British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows

17 Jul

One of the great pleasures of teaching what I do over a long period of time is that colleagues send me newspaper articles that provide me with raw materials for new lectures. This week I received a link to a wonderful story in ‘The Independent’ Newspaper headlined ‘British public wrong about nearly everything’ !

The story reports a survey conducted for The Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London, where the polling company Ipsos Mori questioned the great British Public about facts concerning the major political issues of the days. For example, ‘What proportional of public money is spend on state pensions in comparison with unemployment benefits’, of ‘What percentage of under 16-year girls become pregnant every year’. In each case the public demonstrated a spectacular ignorance of the the facts. Full details of the survey can be found on Ipsos Mori’s website. I’m not entirely sure whether this says more about a lack of understanding of percentages, rather that the underlying questions, but either way it’s of interest. I was particularly taken with the average response to the question about ‘What percentage of under 16 year old girls become pregnant every year was 15%. Can people really think that 1 in 7 under 16 year old girls are pregnant at any one time ?? (The actual answer is 0.6%). When you read stories like this is becomes clear why politicians have so little interest in evidence-based policy making. After all, the very people that elect them seem to have little understanding of evidence.

It occurred to me that this would make a lovely teaching exercise, to demonstrate to students the necessity of researching the background of a particular question before coming to a conclusion. I’m thinking about asking what do they think and what do they think ‘the average man in the street’.

I shall try this in September and report back.

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