Despite the avalanche of information and news pouring out of computers, radios, TVs, smartphones and so on, the question remains, is this information accurate?

There seem to be fewer facts in the information age if a new survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London is correct.

The results show that the public are not only wrong, but frequently wildly inaccurate about some of the major political issues, including the number of immigrants, muslims and more.

While this survey was carried out in the UK it is quite possible that other nations’ publis are equally misinformed.

“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?” asks Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society.

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute agreed, “It is worth reminding ourselves about the scale of some of these misperceptions on key policy issues.”

The results also show that only one in three (33%) see UK membership of the European Union as ‘a good thing’ some 46% said it was bad. One fifth (20%) didn’t know. In 2005, results showed that 47% thought it was good, 38% bad. Then 15% said they didn’t know.

The ten biggest misconceptions

Teenage pregnancy: The public’s estimates were 25 times higher than official estimates, thinking that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when official figures suggest it is around 0.6%.

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.

Unemployment benefits: 29% of people think we spend more on unemployment benefit 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.  More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn).

Religion: People greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales.  And Brits underestimate the proportion of Christians: we estimate 34% on average, compared with the actual proportion of 59% in England and Wales.

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%.

There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that Black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11% (or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups).

Between 12% and 15% believe that over half on Britain’s population were born overseas.

Age: The public 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 (33% pick this option), over twice the level that select raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women or stopping child benefit when someone in the household earns £50k+.

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: People underestimate the proportion of people who voted in the last general election – the average guess is 43%, when 65% actually did.

“We need to see three things happen,” says Shah, commenting on the results.

“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.”

“We need to avoid dismissing public opinion: everyone has a vote, misperceptions have always been with us and they may reflect concerns – that is, people may over-estimate issues because they are worried about them, not the other way round,” says pollster, Duffy.

“A lack of trust in government information is also very evident in other questions in the survey – so “myth-busting” is likely to prove a challenge on many of these issues.  But it is still useful to understand where people get their facts most wrong.”


New Europe