By: Michael Safi
Australians believe the proportion of Muslims in the country is nine times higher than it really is, according to a new international survey comparing public perceptions with actual data.
The Ipsos Mori poll conducted across 14 countries also showed Australians are wildly wrong in their estimations of the number of pregnant teenagers, unemployed people, immigrants and Christians in the country.
Australians said the murder rate was rising, when the data shows it generally falling.
Swedes were found to most accurately perceive their society, ahead of Germany, Japan, Spain and the UK. Australia came in sixth, while Italians, Americans and South Koreans ranked worst in the survey’s index of ignorance.
Australians said that Muslims made up 18% of the country’s population, far higher than their actual proportion, just 2%.
Similar overestimations were made by Americans, Canadians, Belgians and the French. The latter believed nearly one in three of their compatriots were Muslim, when the real figure is 8%.
Bobby Duffy, managing director of Ipsos Mori, said the misperceptions “present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making”.
“For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of immigration and the real incidence of teenage mothers,” he said.
Australians meanwhile understate the proportion of Christians in the country, believing 67% of people identify with the faith, when it is actually 85%.
On another hot-button issue – immigration – our perceptions are a little less skewed. Australians believe immigrants make up 35% of the country – higher than the true number, 28%, but among the most accurate guesses of the 14 countries polled.
Italians and Americans both said immigrants make up one in three of their populations, instead of 7% and 13% respectively.
Australians believe a whopping 23% of the population is unemployed, when the data says 6%. Even more pessimistic were the Italians, who guessed that nearly half their population couldn’t find a job, the reality being a still-high 12%.
What proportion of girls aged between 15 and 19 give birth each year? Australians said 15%, more than seven times higher than the reality at 2%. That figure is 3% among Americans and Britons, but they guessed 24% and 16% respectively.
Also polled were Australian perceptions of the number of voters in the last federal election (underestimated), the number of people over 65 (overestimated) and the average life expectancy (spot on at age 82).
Speculating on the reasons behind the wide gulf between the world’s guesses and the facts, Duffy said “emotional innumeracy” played a role. When answering questions about our social environments, “we are sending a message about what’s worrying us as much as trying to get the right answers”, he said.
Also at play are flaws in the way people remember information, “where vivid anecdotes stick, regardless of whether they are describing something very rare”, he said.