A common theme in my thinking lately is about the way that we humans come to hold many beliefs for non-rational reasons. We imagine the world to be a certain way, not because it is that way but (whether we realise it or not) because it would suit us in some way for the world to be that way. If we’re prejudiced against foreigners, it’ll suit us to say that we’ve got a major problem with migrants coming here, whether such a problem exists or not, and we’ll – unconsciously, perhaps – look for ways to interpret any available data in a way that supports this belief. If we are hardcore left-wing feminist social justice warriors (you know who you are), it would suit our interests if there was a real massive pay gap between men and women in our country, or if a lot of pro-lifers were violent terrorists, and as a result we may well form those beliefs with little or no assistance from the facts, quite apart from whether or not the world really is this way. In bipartisan fashion I’ve picked a “left wing” and a “right wing” example.
Because of my interest in the subject of why we believe as we do, I was intrigued to look at the findings of recent survey called “Perils of Perception 2015: A 33 Country Study.” The subtitle is “Perceptions are not reality: What the world gets wrong.” The summary reads: “Ipsos MORI’s latest version of the Perils of Perception survey highlights how wrong the public across 33 countries are about some key issues and features of the population in their country.”
What caught my eye was the fact that my own country of New Zealand was ranked the fifth least accurate overall, and the least accurate of any developed nation. The survey was carried out via online interviews, which naturally limits the audience to those who are more likely to be active online, and who are more likely to want to share their opinion. “Who would have thought?” I said to myself knowingly. “The loudmouths in the comments section of news websites are probably the most ignorant people in the developed world when it comes to the social realities of their own country.” I will ignore the possibility that bloggers might fall into that category.
You can review the raw data – that is, the correct answers – yourself here, and here is a presentation of the findings with participant responses compared with the correct answer. Here are a few interesting highlights. The questions at the front of my mind as I read this were: What false narratives do many of us tend to believe about our country, and what interests are served by holding these false beliefs? Why might we hold them, in spite of the facts?
Survey respondents from New Zealand … thought the richest 1% of people in this country owned a whopping 50% of the wealth.
Economic equality has a big impact on the overall health of communities. There’s a political narrative (i.e. a narrative that is important to people on political grounds and which is widely employed in political discourse and dispute) that the government is failing terribly when it comes to inequality and that the rich few own a vastly larger proportion of our nation’s wealth than the rest of society.
Obviously the rich will hold a disproportionate portion of the nation’s wealth. If they didn’t then we would be wrong to call them “the rich.” But survey respondents from New Zealand had bought into this narrative to such an extent that we thought the richest 1% of people in this country owned a whopping 50% of the wealth. In fact they own just 18% of the wealth. Assuming that relative equality is a good thing, New Zealand does better in this regard than literally every other nation, coming first equal with Belgium. But the wildly inaccurate figure of 50% would have made us the fourth least economically equal country, better only than India, Turkey, and Russia.
Who is served by this particular ignorance? In what way might it be a case of willful ignorance? My first reaction (one that on reflection I think is correct) is to see this as an ignorance that is useful to the political left. The bigger the problem of economic inequality, the more the parties of the left are perceived to be needed to save the day, since economic equality is something widely viewed by the left as something about which they care but the right does not.
In saying this, I’m sympathetic with Martin Luther’s caution, “away with those who say ‘peace, peace, when there is no peace.” I understand the usefulness in saying that we have problems when we don’t, because it stops us from becoming complacent and it calls us to improve things. There may still be a benefit in believing the falsehood that our economic inequality is worse than it is, because that might prompt us to care more about the plight of the less well-off. Whether believing useful falsehoods is commendable or not isn’t something I’ll go into here. My only interest is in the way people do form beliefs for reasons other than strictly truth-aimed ones.
However, the data suggests that New Zealanders in general think the top 1% should own less of the wealth only because their estimate of how much they do own is so badly wrong. When asked what proportion of the total household wealth the wealthiest 1% should own, New Zealanders said 27%. Presumably if we knew that they only owned 18% we would be overjoyed, one would think. We don’t really think the wealthiest 1% should own any less than they (really) do!
We often hear that we’re a secular society. There’s a sense in which this is obviously true, since “secular” in the strictest sense just means having to do with everyday worldly affairs. It doesn’t necessarily imply an absence of religious faith, but I’ll set the semantic issue aside. What people tend to mean by remarks like this is that we’re not a religious people, and this sort of remark is often made alongside the plea to keep our religious convictions to ourselves, behind closed doors, out of the public view, and let secular values (whatever on earth that might mean) dictate the way public life works.
I devoted the better part of my postgraduate study to grappling with this belief and I won’t try to delve into those very deep waters here. But for those more vocal people in New Zealand who think this way (in my view for very bad reasons), the belief that we are a nation of non-believers is useful. It’s preferable that New Zealand be this way, because this fact about our country provides us with a reason (although we may have other reasons) for calling for a smaller religious presence in public.
Here, too, ignorance, probably motivated ignorance, prevails. Call it stereotyping, but the crankiest, loudest, most persistent commenters I see in comment threads at news websites and in social media are people with strongly anti-religious opinions who would rather that religion just shut up and went away. Here, we hear about how secular/godless a society this really is. And it is here that people get things wrong. They don’t know what their world is really like, but they believe it to be what they would prefer, what would suit their cause.
We are a more religiously affiliated country than is helpful for the narrative some people prefer.
Survey respondents were asked “Out of every 100 people, about how many do you think do not affiliate themselves with any religion – that is, atheists, agnostics and those who say they do not identify with any religion?” Notice that the question is not about how many people are atheists. Atheists are only one sub-group. This is a question about people who do not affiliate with a religion, a number of whom still believe in God but are unwilling to commit to a particular faith or suspicious of them all, and some of whom are simply undecided on God and religion. The result here was striking. Respondents from all but two countries overestimated the number of non-religiously affiliated people. In most cases people overestimated by more than 20%. While New Zealanders got it significantly wrong, they were not among the worst. On average, respondents in New Zealand thought that 49% of people were not affiliated with a religion. The correct figure is 12% less, at 37%. We are a more religiously affiliated country than is helpful for the narrative some people prefer.
There were other ways we got things wrong, too. We underestimated the extent of obesity. We overestimated the number of migrants who live here (we are, both on the left and the right, a strongly nationalistic place, a mindset served by this particular false belief). We underestimate the number of our politicians who are women (a false belief that serves the mindset that says “let’s see more women in positions of power!”). We underestimate the number of women in employment.
But at the risk of fueling generalisations and arguments, let me put this stinkbomb out there: The facts appear to show that online bigmouths in New Zealand are ignorant of what their world is really like, holding to false beliefs that serve the interests of the irreligious left.
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