Hans Rosling, the popular Swedish medical statistician, does a great line in pointing out the degree to which most people’s perceptions of the world are just plain wrong. My short recommended read for this weekend is much the same sort of thing, but based on a very recent survey.
This month, Ipsos MORI has been conducting a 14-country survey to find out people’s perceptions of the make-up of their populations and the scale of social problems. On most questions, the population of each country was way out of whack with reality. My recommended read is Zach Wener-Fligner’s snappy blog post about some of the key findings – but if you have time, it’s worth exploring some of the detail of the survey on the Ipsos MORI site, too.
Or if you haven’t got the time for that, here’s an infographic they put together with some interesting findings:
Of course, there are lots of interesting implications here for democracy and social norming, and some interesting thoughts about responsibility, too. Though, before getting into this, we should take a moment to recognise that Great Britain did pretty well in the survey ranking, for all that we criticise ourselves for this sort of thing.
When articles have been published about similar surveys in the past, many commentators have reacted by blaming the media. I disagree: I don’t think that non-Public-Service media has any implicit responsibility to inform the electorate. I think their responsibility is to their shareholders, and if distorting the truth without breaking the law increases profit, then sobeit.
This is why Public Service media is so important, and so valuable. Public Service media outlets should, indeed, have a responsibility for educating and informing. This is a difficult task against the torrent of inaccurate information from elsewhere, especially when those outlets choose to pursue large audiences at the same time as giving entirely accurate information. I would challenge the existing industry assumption that Public Service media should obtain a large audience. Does it matter how many people consume BBC News, for example, provided it is understood to be a reliable source in times of uncertainty?
But then, I guess, there’s a reasonable counter-argument that if it doesn’t pursue an audience, the widely understood social narrative will likely deviate further from reality.
It’s a complicated problem – and shouting about the Daily Mail doesn’t help.