Muslims, benefits and teenage pregnancies: the perils of perception

The scale of our collective error is startling, as a new survey by Ipsos MORI shows.

People are wildly wrong when we ask them about many aspects of life in Britain. It’s perfectly understandable that we don’t having a precise image of who lives here and the extent of key social issues - but the scale of our collective error is startling, as highlighted in a new survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London. 

Just to pick out three: on average, we think 24% of the population are Muslims – when the real figure is around 5%; we think 31% are immigrants – when the official figure is 13%; and we think 36% are aged 65+ - when in fact only 16% are.

We also have an extraordinary view of the extent of teenage pregnancy: the average guess of how many girls under the age of 16 get pregnant each year is 15%, whereas the best estimate of the actual figure is well under 1%.  And many people are even further out: one in fifteen of the general public think 40% or more of young teenage girls get pregnant each year – that would be at least 12 girls in an average all-girl class of 30. 

We’re also wildly wrong on what the government spends our money on, and what will save the most.  For example, as we often find, people grossly overestimate the amount that is spent on foreign aid: a quarter of us think it is one of the 2-3 things government spends the most money on, when it is actually only around 1% of expenditure.  More people pick foreign aid as top item of expenditure than state pensions – but we spend nearly 10 times as much on pensions than aid. 

Not surprisingly then, people are just as wrong on the relative impact of different benefit cuts.  From our list, the one that people think would save the most is capping benefits so that no household receives more than £26,000 per year.  This in fact saves a relatively modest £290m per year. Another item on our list – raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women – saves 17 times as much (£5bn), but people were twice as likely to think the household benefit cap saves the most.

The biggest single error in our survey is on the scale of benefit fraud: people think that out of every £100 spend on benefits, £24 is claimed fraudulently, when the best government estimate is that it’s actually only around 70p. 

But this points to one of the key findings from the survey: when we ask people what they were thinking of as benefit fraud when they guessed at its scale, they select items that would never be counted as actual fraud: in people’s minds, it includes claimants not having paid tax in the past and people having children so they can claim more benefits. 

So we shouldn’t dismiss these estimates as worthless because they are so wildly wrong – they are often just measuring something different. It’s true that they reflect problems with statistical literacy: people really struggle with very large and very small numbers, they find it hard to distinguish between rates and levels, they take a long time and repeated exposure to notice change. Reflecting this, we see sharp differences between how wrong different groups are, particularly depending on education levels. 

It’s also true that our misperceptions reflect media treatment of issues and the political discourse, where, naturally, the focus is often on vivid anecdotes and less on the hard figures or scale of an issue.  This is no accident, and to a large extent we get what we ask for: we admit ourselves that we base our views more on personal experience and anecdote than hard facts.

But our misperceptions also reflect our concerns – and this is why any number of "myth-busting" exercises are bound to flounder. Our exaggerated estimates are at least as much an effect as a cause of our concerns. Academics call this "emotional innumeracy": we’re making a point about what’s worrying us, whether we know it or not. 

We also shouldn’t view our over-estimates as inevitable: reducing misunderstanding is still important. We need to continue to focus on statistical literacy and people’s confidence to challenge a figure or a story, through education that starts in schools.  We need bodies like the UK Statistics Authority to continue to challenge the misuse of statistics.

But we also need to accept that people are more like Einstein than their answers to our survey might lead us to believe: as he said, if the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. Many of us do. 

Bobby Duffy is manging director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute and visiting senior fellow, King’s College London

Hetan Shah is chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society

Muslim men pray before Iftar, the evening meal in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the London Muslim Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.