Opinion: Statistics don’t vote. Should we care if they are abused?

Statistics don’t vote – should we care if they are abused?

Statistics are essential to our wellbeing and the bane of our future. We need numbers to understand what is happening in our world. Yet day after day, they end up abused in our media, distorted by our political leaders and muddled in our heads

Yesterday the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) published a cute survey that looks at the difference between statistical perceptions and reality.

Let’s look first at those people who are satisfied with their experience of local council services. That’s 38% of us. This is not great applause, but when people are asked what they think of local council services across the nation, appreciation drops to 27%. Why is that? Why is it that more of us are satisfied with our local police, but less are satisfied with policing nationally? Ask people about schools, GPs and NHS hospitals and you get the same disparity. We consistently say that life is better where we live than further afield.

The reason for the difference is that opinion on local services is forged by immediate, often personal experiences. Opinion on national services is shaped by the media. Our media – broadcast, print and social – relishes on talking things down. We love gloomy headlines. Politicians are as guilty. They must be “seen to be doing something”, so they routinely home in on gloom and amplify it. Where would an education minister be without failing schools?

Does this matter?

It does. The RSS asked a second suite of questions that suggest that misinformed opinion could wreak havoc with the future of our society.

Litter will certainly not send our society towards a path of anarchy or destruction, but it is illustrative. Half of those surveyed (48%) think it’s a problem locally, but 71% think it’s bad nationally. Unemployment, crime, immigration, teenage pregnancy, drugs and vandalism are all seen as bigger problems somewhere else, not where people live. We are scared of the world beyond where we live.

Then there is the guessing game. The RSS survey shows that we believe that 34% of us are Muslim. In reality it’s less than 5%. Benefit fraud? We think one quarter of funds are defrauded but it’s less than 1%. How many of us voted in the last general election? We guess 43%, but actually it was a healthier 65%.

The moral panic built by the media over immigration means that we think every third person we meet wasn’t born here. It is actually one in six. That misconception is fuelling UKIP and the right of the Tory party.

In building myths about the statistical dimensions of our society, we are pressuring politicians to dance to a tune that is out of touch with reality.

It is easy to blame the media for this mess. But equally guilty are us political types. Is there anyone of us that has not overlooked a statistical inconvenience to get a political message across?

After all, statistics don’t vote.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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  • Great article. In discussing the media, however, we have not addressed the issue that majority traditional media are misrepresenting in ONE DIRECTION, ie with a right wing bias. Which, of course, is why our traditional parties of the left have tended to move to the right over the years (this happened in the 1920s and 1930s in a similar way, and it was only the shock of WW2 forcing people to “be all in it together” which gave a leg-up to leftish values in politics.

    I had so hoped Leveson would address this systematic poison in the media, but, oh no, a “free press” (ie one which can bring systematic pressure to bear on any individual or group expressing any vaguely leftish opinion.) was given precedence over this, which, frankly, has been the real scandal over the years. As Liberal Democrats we should have been exposing this, and we should express and also practise what we preach with regard to statistics in society. People hate half-truths, and what they have done to our politics, when we espouse a new politics, that basic honesty should be a central part of it, not trying to validate other people’s prejudices.

  • David Pollard 10th Jul '13 - 6:32pm

    Brilliant analysis Andy.

  • Brilliant article in all fronts!

  • Excellent article. The big question (for me): suppose a UKIP government is elected on the basis of the misrepresentation of immigrant numbers that the red-tops are giving us … do they have legitimate democratic authority? I don’t see how they can have …

    Our politicians really should get a grip on this. When the tabloids say ‘Too many immigrants’, the response should not be ‘British jobs for British workers’.

  • And yet the day after the RSS releases this and we are all talking about it, the party releases one of the most egregious examples of statistical misdirection I have seen in years. The years 2011 and 2012 covered by the misleading barchart in question (I’m sure we all know which one I’m talking about) are before coalition policies came into effect too, so we’re taking huge amounts of credit for a small change that wasn’t even our doing.

    But why let facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

  • Andy Boddington 16th Jul '13 - 5:19pm

    Thanks very much for your comments.

    The week is only two days old and we have abuse of statistics by IDS on the benefits cap and Jeremy Hunt on hospital mortality.

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