Useful falsehoods: New Zealand’s secular left narrative

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Research suggests that many New Zealanders are ignorant in ways that support left-wing and secular ideologies. Don’t blame me, I didn’t carry out the survey!

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?

Inequality

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!

Religion

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.

Discuss.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Joel December 8, 2015, 3:57 pm

    It is amazing how many people buy into these myths about the distribution of wealth, but even more disturbing is the ignorance among academics. We are told by economists like Thomas Picketty that the top 10% is a world unto itself, yet according to statistics, around 56% of the population in America is in the top 10% at some point in their lives. To envy them would be to envy ourselves. These abstract categories such as the top 10% or the top 1% are, as Harvard economist Thomas Sowell points out, wrongly understood to represent what is happening to actual people, even though in reality people come and go in these categories. According to data from the IRS collected from income tax returns from 1996 to 2005, people with incomes in the bottom 20% saw their incomes rise by 91%, while those in the top 1% category actually saw their income decline by 26%.

    If people knew these statistics then I think we would be far less inclined to be concerned about inequality. Most people starting out in the bottom 20% do not stay in this category. Much of the inequality is due to age and not some fixed social status. People in their sixties will obviously earn more than people in their twenties who are just starting out, and that is just how the world works. It is hard to see why inequality should matter at all if the inequality is created by the natural disparities in patrimony, talent, level of education, or work experience. These are just the facts of social life, not social ills that need to be remedied.

  • Glenn December 8, 2015, 4:55 pm

    “It is hard to see why inequality should matter at all if the inequality is created by…”

    The data (of which I am aware) indicates that the presence of significant economic inequality is correlated with the presence of many social ills. It likely does matter, then. I’m not sure if the data accounts for how social inequality is created, but this correlation holds across a wide range of places.

  • Joel December 9, 2015, 8:50 am

    I have never seen any compelling evidence that inequality is in anyway causally related to economic growth, financial stability, or the status of the poor and middle class. Where is the evidence for this? I am not sure why I should be concerned about relative wealth if the absolute well being of everyone is improving. It seems to me that the standard of living is really what counts. What I find interesting about the slowing down in the growth of income among the middle class and the poor is that it really starts in the 1970s, but income concentration did not come until about a decade later. This decline in productivity seemed to affect the entire developed world and impacted the wealthiest and poorest of society alike. According to the Congressional Budget Office, from 1979 to 2005, the middle class and the poor began to recover from the recession and saw a 35% to 50% increase in income, which roughly translates to an increase by 10,000. During all this time income inequality in America was increasing. What often happens is that people cite studies that are consistent with their case but ignore the correlations that do not make sense on their theory; but you can’t just pick and choose data. You have to be able to make sense of the data in general, and the best data we have does not seem to support this thesis.

    Let me ask you this Glenn: would you rather live in a very wealthy country where a large percentage of the capital is concentrated in a small minority but where everyone’s standard of living is increasing, or one in which there is much greater equality but everyone is much worse off? It seems to me the former is obviously more desirable. Why should I care if people on Wall Street have five mansions and a salary that is fifty times what I make if my prospects, although inferior, are improving? It seems to me the only reasons would be envy and an entitlement mentality. If that wealthy Wall Street executive earned every penny fair and square, what right do I have to protest? The only case in which I could justly protest, it seems to me, is when the person on Wall Street gets wealthy by taking money from the government, because in that case the wealth gained would be at my expense. I see little reason to be concerned about inequality, except in cases where obvious injustices exist, such as segregation in America. Being influenced more in a classically liberal direction, I would be concerned about the concentration of power that would be necessary to try and alleviate inequality. It seems to me that granting the state the broad powers to redistribute wealth and land would easily lead to an authoritarian state, and I would rather not have that. And this was one of Edmund Burke’s main arguments against the socialist revolutionaries in France. The redistribution of property is simply unjust and often creates social upheaval. We all know what happened to the French when they were consumed by this egalitarian spirit of avarice.

  • Glenn December 9, 2015, 9:51 am

    “I have never seen any compelling evidence that inequality is in anyway causally related to economic growth, financial stability, or the status of the poor and middle class.”

    This isn’t quite what I said. What I said is that there’s a strong correlation between economic inequality and a range of social ills. And if you’ve never seen any evidence of that, I can only think you haven’t looked for it. And while – as people love to point out – correlation isn’t causation, strong correlation is certainly evidence of causation.

    I don’t think equality at any costs or by any means is a good thing, and I’ve said something about that elsewhere. http://rightreason.org/2013/equality-just-and-unjust/ Some of the evidence for the correlation is briefly presented in a video in that blog entry. But the correlation is part of the data that we all have to be aware of if we’re going to be part of the discussion at all.

    But I don’t want this potential rabbit hole to detract from the issue in front of us, which is the focus of this blog post: There’s a tendency to believe that economic inequality is much greater than it really is, and this is a false version of reality that appears to suit the political agenda of those on the left of the spectrum.

  • Joel December 9, 2015, 11:59 am

    I am not exactly sure what social ills you have in mind. The economic arguments are the ones that I usually see being made by those concerned with inequality, but many also seem to believe that violent crime and drug taking are primarily caused by economic inequality. I think this is extremely dubious, and in any case, a really poor excuse for behavior that doesn’t deserve to be defended in the first place.

    I am glad to hear that you do not think economic equality is an ideal that trumps liberty and prosperity. My own view has been that it does not matter all all unless brought about artificially by the state or some other institution, but it sounds like you disagree. I will definitely read your blog on the subject, as it is an area in which I have great interest.

  • Glenn December 9, 2015, 1:39 pm

    Joel, you can call something dubious and make calls about where blame should be placed, but I reiterate, this is a fact: There is a strong correlation between marked economic inequality and a number of social ills. That is not dubious and has little to do with the issue of excusing behaviour.

    I did link to a presentation that outlines the ills I have in mind, so you needn’t keep wondering. 🙂

  • Joel December 9, 2015, 10:27 pm

    That income inequality causes crime is not a fact and you have given me no good reason to accept this. There is no strong correlation. If the common liberal explanations were right about crime then egalitarian societies like Britain and Holland should be virtually crime free, but they are certainly not. New Zealand has one of the highest living standards in the world but has nearly the same crime rate as Britain. Britain use to be virtually crime free, but now that it has gone the way of liberal egalitarianism the streets of London are no longer safe. In America during the 1950s, back when poverty and inequality were much worse than they are now, you could walk the streets of Harlem without fear. Now no one in their right mind would attempt this. In all the examples I can think of, crime has increased along with increasing liberalization. These tired sociological explanations of crime that the left offers do not explain the real world we live in.

  • Glenn December 9, 2015, 11:47 pm

    “That income inequality causes crime is not a fact and you have given me no good reason to accept this.”

    Joel, is this supposed to be a response to me? I think you’re straying from what I’ve said here.

    As for the correlation, no you’re simply wrong. The correlation is real. You’ve commented on the other thread now, so by now I expect you’ve watched the video and perhaps followed up on that guy’s research. But you can’t just declare on this one. You’re wrong. The correlation is real, and that’s how reality is.

    I often hear the point made that in the depression when poverty (not inequality – poverty) was worse, crime was much lower. True. Of course that does change the subject because the issue is inequality, not poverty. And whether or not this correlation existed in the mid twentieth century, I don’t know. But we know for a fact that it exists. Ignoring that because you don’t think it existed in the 1950s doesn’t really make sense to me.

  • Joel December 10, 2015, 7:53 am

    So inequality causes crime but not poverty? However you want to state it, I do not think it holds water as an explanation of crime. I did not really deny that correlations of any sort exist between crime and inequality, only that these correlations explain anything. But you are going much further in stating that “the correlation is strong” and that causation is a fact. I do not think it is. To what little extent it exists it can only be looked at as a correlation, not a causal relationship. Even if a strong correlation were demonstrated, this could be explained by the fact that the same characteristics that cause inequality also cause crime, in which case the inequality is not the driving factor. You would have to establish the direction of causation. You not demonstrated any of this.

    In terms of income inequality, these studies are biased and tend to greatly distort the economic facts. Differences in income inequality are largely a reflection of how many people are employed in a household; they do not represent individual salaries. The massive divorce rates are obviously going to hugely distort the economic realities since single mothers will necessarily make less even if they are paid the same amount as married individuals.

    As I’ve explained before, there is a great degree of income mobility in America. Those who were poor decades ago have become rich and vice versa. Most people move beyond the bottom 20% earning much more income later in life. You also have to take into account demographic factors. Some groups of people have higher median ages than others which also skews the data. It is not even clear that income is significantly less widely distributed today than it was before World War II, but even if this were true, it would not undermine the fact that all income groups have prospered. This is especially true of 1982 to 1989.

    Does your research control for all of this? I doubt it. Most studies are so poorly controlled that they tell us nothing of value. I do not think the gloomy picture you want to paint is really the situation we face. The conclusions that Wilkinson derives from his data are probably spurious, and make little sense. Obesity caused by inequality? How about mental illness? Or maybe diabetes is caused by inequality too. This is a spurious correlation at best, and I cannot understand why someone would think inequality affects these sorts of things. How exactly would it impact mental illness? This sounds almost absurd.

    I am afraid you are mistaken about Harlem in the 50s. Inequality was much worse between African American communities and everyone else. We still had segregation in those days, and that put them at a disadvantage in terms of education, employment, athleticism ext. They have far more opportunities today. I cannot understand why you would think this is not relevant to your claim about inequality causing crime. It is an example that flies in the face of the explanation you provided since significant social inequality coexisted with relatively low crime rates in the African American communities, which is the opposite of what we would expect if what you’re saying is true. Inequality has improved in many respects since that time with the Civil Rights Acts and affirmative action, as you no doubt are aware, and all the while crime was increasing in this community. It is now double what it was in 1960.

  • Mick December 11, 2015, 12:55 pm

    The facts confuse, so ‘reality’ is a perception. Getting people to act against their own rational processes involves persuading them to willfuly deny facts. Its called propaganda.
    Jacques Ellul covered this extensively in his prescient work ‘Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes’. It was written in a time when today’s online world would have been seen as a work of science fiction. He saw the ‘top down’ propaganda of fascism and communism as clumsy and easily resistable. The educational institutions are the modern equivalent of Goebbels and Pravda. Rather than a daily official release of the party line, a slow, sideways acting virus that takes a generation to flower is far more effective.
    So what were the thought movements of 30 to 40 years ago?
    Back then, edicts banning religious utterances contra to topics the secular irreligious left hold sacred would have been seen for what it was – dictatorial – and resisted by most who value freedom.
    Now, due to creeping social virus, it’s taken as normal. Facts are met with faux outrage. When enough outrage is generated, lawmakers respond in the name of democracy at work.
    Online loudmouths spouting falsehoods are merely the useful; the vanguard of the educational institutions of the last two generations

  • Glenn December 12, 2015, 8:04 pm

    Joel, I don’t know what to do with your comment.

    First, you want to remind me of what you really said: You didn’t deny the correlations. But I never said you did, you just ignored them. I’m afraid this subtle misrepresentation of my comments is all through yours. Here are some more:

    “But you are going much further in stating that “the correlation is strong” and that causation is a fact.” But you surely know this is not true. In fact, I explicitly said to you that correlation is not causation, it is simply evidence of causation. You still don’t seem to have much to say about this correlation.

    The bulk of your comment focuses on the issue of income inequality, and then you challenge me by asking if my research (what? It’s not my research) controls for this. But I already corrected this error once, pointing out that this is not about income equality but wealth inequality.

    You even say bizarre things like “I am afraid you are mistaken about Harlem in the 50s,” as though I had even mentioned a word about Harlem in the 50s. And after that you simply repeat earlier statements that I had replied to already. My final paragraph prior to yours addresses it directly.

    With respect, I think your replies are degrading into an all-too common internet phenomenon of repeated misrepresentation and repetition of earlier claims. I’m going to bow out of the discussion between the two of us for that reason.

  • Joel December 13, 2015, 9:38 am

    “First, you want to remind me of what you really said: You didn’t deny the correlations. But I never said you did, you just ignored them.”

    It it is odd for you to say this when in the last comment preceding mine you wrote: “You’re wrong. The correlation is real, and that’s how reality is”, as if I had denied correlation altogether. You have misrepresented me as well so to chastise me for it is a double standard. I can’t misrepresent you but you can misrepresent me and it no longer counts. I take back what I said about your comment regarding causation and correlation. I have to admit I got a little careless here.

    “The bulk of your comment focuses on the issue of income inequality, and then you challenge me by asking if my research (what? It’s not my research) controls for this. But I already corrected this error once, pointing out that this is not about income equality but wealth inequality.”

    I hope you can appreciate why I am honestly confused about what you are and are not saying about inequality. You tell me to watch a video and then expect me to automatically know how much of it you disagree with and what your unstated position is on income inequality. I just assumed you agreed with what Dr. Wilkinson had to say about income inequality being related to social and physical ills, which certainly was mentioned in the video if I am watching the same Ted Talk you directed me to. If you disagree with this you should have said so before, but this was a claim that the presenter made, and I was simply responding to it. You need to state what you are claiming in clear terms if you want me understand your position. On my part I probably should have asked you for more clarification, but if you had said this before I would have understood.

    “You even say bizarre things like “I am afraid you are mistaken about Harlem in the 50s,” as though I had even mentioned a word about Harlem in the 50s. And after that you simply repeat earlier statements that I had replied to already. My final paragraph prior to yours addresses it directly.”

    I can only assume that an inability to answer questions lies behind the fact that you just dismiss all of this evidence as irrelevant to your claim. There is nothing bizarre about my comment. Read my original comment and you will see that I mentioned Harlem as an example that contradicts you. You are simply wrong about inequality in the 50s, and Harlem is a good example that I brought up in support of my claim. Again, another misrepresentation and unfair marginalization of my position. Glenn, seriously, I respect you and do not want to bring this discussion to a level that is ad hominem or full of bantering back and forth, but I do think you are being unfair here.

  • Glenn December 13, 2015, 2:26 pm

    “I can only assume that an inability to answer questions”

    Joel, that sort of thing does take you into trolling territory. This is not meant to be Youtube. It guarantees the end of this discussion. I saw this coming, hence me saying that responses were degrading. Well, we arrived there.

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