British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows

This is the clever headline of an article in The Independent about a survey by the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London measuring public perceptions of various public policy related facts:

A new [2013] survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London highlights how wrong the British public can be on the make-up of the population and the scale of key social policy issues. The top ten misperceptions are:

1. Teenage pregnancy: on average, we think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates: we think that 15 per cent of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when official figures suggest it is around 0.6 per cent.

2. Crime: 58 per cent do not believe that crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that incidents of crime were 19 per cent lower in 2012 than in 2006-7 and 53 per cent lower than in 1995. 51 per cent think violent crime is rising, when it has fallen from almost 2.5 million incidents in 2006-7 to under 2 million in 2012.

3. Job-seekers allowance: 29 per cent 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).

4. 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.

5. Foreign aid: 26 per cent 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 per cent 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).

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

7. Immigration and ethnicity: the public think that 31 per cent of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13 per cent. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15 per cent. There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that Black and Asian people make up 30 per cent of the population, when it is actually 11 per cent (or 14 per cent if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups).

8. 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 per cent are.

9. 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 per cent 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.

10. Voting: we underestimate the proportion of people who voted in the last general election – our average guess is 43 per cent, when 65 per cent actually did.

One expert thought that these misperceptions are a problem for policy makers and urged them and the media to inform the public:

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. Our ‘getstats’ campaign is trying to create change at all of these levels.’

Another expert was worried that the misperceptions might lead to “negative” behavior, such as not voting:

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London said: “It is worth reminding ourselves about the scale of some of these misperceptions on key policy issues. For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of immigration, how much would be saved by different changes to benefits, how much is spent on foreign aid and the real incidence of teenage pregnancy. People also under-estimate ‘positive’ behaviours like voting, which may be important if people think it is more ‘normal’ not to vote than it actually is.’

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14 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    This evidence supports the epistemic case for sortition as a procedure to overcome rational ignorance, which you usually deny. It’s hard to see how the range of errors catalogued in this post tell us anything about the divergent interests of rulers and the ruled (your argument for sortition).

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  2. Wow, that is really impressive. Certainly agree that sortition would help as you could at least start to educate people who are chosen by lot a lot easier than the entire population

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  3. HH,

    Yes indeed, overcoming rational ignorance is the knock-down argument for sortition (rather than disenfranchising the mythical “political class”). That’s what puzzled me about Yoram bringing this survey to our attention.

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  4. *** Keith Sutherland says «overcoming rational ignorance is the knock-down argument for sortition ». OK but other arguments may have weight too. And rational deliberation would be useful even if there is consensus about the facts.
    *** Alloted bodies may be useful not only to decide, but likewise to study the data about a subject and issue some record about it (no wikipedia, but demopedia), which could be useful to better information of the general public. It would be bad, in a democracy-through-sortition, to get too wide a gap between public opinion and informed « citizen juries ».
    *** Please don’t consider that good information will mean always acceptation of official figures. When reading newspapers, including culture elite newspapers, we find many figures without precision number, without knowledge of the reliability, and with a definition of the parameter which is not clear, and may be far from the definition in the common citizen mind.
    *** If I am asked about teenage pregnancy in my country, I will not give a figure, because I have no idea. The more disquieting thing is not that people are mistaken about the facts, but that they answer about facts they don’t know. But, actually, we are not told how many citizens answered the pollster « I don’t know ».
    *** Post Scriptum Which pregnancies it is about ? I suppose many of them are terminated by abortion, how are they counted ? Is a pregnancy terminated by a « tomorrow pill » to be counted ?
    *** Often people exagerate things they are afraid or dislike strongly. Correcting the figures may lessen the fears ; but as even corrected figures will be usually too high for the concerned people, I am not sure the correction would always have such a strong effect about political sensitivities. Supposing that the feminists be convinced by statisticians that violence or discrimination against women are only the third of the numbers they believed, do you think their sensitivity will be much lessened ?

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  5. Andre,

    >Alloted bodies may be useful not only to decide, but likewise to study the data about a subject and issue some record about it (no wikipedia, but demopedia)

    I’m puzzled by the analogy between Wikipedia and “demopedia”. I use Wikipedia every day and donate on a monthly basis. So it’s very important to me, but I’ve never contributed any content. The reason that I’m (reasonably) confident in Wikipedia is because the contributions are from a large number of self-selecting persons who deem themselves to have some interest in and knowledge on each particular entry. If the contributors were randomly selected then my confidence in it would be diminished, so I don’t see how the analogy supports the representation argument for sortition (as opposed to the argument for impartial selection). What’s the point of contributions from impartially selected persons who have no knowledge of or interest in the topic under debate? Or do you now support John Burnheim’s argument for sortition amongst self-selecting experts in a particular domain?

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  6. The post was about « public perceptions of various public policy related facts » ; facts about subjects of political importance and whose knowledge is usually influenced by strong feelings, prejudice, ideological stereotypes of various origins, disinformations of various brands, partisan storytellings etc. A « demopedia » report would be a study about such a subject, by a “cognitive citizen jury” made of alloted citizens. Most of them would have no prior serious knowledge of the topic, but most of them would have some interest because it is socially important, sometimes burning. Any decisional “citizen jury” would have to ascertain the facts in a prior step, but I think facts assesment could be the work of a cognitive jury even before a decisional process begins or independently of such a process. The “demopedia” would cover only a part of knowledge, the politically relevant part. Clearly a cognitive jury could be misled, I don’t propose the “demopedia” to be Sacred Scripture, but I think demopedia reports could be interesting reference material and they would help the general public to overcome at least partly the propagandas, their own egocentric bias, and their rational ignorance. Among the flood of information, are useful the reports of “self-selecting persons who deem themselves to have some interest in and knowledge on each particular entry », to quote Keith; reports of institutional persons as « academies » who have specific knowledge, but with a risk of collective social bias; and useful, too, the reports of alloted citizens with some time and means to consider the topic …

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  7. But what is the relevance of the allotment principle? Confidence, in the Wikipedia example, results from our belief that the system is truly open-access and with a large number of people with knowledge of the topic correcting the misinformation of others. So why not just contract the project out to Wikipedia (given that their goal is the democratisation of knowledge)? The only relevant rationale for allotment is the principle of statistical representation, but this doesn’t apply to the speech acts of small groups, so what is the point of it (other than democratic window dressing)?

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  8. P.S. Wikipedia is a good example of isegoria, whereas the principle of equality for juries is isonomia. The fourth-century reforms introduced an absolute separation between these two egalitarian principles, and we conflate them at our peril.

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  9. *** Keith Sutherland (October 28) doubts of the relevance of the allotment principle for cognitive juries. He says “ Confidence, in the Wikipedia example, results from our belief that the system is truly open-access and with a large number of people with knowledge of the topic correcting the misinformation of others. So why not just contract the project out to Wikipedia?”
    *** The allotment principle use in cognitive jury is to lessen the risk of control by concerned groups, which often include many of the competent persons for a topic, and the risk of strong bias introduced by elite through their specific competence.
    *** Keith appears to think that Wikipedia is today able to resist any undertaking by a militant group or a lobby, and is immune to elite bias. Is it really sure? specially about topics where most competent people belong to specific categories. But anyway if some democracy-through-sortition would take Wikipedia as its data base, the attacks on its neutrality would be devastating.
    *** Keith says that we must distinguish isêgoria in deliberation and isonomia in decisions. Right. But if about a politically important topic there are conflicting theories, evaluating the logical weight of the various theories is a decision. Here, isêgoria is freedom of propose any theory, isonomia is giving to an allotted body the role of evaluating their comparative logical weight.

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  10. André:

    >Keith says that we must distinguish isêgoria in deliberation and isonomia in decisions. Right. But if about a politically important topic there are conflicting theories, evaluating the logical weight of the various theories is a decision.

    Agree completely, the point being that allotment is the best (only?) way of establishing well-considered isonomia, but has no role to play in isêgoria, as you rightly conclude:

    >isêgoria is freedom of propose any theory, isonomia is giving to an allotted body the role of evaluating their comparative logical weight.

    In both classical Athens and modern Wikipedia isêgoria is open to ho boulomenos. An allotted Wikipedia, in which people were expected to comment on topics that they had no knowledge of would be of little value. I would love to know the ratio of readers to posters on Wikipedia. Although I use it constantly and, as members of this blog are painfully aware, don’t normally shrink from commenting, I have never got round to contributing anything to Wikipedia, so I would imagine the ratio between readers and contributors is many orders of magnitude — one million to one?

    I prefer to view isêgoria as the liberal element in the hybrid that we refer to as liberal democracy, but if the Greeks viewed isêgoria and isonomia as the two essential elements of democratic liberty then who am I to differ? However we need to keep both elements separate (as in the 4th century legislative process) and acknowledge that allotment is only relevant to isonomia. For isêgoria there are better ways of instituting ho boulomenos in large technologically-sophisticated polities (crowd-sourcing, direct-democratic initiatives, elections, knowledge markets, competitions etc).** But “evaluating the logical weight of the various theories” is a decision function that (in a democracy) is the prerogative of a statistical sample of the whole citizen body, in which all votes are numerically equal (isonomia). This has led me to make the isêgoria/isonomia distinction the organising principle of my ongoing PhD (on the role of allotment in political representation).

    ** This variety of approaches is necessary in order to minimise the risk of elite bias in policy advocacy. I acknowledge that the risk is significant but still argue that policy proposals should be in the hands of people who know (or who think they know) what they are talking about. The way to minimise elite bias is via a vibrant and diverse media and civil society. That’s why I view isêgoria as a liberal, rather than a democratic, principle. The longitude problem was not solved by democracy, but by a competition that was open to ho boulomenos.

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  11. There are plenty of studies and experiments which show how traditional polls with direct questions produce rubbish answers with a plethora of possibilities and reasons for bias, intentional or unintentional. For example, an experiment asking people by survey to predict a coin toss will show a public “opinion” of 68% ticking heads and 32% tails. What a strange coin… Also sampling techniques and intrinsic motivation cause huge issues.

    Anybody is free to take these polls seriously but then why don’t they go to witch doctors instead of a hospital when they are sick? I do because there are better medical methods available in 2016 than in the dark ages.

    Likewise, there are new newer polling methods, e.g. predictive markets, which have been shown to produce much better answers and more rational deliberation. They do require careful respondent panel management though, otherwise they produce rubbish just like the traditional polls. This is but one of the reasons why we should add expertise weighing to the demarchic sortition process.

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  12. Hubertus:

    >This is but one of the reasons why we should add expertise weighing to the demarchic sortition process.

    Both Tetlock and Surowiecki place a higher premium on diversity than expertise. The value of predictive markets is that people have to put their money where their mouth is. Deliberative polling requires expertise in the information and advocacy stage but not amongst the decision makers, hence the argument for a strict functional separation between these roles. This is a distinction that Burnheim demarchy rejects, is that also the case with Vienna-group demarchy?

    PS the argumentative (evo-psych) theory of reasoning would suggest that the decision makers should be those who are least affected by the outcome, whereas Burnheim demarchs (and most deliberative democrats) argue the opposite.

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  13. Keith, there is no contradiction:

    Diversity of expertise is just what is being tested. You seem to be thinking of some narrow definition? Think of knowledge in Hayek’s broad sense.

    BTW: Prediction markets have progressed a lot in recent years (mostly unnoticed by academics). The old money/mouth saying applies only to betting. Betting markets are as much unlike a modern prediction market as black powder to an Otto-Motor. Both do explosions yes, but their technology, application and utility is very different.

    >Deliberative polling requires expertise in the information and advocacy stage but not amongst the decision makers, hence the argument for a strict functional separation between these roles.

    The separation of proposal/decision roles is a key element if the demarchic committee takes the decisions as opposed to just issuing opinions to politicians, dictators, tyrants, royals, warlords, or to whoever holds “the power” at any given moment.

    However, the notion that decision making does not require expertise (in Hayek’s definition) is a recipe for disaster. It would be highly negligent in a supervisory board deciding on management’s business proposals. It would be just as terrible in a demarchic committee deciding on social proposals, into which knowledgeable innovators invested a great deal of thought and expertise.

    Any demarchy built on such a weak basis would quickly reach its limits and fail.

    The Vienna model also sees representative “Betroffenheit” as defined by John (affectedness/interest) as one the two pillars of sortition, besides expertise. Only decisions by those affected by the outcome capture their diversified knowledge, everything else is “presumption of knowledge” (a bad word hereabouts). Knowledge in turn needs expertise, defined as the best possible stochastic prediction of how oneself and others will actually be effected by a specific proposal.

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  14. hubertus:

    >[Lack of expertise] would be highly negligent in a supervisory board deciding on management’s business proposals. It would be just as terrible in a demarchic committee deciding on social proposals, into which knowledgeable innovators invested a great deal of thought and expertise.

    This fails to respect Oakeshott’s distinction between universitas and societas — enterprise organisations (such as business corporations) are based on an entirely different mode of association to the state (in a free society). Social conservatives like myself would be worried by the implied bias in favour of “knowledgeable innovators”. It’s worth remembering that Oakeshott dismissed his LSE colleague Hayek as a rationalist, dismissing The Road to Serfdom as ‘a plan to end all planning’.

    I think you owe us all a post (on this forum) outlining Vienna-group demarchy for consideration by EbL followers.

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