Many of us have noticed the recurrent attacks on social science funding by members of the US Congress. There is something paradoxical about the way in which representatives of political parties that spend large sums on private social science research have tried to undermine the credibility of publicly-funded social science. In the UK, social science research has enjoyed greater protection, partly because it is under the government department for business and innovation rather than the department for education. The latter has had a more ‘back to basics’ agenda for many years, under different administrations, promoting a narrow school curriculum that stresses maths, English and science and marginalizes most other subjects.
Some consequences are revealed in a recent survey by Ipsos-Mori for the Royal Statistical Society and Kings College London. This asked a representative sample of the adult UK population about their perceptions of key demographic and social policy issues. The results are disturbing.
In respect of demography, immigrants were thought to make up 31% of the population – official estimates are 15%, allowing for illegal immigration. Black and Asian ethnic groups are thought to be 30% of the population, where the official estimate is 11%, or 14% including people with mixed heritage or other non-white backgrounds. Muslims are thought to be 24% of the population, where the last census found just 5%. Respondents thought 36% of the population are over 65, where the actual figure is 16%. They also thought that 15% of girls under 16 became pregnant every year – the correct figure is 0.6%.
On public policy issues, 58% of respondents thought that crime was rising: it has fallen by more than half since 1995. Respondents thought £24 in every £100 paid out in social security benefits was claimed fraudulently – official estimates are just 70p. A quarter of respondents thought foreign aid was one of the largest items of government expenditure: the actual expenditure is £7.9bn against £74bn on pensions and £51.5bn on education. Respondents were most likely to think that the recent cap on social security payments at a level equivalent to the average wage would produce the greatest savings in public expenditure, compared with raising the pension age by one year or stopping child benefit payments to wealthier households – the actual savings are £290m, £5bn and £1.7bn respectively.
It appears that the UK is producing citizens who are massively ill-informed about their own society. This must have serious implications for anyone concerned for the proper functioning of democracy and the society’s ability to develop appropriate public policies. The survey’s promoters intend to make a case for statistical literacy but this is not really the point. The gap is not one of statistics education but of social science education.
This is nicely illustrated in a recent paper by two geographers, John Tomaney and Pedro Marques, about the impact of social science evidence on the UK political system. Their case study is the plan to spend £45bn on a high-speed rail link between London and the north of England. Tomaney appeared before a committee of legislators looking into the proposals. The paper reproduces his exchange with a Conservative MP about his findings, from a review of international research, that the project was more likely to suck resources away from poorer provincial cities than to promote their economic regeneration.
Q287 Kwasi Kwarteng: We heard anecdotal evidence from my colleague Julie Hilling in the last session that businessmen in the north-west are largely in favour of this proposal. I appreciate that the Committee is made up of academics and politicians, but none of you, with respect, runs a business in the regions that will be affected, as I understand it. I am willing to be corrected. Given those two facts–that you are composed of who you are and, if it is true, business people in the north-west want the line–how can you explain their desire for this? They are business owners and they are saying, “Being in the north-west, this is going to help my business and I want the line;” you are an academic saying, “This is purely illusory.”
Professor Tomaney: Is that a question to me?
Kwasi Kwarteng: To the whole panel, whether you are an academic or politician or whatever.
Professor Tomaney: I am not a businessman so “Guilty”. But I have looked carefully at the evidence, as much of it as we could find, and I present my conclusions. In the north-east, which is where I am from, you will certainly find business people who are in favour of it. Intuitively, it makes sense. If you improve the transport system between a small place like the north-east and a large market like London and the south-east it will benefit, but when you look carefully at the evidence it is very difficult to substantiate.
Q288 Kwasi Kwarteng: Their intuitions are wrong.
Professor Tomaney: … I am not speaking for them; I am speaking for myself. I am saying that when you carefully examine the evidence it does not support the argument.
Q289 Kwasi Kwarteng: With respect to that point, my prejudice is usually on their side. They are the ones who live or die by the success of their businesses. That is what puts bread on the table. They are taking a view and you are saying that their calculations or their intuitions are wrong. That is interesting.
Professor Tomaney: I am an academic; I do not do prejudices. We do evidence and analysis, and we present the results. Other people can then try and resolve that evidence in relation to their prejudices.
Although Kwarteng recognizes that the evidence of business support is anecdotal, he is either not equipped or not motivated to ask social scientific questions about its credibility. This is not, for example, a proposal from the business community to build a line at their own expense, which is how Britain’s railways were built in the first place. It is an apparently free gift from the UK taxpayer to private interests. Why would those interests criticise the project?
Politicians may occasionally have sound reasons for rejecting evidence-based policies or promoting policies that lack robust evidence. However, if neither they nor the citizenry have the basic education to recognize when this is happening, and to acknowledge the likely consequences, then we may rightly be concerned about the quality of democratic government. Social science literacy needs to be as core to education as maths and English because it is about the ability to function as a citizen, or as a representative of citizens.