Lies, damned lies and statistics

How do we decide what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what are lies? We can all make decisions for ourselves and avoid being hoodwinked and deceived by politicians and the wonderful British press, can’t we?

The News International phone hacking scandal was an atrocious example of the ‘power’ of the press, summing up their status as The Untouchables. MPs cosy up with media moguls, together deciding the agenda, content and soundbites inflicted upon us on a daily basis. This is a well-oiled, slick, sick business. The Leveson Inquiry brought this abuse to the nation’s attention, and that position of being untouchable is now being scrutinised, and hopefully changed. To what degree is yet to be seen, and I have my doubts as to the extent of any change, but over the last two years you would have assumed the British public would be a little more wise to the scaremongering tactics of those above.

A recent survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London shows an alarming level of inaccuracy regarding public awareness on key social issues such as crime, benefit fraud and immigration. Whilst statistics themselves are based on their own set of criteria and cannot be taken as ‘fact’, the list below highlights perfectly how the public’s perception on such issues is distorted by the powers that be.


The research lists ‘top ten’ popular misperceptions:

Teenage pregnancy: on average, we think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates: we think 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.

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. 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: 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% 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).

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

So, to summarise:

We think more teenage girls are getting pregnant than actually are.
We believe there is more crime on the streets than there actually is.
We think more money is being spent on Job Seekers Allowance than actually is.
We think more benefits are claimed fraudulently than actually are.
We think the government spends more money on foreign aid than they actually do.
We believe there are more Muslims in England & Wales than there actually are.
We believe there are far more immigrants living in the UK than there actually are.
We think the population is much older than it actually is.
We believe that capping benefits would save the country more money than it actually would.
We believe less people voted in the last general election than actually did.

The obvious question is why is opinion so distorted on these crucial issues? Far be it from me to make an assumption, but it might just be that the government, aided by the press and media, would like us to think that these opinions we have are actually true. Inaccurate and misleading headlines, stories and features written by the wealthy, heavily biased against the poor and working class. I sniff an agenda, and it stinks.

A perfect example of a media class bias is the scorn poured upon benefit claimants. A recent poll by the TUC showed people believe 27% of the welfare budget is fraudulently claimed. In fact, last year 0.7% of total benefit expenditure was overpaid due to fraud, according to the DWP’s official estimates. This totalled £1.2bn over the year. Compare this to tax avoidance, initiated and indeed seemingly accepted by the government, with handy loopholes through which the well-off are directed to jump. Handy that. HMRC consistently estimates the UK’s tax gap – the gap between what HMRC thinks it should receive versus what it actually gets – at more than £30bn per year. Others estimate this is far, far higher.

As is his way, Owen Jones recently spoke about the issue of public misconceptions and the workings of the press. As is his way also, he talks complete sense. It goes against the politician’s grain, and in more and more political debate Owen’s name is cropping up as someone to be listened to, or if you don’t want to hear the truth, someone to be ignored or slandered. I’d suggest the listening option…


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