Monday, 8 July 2013

Lies, Damn Lies, and Opinion Formers

The Royal Statistical Society has found that most people have no clue about the real percentage of under-age mothers, Muslims, or benefit fraudsters. One particularly significant area is the political equivalent of the Ark of the Covenant - pension spending.
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).
Some of the misperceptions are astonishing, and show how far down dishonest politics and downright bigoted journalism can get you.
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).
Gosh, it's almost as if some powerful ideological faction had spent decades telling white people they're about to become extinct.

The RSS is a touchingly naive organisation:
‘Our data poses real challenges for policymakers,’ said Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society. ‘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. Our getstats campaign is trying to create change at all of these levels.’
Firstly, I'd love to live in a world where politicians talk about 'the real state of affairs of the country', but that would involve asking why government policy always seems to boil down to handing lots of taxpayers' money to corporations that end up employing ex-MPs. It's a corrupt system and it doesn't want to be scrutinised.

Secondly, I dare say some sections of the media 'genuinely illuminate issues', but they are mostly bloggers and the like. Expecting the national press to do this raises the prospects of imminent porcine aviation - they are a slowly dying industry that survives by advertising, not honesty, and sensationalism is vital to get people looking at those ads.

Thirdly, teaching statistical literacy is a lovely idea and I'm sure the Germans do a fine job. In this country good teaching of hard topics is not genuinely valued by government because it requires the teaching of genuine critical thinking, and that would lead to a smarter electorate.

We are screwed. We have an establishment that, whatever it says it wants, thrives on ignorance. In the long run this will destroy our country as we fall disastrously behind younger, cleverer nations. But in the short term a policy of promoting ignorance works for the politicians and their paymasters. The next time you wonder why education 'reforms' always seem to be idiotic, consider this - perhaps their is an unconscious (or semi-conscious) desire among the pols to make them that way.

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