TO CUT to the chase, the five most ignorant countries in the world are Mexico (a world leader at least in this), India, Brazil, Peru and New Zealand. And the five best informed are South Korea (take a bow), followed by Ireland, Poland, China and the United States. Ignorant about what? About the realities in their own country.
Every year the London-based polling organisation Ipsos Mori does its “Perils of Perception” poll, asking people in many countries what they believe about, say, the proportion of the population who are immigrants, or overweight, or over 65, and comparing their answers with the true numbers.
Putting all the results together, Ipsos Mori then comes up with its famous Index of Ignorance. The level of ignorance is startling – and yet these mistaken beliefs can play a big role in the political choices that countries make.
Take immigration. Almost every country over-estimates the number of immigrants in their population, sometimes by huge amounts. The Chinese, for example, believe that 11 percent of the people in their country are immigrants. The real number is 0.1 percent, so their guess is 110 times too high (and maybe just a little paranoid). Brazilians are just as bad: they think 25 percent of the population are immigrants; it’s really just 0.3 percent.
Most countries do better than that, but not that much better. Americans think 32 percent of their population are immigrants, when actually only 13 percent are. The Japanese think it’s 10 percent, when it’s really only 2 percent. And the Poles recently elected a right-wing nationalist government in large part because they fear being overrun: they think 14 percent of the population are immigrants, when it’s really less than half of one percent.
Or take the number of Muslims living in countries that are historically non-Muslim. The highest proportion of the population is in France, where 8 percent are Muslims – but the average guess of the French people polled was 31 percent (and Fox News seems to believe it’s nearly half). Only one percent of Americans are Muslim, but Americans believe it is 15 percent. In Canada it’s 2 percent, but Canadians think it’s 20 percent.
These huge over-estimates are probably driven in part by the fear of Islamist terrorism, which in turn is driven by the media’s fascination with the subject. It’s quite striking, for example, that while Americans guess three times too high when asked about the proportion of immigrants in the country, they guess fifteen times too high when asked specifically about Muslims.
One could go on and on about how wrong people get things. Indians (urban, educated Indians who take part in internet polls) think that one-third of the country’s population is non-religious. In fact, less than one percent is.
Saudi Arabians think that 28 percent of the population are overweight or obese, when actually 71 percent are (the highest proportion of all 35 countries polled). But the more interesting question is: how much do these misperceptions affect politics and policy?
Not much, probably, when we’re talking about religion or obesity or the share of the population that is over 65 years old (which was over-estimated in every country polled). But it’s pretty clear that a huge popular over-estimate of the number of immigrants in Great Britain contributed to the “Leave” victory in last June’s referendum on British membership of the European Union.
But the ignorance often gets a lot of help. London’s population, for example, is more than a third foreign-born: almost 37 percent. But Londoners are quite comfortable with this, and voted strongly for “Remain”. In fact, almost all of the big English cities voted “Remain”. Whereas in suburban and rural parts of England, where immigrants are rare or entirely absent, people were so panicked by immigration that they voted equally strongly for “Leave”.
This was not just a coincidence. For many years a big chunk of the British media, including the country’s three largest-circulation morning papers, the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, has constantly exaggerated the scale of the immigration and the problems it causes. So in parts of England where immigrants are scarce, people don’t believe the evidence of their own eyes; they believe the media instead.
The same phenomenon has played a big part in the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. When he talks about building a wall to stop hordes of Mexican rapists pouring across the southern border of the US, or promises to ban all Muslim immigration to the country, the media-fed misconceptions of Americans about immigrant and particularly Muslim numbers make his lies easier to believe.
There is a chicken-and-egg question here, of course. Are the media just pandering to existing popular fears, or are they actually creating them? The unsatisfactory but inevitable answer is: a bit of both.
In the century and a half when there have been free mass media (and now social media as well), nobody has come up with a solution for this problem. “Free” includes free to make mistakes, and free to distort facts and tell outright lies.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries