I heard a story on WBUR’s Here & Now show today, about a new global survey by Ipsos/MORI, asking people in 14 different democracies how much they knew about some basic, politically relevant statistics in their nations. Americans did pretty badly on the quiz. Before you listen to the WBUR report and interview, take the quiz yourself. It’s short, and it’s multiple-choice.
Here’s the WBUR piece, which lasts for 6:30:
It features an interview with Julia Clark, an Ipsos/MORI pollster, offering her take on why so many Americans wildly overestimate stats, usually toward thinking that things are much worse than they actually are. Part of the explanation, she says, lies in the way people consume media.
“We remember extreme examples, even if they’re rare, especially if they play on our stereotypes,” Clark says. Plus, she adds, people seem to think that if they are hearing a lot about something in the news, that there must be a lot more of the sort of people or the phenomenon than there may be. In other words, the phenomenon is distorted simply by the degree of media attention it receives. Even if the media report the unemployment numbers accurately, as they have done, the fact that it’s in the news a lot seems to make folks believe it’s a much worse problem than it actually is.
Clark doesn’t bring up this statistic (because her firm didn’t test for it), but you may remember this story about how wildly inaccurate is most Americans’ perception of the number of gays and lesbians in our society. Thirty-five percent of us think that at least one-in-four Americans is gay. Only four percent of those polled guessed correctly: less than five percent are LGBT. (The Centers for Disease Control reported earlier this year that only 1.6 percent of the American people are LGBT. Gallup, on the other hand, found the answer to be 3.4 percent. )
Why do people overestimate the number so crazily? Because the mass media constantly promote gay awareness, and gay awareness has become a major cause in academia and corporate America.
Ipsos/MORI was surprised to find that Americans dramatically underestimate the number of Christians in the US. She has a weird and implausible explanation for this: that most Americans see Christianity as something positive, therefore they think we have less of it. Huh? I think the answer is that the news media ignore Christians by and large. A reader of this blog at Brown University the other day pointed out that in the same period of time, there were as many NPR stories on transgenders, who make up a vanishingly small portion of the US population, as there were on Evangelical Christians, who comprise 26 percent of the population.
Evangelicals are largely invisible to our mainstream media. Transgender folks are probably literally invisible to many in the media, simply because there are so few of them. But journalists believe that transgenders are the kind of people they should care about, and advocate for, so we get a vastly disproportionate number of stories about transgenderism.
Perceptions can make reality, for better or for worse.