The mixed results from a recent IPSOS MORI survey commissioned by the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London show there’s more work to be done to improve the public’s understanding of statistics, and of the role of statistics in their own lives and in policy making.
Only a few days after a senior government member was reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority for making tenuous claims about one of his policies getting people back into work, the survey shows the general public has limited confidence in politicians using official statistics accurately when talking about their policies – only 7% felt they did so. Politicians were also the least trusted when providing information (8%). Scientists (74%) and academics (63%) are the most trusted.
The survey also revealed the general public is relatively confident when using figures. Seventy-five percent of respondents say they feel generally confident when dealing with numbers, and of those using numbers and data in their job, 93 percent are confident they are able to do so. In addition, more than half of the population seems to be confident they are able to understand the figures and statistical information in relation to government spending cuts.
However, when testing the public’s ability to answer simple mathematical questions the results are patchy. Although 92% correctly say that 50 is 25% of 200, only a quarter of the public know that the likelihood of getting two heads in two tosses of a coin is 25%, showing a limited understanding of probability.
Worryingly, the general public also appear to place relatively little value on the understanding of numbers. People are four times more likely to say they would be proud of their children if they excelled in reading and writing (55%) than if they were very good at numbers (13%). Only 6% would be embarrassed to admit poor numeracy skills while 15% would be embarrassed to admit to poor reading and writing skills.
The survey results also give us an interesting insight in how the public makes up its mind. Fifty-two percent of the population still believe that politicians make their decisions based more on principle rather than evidence. But also when it comes to forming an opinion on government performance, numbers are not the top priority. It is anecdotal and personal experience rather than statistics which seem to play the prominent role (by 46% to 9%).
A breakdown of the full survey questions and results can be found here.
For more on this event including downloadable slides, see RSSeNews.