most of the wealth of resources available to us and find things out for ourselves – and indeed to inform our politicians. We have no excuse.

The same goes for the policies upon which this information is based: it is ludicrous to mock our politicians (and to vote on their policies!) if we do not know them well.

For example, the Department of Justice added to the Criminal Justice Act earlier this year because of recommendations the anti-trafficking community had made – this is a great example of the public and politicians working together. We need each other.

Furthermore, the media is corrupt – we know that, and it contributes to the culture that breeds the divide between public knowledge and evidence.

ComRes, a polling company, asked a nationwide sample of UK citizens to estimate the death toll from the war in Iraq since 2003. 44% of respondents believed the number was under 5,000, when the highest official estimate is 1,000,000.

But what other cultural currents allow for stereotyping, ignorance and prejudice?

I’m done with swallowing what politicians and the media tell me without a second thought. And I don’t want my mind to be the product of a corrupt and prejudiced society.

I’d quite like to be like 12 year old Egyptian schoolboy Ali Ahmed.

I’m off to do some research. I suggest you do the same. Ignorance is not an option.

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One response to “The Perils of Perception

  1. I love this. People always laugh at me when I say I don’t read the news but prefer to do my own research. After studying journalism I’ve always been aware of how corrupt the media are. The problem is that so many people are so unaware, and most of those people are reading papers like The Daily Mail. It’s unfortunate that people are so trusting of the media and so unwilling to do their own research; I think the fear of finding out that the media is wrong probably scares a lot of people.

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