The British public, eh? What do they know?
by Stephen Tall on July 9, 2013
That’s the question the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London decided to find out with the help of polling firm Ipsos MORI. They asked the British public a range of questions on current social issues. And they found the public mostly gave answers that were factually wrong. Not just fractionally out: a long way out.
See how you do on the 10 most common misperceptions held by the British public…
Teenage pregnancy:
What proportion of girls under 16 do you think become pregnant each year?
a) 0.6%
b) 3.6%
c) 6.3%
Crime:
Is violent crime rising or falling?
a) Falling
b) Rising
c) Neither
Welfare:
How much do you think the UK spends (£bn) on i) pensions, and ii) jobseeker’s allowance?
a) £74.2bn pensions and £4.9bn JSA
b) £47.2bn and £79.4bn
c) £7.9bn and £42.7bn
Benefit fraud:
What proportion of what is spent on benefits payments is claimed fraudulently?
a) 0.7%
b) 5.7%
c) 10.7%
Overseas aid:
What proportion of total public expenditure was spent on overseas aid in 201112?
a) 1.1%
b) 3.1%
c) 6.1%
Religion:
What is the proportion of people in England and Wales who say they are i) Muslims, and ii) Christians?
a) 5% Muslims, and 59% Christians
b) 15%, and 35%
c) 25%, and 45%
Immigration and ethnicity:
What proportion of the population is black or Asian?
a) 11%
b) 17%
c) 26%
Age:
What proportion of the population do you think is aged 65 or over?
a) 16%
b) 23%
c) 32%
Welfare bill:
How much public money is thought will be saved by i) capping benefits at £26,000 per household, and ii) raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women?
a) £290m benefits cap, and £5bn pensions
b) £1.7bn, and £290m
c) £3.2bn, and £1.7bn
Voting:
What proportion of eligible voters turned out to vote at the last general election?
a) 65%
b) 59%
c) 53%
How do you reckon you did?
I’ve posted the answers below, or alternatively you can read the RSS’s press release here:

‘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.’
You want the answers?
Then here they are…
If you answered all a) then you got 100%.
Here’s the full skinny:
Teenage pregnancy:
a) 0.6%
“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:
a) Falling
“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. 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. “
Welfare:
a) £74.2bn pensions and £4.9bn JSA
“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:
What proportion of what is spent on benefits payments is claimed fraudulently?
a) 0.7%
“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.”
Overseas aid:
a) 1.1%
“26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 23 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:
a) 5% Muslims, and 59% Christians
“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:
a) 11%
“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 nonwhite ethnic groups). 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%.”
Age:
a) 16%
“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.”
Welfare bill:
a) £290m benefits cap, and £5bn pensions
“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:
a) 65%
“we underestimate the proportion of people who voted in the last general election – our average guess is 43%, when 65% actually did.”
* Stephen Tall is CoEditor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal thinktank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.