When it comes to current events, we like to think that we base our opinions about the news on facts. But very often we do not have the facts at hand and may not have the time or the ability to summon them at short notice. Even if we do have a smartphone with us when we are engaged with someone in a discussion, it is very rarely that we actually use it to get the required information to make sure that we are right. We go with what we think we know to be true.
In fact, in my own case, it is when I am pretty sure that I am right about something that I tend to make mistakes because it is then that I don’t bother to check and see. Knowing my failing, I try to be vigilant about this but still trip up from time to time.
From reader Norm, I got this link with some basic statistics that suggests that much of our gut feelings about important statistics may be wildly off, strongly influenced by the amount of attention the subject gets in the news media.
The Ipsos MORI market research firm polled people in 14 countries in the developed world on a range of issues, asking them to estimate things in their own country like the rate of teen pregnancies, percentage of the population who are Muslim or Christian, percentage of immigrants, voting rates in the last major election, unemployment rates, size of ageing population, murder rates, and life expectancy. People tended to wildly overestimate figures if those items figured in political controversies, like the number of Muslims or immigrants or unemployed or teen pregnancies. (The full report is here.)
Based on the results, they ranked countries in order of ignorance. Italy was the worst, followed by the US, South Korea, Poland, Hungary, France, Canada, Belgium, Australia, Great Britain, Spain, Japan, Germany, and Sweden.
To my relief as someone who considers himself a news junkie, I didn’t do too badly with US statistics, getting fairly close to the actual values.