This is a cross-post from Homo Economicus
The usual refrain about democracy is that the average citizen is not informed enough to make a decision. We go through this every once in a while, often after polling when a debate ensues about whether the average Joe should be either better informed or even involved at all. We will come back to Joe later.
The latest is by Mori on the UK: Perceptions are not reality: the top 10 we get wrong
These misperceptions present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making, which will be discussed at an event being run by the Royal Statistical Society, King’s College London and Ipsos MORI today, as part of the International Year of Statistics.
The top misconception relates to teenage pregnancy, that on average 15% of girls under the age of 16 get pregnant when actually it is 0.6%.
Sam Bowman at the Adam Smith Institute points out these absolute howlers as quoted by Mori:
- 29% of people think we spend more on JSA [Job Seekers Allowance] than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn)
- 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)
- the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales.
- 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.
But the reaction of commentators misses that this is not just about being informed about a particular debate. Such misconceptions impact also on the priority placed with regard to social policy issues. That order of priorities based on perception not knowledge may concern us more if it affects the political agenda of Ten Downing Street, not least if the misconception aids a policy we disagree with.
Thing is we do not get to decide what voters find relevant when they form their decisions. Politicians can look to make their arguments in a way which will attract people to their message, media can report facts selectively, as well as offer their opinion, to sway the political agenda, and political elites will be a fountain of facts that confidently point to policy prescriptions they ideologically support.
This may matter perhaps more when the informed are split 50/50 on a decision and then Joe who does not know the key facts adds their decision. We may look on in disbelief if they tell us why they decide the way they do, if they have an inaccurate perception – but that is for them to decide in the end even if we wonder at how it was derived. That is democracy, but most policy decisions are not so marginal.
The best defence here is widespread civic participation. The law of large numbers suggests the more people involved in the decision making process the more likely it is to be based on factual accuracy. Do not worry about Joe thinking JSA is greater than pensions because for every one of him more than two people know that is not the case. Get enough people involved and Joe will either know different, from speaking to the other two, or be hugely outnumbered in the final decision.
This will be easier than Joe thinks – he thought only 43% voted at the last UK general election when it was 65% according to Mori.
Increasing participation rather than trying to get someone to drink from the fountain of knowledge is the way forward, though how data and facts are presented may prove important. Remember the majority of people polled were getting these questions right, based on facts from somewhere.