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Lies, lies and damned statistics

10 November 20140 comments

Australians believe there are nine times as many Muslims living here and an extra 1.6 million migrants that actually call Australia home.

The also believe 37 per cent of the population is over 65 and 15 per cent of teenage girls have babies while the actual figures are 14 per cent and two per cent respectively.

These are the findings of a new survey that shows Australians are mostly wrong in their perceptions about what the nation looks like.

The Ipsos Perils of Perception Survey also found Australians think unemployment is higher than it actually is and that the murder rate is rising.

The findings, part of an international survey of 14 countries dubbed the Index of Ignorance, show Australia ranks around the middle in getting things wrong – coming in ninth.

The worst country for misapprehensions was Italy followed by the US and South Korea. Swedes, Germans and Japanese have the most accurate perceptions of their societies.

Ipsos Social Research Institute Director David Elliott said one factor in the poor findings is that most people don’t regularly work with numbers.

He said that, also, if an issue gets extensive media coverage, people may think an issue is far more prevalent or important than it really is.

Australians think 18 per cent of the population is Muslim when the real number is 2 per cent. They think just 84 per cent of people voted in the last federal election when, in reality, 93 per cent did – and that 35 per cent of the population are migrants when only 28 per cent are.

“We overestimate the negative and underestimate the positive,” Mr Elliott said.

He said the misconceptions were a problem for informed public debate and that while Australia ranked around the middle of the nations surveyed, there were “still huge gaps between perceptions and reality on a number of key issues”.

On a few issues, the responses more closely matched the reality, such as life expectancy and what percentage of Australians were migrants. However, the most popular response given for why there were fewer migrants than thought was that the level of illegal immigration wasn’t counted.

Also important in the forming of responses to immigration were personal experiences and media coverage.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist