by Peter Franklin
Friday, 15
January 2021

Stop stat-shaming the public

Telling the public that they're ignorant is not a way to convince them
by Peter Franklin
Telling people that they don’t know what they’re talking about is not an effective strategy

There’s no denying it. The sight of those miserly free school meal ‘hampers’ is truly rage-making. Of all the items on display, the most pathetic were what Sam Freedman (writing for PoliticsHome) described as “vegetable fragments” — half a tomato, a third of a pepper — individually wrapped in plastic. If we can’t even allow people the unthinkable luxury of a whole onion, then how do we expect them to ever hold down a job?

This is not treating the poor with dignity — and Freedman is quite right to point that out. However, he then goes to blame the ignorance of the general public for the shortcomings of welfare policy. Harshness is politically popular, he says, because the public believe “myths” about poverty:

An Ipsos-MORI study in 2013 found people thought, on average, that benefit fraud was 34 times more common than is actually the case. The 2017 British Social Attitudes survey found that, on average, people think 34% of all claimants are providing false information…
- Sam Freedman, Politics Home

Similar arguments are often made about overseas aid and immigration — with surveys showing that voters tend to over-estimate the relevant numbers.

The truth, of course, must be defended against falsehood. If politicians and journalists get their facts and figures wrong then that should be exposed. However, ‘stat-shaming’ the general public is unfair, misleading and counter-productive.

Firstly, it isn’t the private citizen’s business to be prepared for any social science researcher who may come their way with a clipboard. Secondly, they’re called opinion polls and social attitudes surveys for a reason: people are asked for their opinions and attitudes — it’s not an exam. Thirdly, the scribbling classes (in which I include myself) would do well to remember that we are used to being asked for our opinions — even to the extent of being paid for them. However, most people are not — and certainly not by the great-and-the-good. So when, on the rare occasion, this does happen we shouldn’t be surprised if some respondents use exaggeration to emphasise their point.

Given these realities, using an opinion survey to ask people factual questions and then judge them on the accuracy of their answers is, to say the least, unhelpful.

In any case, telling people that they don’t know what they’re talking about is not an effective strategy. The Remain campaign tested that approach to destruction both before and after the Brexit referendum. Furthermore, an excessive focus on what the other side gets wrong about selected facts can narrow one’s own perspective.

Pro-welfare campaigners need to remember this when advocating for the poor. It’s all very well to reject the Victorian narrative about the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. But an inverted-Victorianism — in which personal responsibility goes unrecognised and unrewarded — is also distorted. Those who struggle and strive to stand on their own two feet deserve to have their dignity respected too.

If instead of scoring points, we address legitimate concerns about fairness, we might just get somewhere.

Join the discussion

  • The ‘public’ are fairly ignorant on most issues. That is not an insult, it’s a factual statement backed up by research. In a sense, we cannot help but be ignorant in a world where the amount of data and complexity is too great for any single person to comprehend.

    Of course, this phenomenon is exploited for political purposes. Yes, people overestimate welfare fraud. They also overestimate tax fraud. Tax avoidance (fraud) is about 4.6 billion, which is less than 1% of tax revenue.

    They are also confused on poverty and inequality. Most people assume poverty is getting worse. Absolute poverty is at a record low. They assume inequality is getting worse. It’s actually been flat for the past 30 years and marginally fallen over the past 10. They assume household income is falling or static, when it’s at a record high. They assume the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The data shows, for the past 10 years, the income of the bottom 20% consistently grew faster than the top 20%

    Most people assume the ‘poor’ have a greater tax burden. However the bottom 50% of income earners actually pay no net tax (ie they receive more from the State than they pay in tax).

    People assume wealth inequality in the UK is high and has dramatically increased in the past. In fact, the UK has one of the lower level of wealth inequalities in the developed world and the figure has not significantly increased over the long term.

    People assume crime is at record levels. Almost all types of crime are at a record low. So it’s not just benefit fraud / crime they overestimate.

    People assume we have fewer police than ever before. We actually have a lot more police officers than we had in 2003, but fewer than the record level we had in 2010 (although we are now committed to go back to the 2010 level)

    I could go on…

  • Many thanks for this highly uncivilised and uninformed contribution to the discussion. I wrote one sentence – you cannot know what exactly I mean by that or how informed I am, where I am or why I think what I do. I could set out at least 3 points to underline my opinion. However, you are being so unnecessarily aggressive that I won’t. Exchanges of opinion only work where both people are prepared to be civilised. Juding by the tone of your post, I can see that this criterion is not fulfilled.

  • Here is a case in point: 40% of the Covid deaths in one Colorado county actually stemmed from gunshot wounds involving people who were virus positive. 40% is eye-catching. The raw numbers are two deaths in five. Technically, the 40% figure is true but it leaves something to be desired.

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