A new survey for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London shows public opinion is repeatedly off the mark on issues including crime, benefit fraud and immigration.
The research lists ‘top ten’ popular misperceptions:
- Teenage pregnancy: on average, we think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates.
- Crime: 58% do not believe that crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that incidents of crime were 19% lower in 2012 than in 2006/07 and 53% lower than in 1995. 51% think violent crime is rising, when it has fallen from almost 2.5 million incidents in 2006/07 to under 2 million in 2012.
- Job-seekers allowance: 29% of people think we spend more on JSA than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn).
- Benefit fraud: people estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates: the public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100.
- Foreign aid: 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year.
- Religion: we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales. And we underestimate the proportion of Christians: we estimate 34% on average, compared with the actual proportion of 59%.
- Immigration and ethnicity: the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%.
- Age: we think the population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 36% of the population are 65+, when only 16% are.
- Benefit bill: people are most likely to think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save most money from a list provided. In fact, capping household benefits is estimated to save £290m, compared with £5bn for raising the pension age and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit for wealthier households.
- Voting: we underestimate the proportion of people who voted in the last general election – our average guess is 43%, when 65% actually did.
Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said:
“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?
“We need to see three things happen. First, politicians need to be better at talking about the real state of affairs of the country, rather than spinning the numbers. Secondly, the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues, rather than use statistics to sensationalise.
“And finally we need better teaching of statistical literacy in schools, so that people get more comfortable in understanding evidence.”
It would also be nice if we could find some politicians who wanted to do the right thing instead of wilfully justify their desire to do the wrong thing.