A fascinating paper published yesterday by the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London – The Power of Perception – reported on a survey undertaken by Ipsos MORI which ‘shows just how wrong public opinion can be on key social issues’.
Several of the report’s top 10 public ‘misconceptions’ are relevant to the topics covered most frequently by Red Brick. They include:
- Nearly one in three think more is spent on jobseekers allowance than pensions (in fact it’s £5bn versus £74bn).
- The public thinks 24% of benefit money is claimed fraudulently (in reality 0.7%).
- Given a list of changes to benefits, 33% say the overall benefit cap will save most money, twice as many as select raising the pension age to 66 for men and women. In fact the cap saves £290m compared to £5bn for the pension age change.
- People think teenage pregnancy is 25 times more common than it actually is (15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, reality 0.6%).
- More than half think crime, and violent crime in particular, is rising (in reality it has been falling for many years).
- People think 31% of the population are immigrants, in reality it’s 13%.
The interesting thing about the top ten is that they are all lines that are taken by the right wing in Britain and reflect the screaming headlines of the right wing press. I guess they wouldn’t do it if they thought it didn’t work.
And it’s not just the written media: TV and radio seem to be so denuded of good journalism that they are increasingly dependant on reporting what is in the papers. Almost every news programme features ‘the press’. As a news junky, it’s amazing to note how many times the lead story on The World At One or even Newsnight is the same as whatever led the reactionary media in the morning. Similarly, when the old bore David Dimbleby gets on his high horse when people complain about the selection of questions on Question Time, his defence is that they reflect what most people in the audience wanted to ask about – which, curiously, also closely resembles what was in the papers and on news outlets during the day.
Fortunately we now have Twitter; it’s so much better than shouting at the TV.
The RSS report illustrates the power of propaganda even in a supposedly sophisticated modern democracy. And it is a huge challenge for people of a progressive persuasion. Anyone taking a different line (eg against the overall benefit cap, or in defence of people seeking work) has to swim against the tide, speaking against the common perception and challenging the conventional wisdom.
That’s why I like Owen Jones so much: not for his own prescriptions, but for his bravery and constancy, in face of frequent scorn and disbelief, to continue telling what I regard as the truth about trades unionists, people on social security, working class communities, council tenants, and so on. His book Chavs is an extraordinary antidote to the Daily Crap we rely on for our news (Red Brick view here). I also have a lot of time for others who spend their time debunking myths and trying desperately hard to get debates about vital issues like the welfare state onto a proper factual footing, like Declan Gaffney.
It’s also why I get so upset when people I think should be on the same side – anybody vaguely progressive – join in the peddling of myths and attacking the poor for their poverty. It’s been a big feature of my attitude to the LibDems in power, people who have adopted the Iain Duncan Smith approach to statistical interpretation and political discourse. And it’s why it is the equivalent of lighting the blue touch paper when I hear people in Labour taking similar lines.
I can only agree with Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, introducing their report:
‘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. Firstly, 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.’