When I was preparing to write this article I picked up a random news magazine with the intention of picking out a few statistics to illustrate that point (see panel below for a small selection). I soon realised that I could quickly fill the page with numbers without making any point at all except that there are a lot of numbers out there.
It is as if journalists believe that numbers contain a higher form of truth. Which might be so if the journalists themselves – let alone readers – always understood what the numbers mean.
The piece below, about how many Romanians and Bulgarians might be coming to Britain next year, is just one example of how the same statistics can be presented in different ways to “prove” opposite points of view.
Statistics are incredibly useful. But they can also be incredibly misleading in the hands of people who don’t understand them – or who are banking on the probable fact that you don’t.The government, and its supporters in the national press, are adept at using statistics to divide and rule. To set ordinary people against each other.
To exploit the tendency that is at the heart of democratic politics everywhere. The tendency of people to distrust their own class more than they distrust the people above them.
Take the welfare state, that great British achievement which the Tories are now intent on destroying.
In order to destroy it and still have a hope of staying in power, they need popular support. And that means convincing enough people that what is good for them is actually bad for them.
And you know what? It works.
You can see that in figures that compare a large Yougov opinion survey with actual government statistics.
The differences between what people think about the welfare state and its reality are staggering:
How much of the welfare budget is spent on the unemployed?
- The common belief: 41 per cent
- The reality: 3pc
How much of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently?
- The belief: 27pc
- The reality: 0.7pc
And those pesky Eastern Europeans...
Is Britain set to be overrun next year by a wave of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants?It’s an interesting question, even if it’s a little difficult to give an accurate answer from here. And it does rather depend, too, on what you mean by “overrun”.
Monday night’s BBC Newsnight programme attempted to inject a little reality into the already overheated debate about what will happen in 2014 when migration controls on those recent EU joiners come down.
Are feckless Romanians and Bulgarians preparing to flood here? If the Newsnight polls are to be believed, the answer would seem to be ‘no’.
They found that just one per cent of Romanians surveyed and 4.2pc of Bulgarians would be looking for work in the UK. Not a lot.
It would, however, equate to a total of about 200,000 people from each country. That is a lot.
Or, to put it another way, an increase of 0.3pc in the British working population. Not a lot at all. Hardly a flood by any count.
Oh, and did I say ‘feckless’? According to Newsnight, most of those Romanians and Bulgarians hoping to head this way will only do so if they actually have jobs to come to. And most of them are university-educated professionals.
The Newsnight report came with a welter of other figures, which all, broadly speaking, supported the view that only a very small number of new EU citizens will be heading this way next year.
Far fewer, no doubt, than the number of Mail and Express readers fired up to despise them before they ever arrive.