13 February 2022

Weekly Briefing: The number crunch


People are always complaining that MPs need to be more representative of the public, but when it comes to a grasp of basic maths, it seems they already are.

A survey published this week by the Royal Statistical Society revealed that almost half of MPs couldn’t work out the probability of two coin tosses producing two heads. Even more alarmingly, only 16% correctly answered a question about the probability of having Covid if a test produces a certain proportion of false positives.

Given that MPs have to scrutinise dense, data-heavy legislation, and weigh up the consequences of multi-billion pound policy interventions, this is pretty dismal stuff. (On the plus side, those figures have ticked up a bit since 10 years ago, when only 40% of MPs got the coin toss question right. This was also a survey, not a census, so the results are more of an estimate than a hard-and-fast figure.)

Equally concerning is that our parliamentarians reflect a population that is startlingly innumerate. Around half of UK adults – just shy of 17 million people – have numerical skills equivalent to a primary school child, and only one in five of us are ‘functionally numerate’, i.e. capable of scoring a ‘4’ in GCSE Maths.

Not only does that make navigating a world full of data more intimidating, it leaves people exposed to snake oil statistical claims pushed by conspiracy theorists, unscrupulous businesses, excitable journalists and, unfortunately, politicians. There are many examples of the latter, on all sides, but Labour’s 2019 election campaign takes some beating in terms of its brazenly anti-arithmetical approach to the public finances.

Not being able to scrutinise numerical claims can also make the world seem a lot scarier than it actually is – think of the dramatic stories about some habit or other DOUBLING your risk of a disease from, say, 1 in 200,000 to 1 in 100,000. The headline might be technically true, but also completely misleading. And, as the late Hans Rosling noted, we are already alarmingly prone to an excessively negative view of how bad the world really is.

The costs to the economy are also profound, with a recent study suggesting poor numeracy costs British workers approximately £25bn a year in lost wages, sapping productivity and exacerbating the kind of regional inequality the Government is so keen to tackle.

The recently announced Multiply programme, which aims to help 500,000 adults improve their numeracy, is a welcome start, but given the scale of the problem, a £560m project is really only scratching the surface.

The broader task of changing the cultural norms around numeracy is the work of generations and cannot be for government alone. It was telling that the charity National Numeracy identified fear, rather than actual ability, as the biggest barrier to people dealing confidently with numbers.

Nor should we kid ourselves that a more number-confident population would necessarily take a more rational view of the world. As the writer Tim Harford noted in this illuminating edition of our podcast, people tend to bend facts to their worldview, rather than adapt their worldview in light of new facts.

That tendency is abetted by motivated reasoners who omit, embellish and over-sell their side of a debate. So, even with the best statistics in the world, you still have the damn lies to deal with.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.