A new survey for the Royal Statistical Society and King's College London shows public opinion is repeatedly off the mark on issues including crime, benefit fraud and immigration.
The research, carried out by Ipsos Mori from a phone survey of 1,015 people aged 16 to 75, lists ten misconceptions held by the British public. Among the biggest misconceptions are:
- Benefit fraud: the public think that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed. Official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent - so the public conception is out by a factor of 34.
- Immigration: some 31 per cent of the population is thought to consist of recent immigrants, when the figure is actually 13 per cent. Even including illegal immigrants, the figure is only about 15 per cent. On the issue of ethnicity, black and Asian people are thought to make up 30 per cent of the population, when the figure is closer to 11 per cent.
- Crime: some 58 per cent of people do not believe crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that incidents of crime were 19 per cent lower in 2012 than in 2006/07 and 53 per cent lower than in 1995. Some 51 per cent think violent crime is rising, when it has fallen from almost 2.5 million incidents in 2006/07 to under 2 million in 2012.
- Teen pregnancy is thought to be 25 times higher than the official estimates: 15 per cent of of girls under 16 are thought to become pregnant every year, when official figures say the amount is closer to 0.6 per cent.
Among the other surprising figures are that 26 per cent of people think foreign aid is in the top three items the Government spends money on (it actually makes up just 1.1 per cent of expenditure), and that 29 per cent of people think more is spent on Jobseekers' Allowance than pensions.
In fact we spend 15 times more on pensions - £4.9 billion on JSA vs £74.2 billion on pensions.
Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said: "Our data poses real challenges for policymakers. 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. First, 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."
Bobby Duffy, the managing director of Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute, said: "A lack of trust in government information is also very evident in other questions in the survey - so 'myth-busting' is likely to prove a challenge on many of these issues. But it is still useful to understand where people get their facts most wrong."