In the Media

The Institute picks interesting stories and news items every week from the worlds of art, culture and social study and presents them in the blog. This week the stories have been chosen by Taina Cooke.

Dangerously ignorant citizens – what are the real numbers behind the news?
Two wise sociologists famously noted a while ago that if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. This idea, which later came to be known as the Thomas Theorem, is extremely valid today as well when considering people’s views on social topics. A recent study highlights the differences between what you think happens in your country and what is actually taking place – and as last week’s Guardian bluntly put it, how you are probably wrong about almost everything.

The new report found that most people are not only wrong, but completely all at sea with some of the key facts about their home nation. Misconceptions are typical when it comes to estimating, for example, the proportion of immigrants, Muslims, teenage pregnancies and unemployment. According to the survey by Ipsos MORI, Britons thought that the percentage of Muslims in the UK was 21% when the actual number is 5%. Also, people estimated that only 39% of the British population was Christian when the correct figure is as high as 59%.  Furthermore, when asked how many people out of 100 are immigrants to this country, the average guess was 24 – which makes up about twice the actual proportion.

British people taking part in the questionnaire seem to have turned a blind eye on the news concerning the positive effects of migration. An example of such news reporting was featured in Wednesday’s Financial Times: EU migrants pay £20bn more in tax than they receive. The new study by academics at University College London showed that European immigrants have paid significantly more in taxes than they received in benefits in the UK over the last decade. Results of the research hopefully forces some of the laymen – as well as politicians – to rethink their critical attitudes towards the freedom of movement principle within the EU.

Britons are, however, by no means unique in their ignorance. Out of 14 countries surveyed Britain is actually the fifth least ignorant while Swedes were the best informed and Italians the most out of it. The phenomenon is alarming as it promotes misconceptions and influences political actions. The politicians, you see, most often aim to focus on voter perceptions, not on the factual data. It probably comes as a no surprise either that trust in politics goes hand in hand with being informed as Swedes seem to have a lot more faith in their country’s politics than Italians do (based on voter turnout at least).

People creating, and effectively also living in, these alternative realities is problematic. But it is when the politicians also enter these bubbles and start to feed the misconceptions that it becomes a real issue. Redefining the current misinformed situation rather than reinforcing it means we wouldn’t need to live with the possibly very ugly consequences.

The Science Museum’s new exhibition opened in a (t)witty way

A historical episode took place two weeks ago when the Queen sent her first ever tweet while opening the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery. The royal tweet draw a lot of attention on a gallery dedicated to the history of information and communications technology. The new permanent exhibition covers the “six networks that changed our world” by displaying the changes in the cable, the telephone exchange, broadcast, the constellation, the cell and the web.

Accompanying the opening of the new gallery a conference titled “Interpreting the Information Age: new avenues for research and display” was held on 3–5 November at the Science Museum. A well-organized conference featured speakers from multiple universities and organizations from all over the nation and abroad. Themes such the appearance of pioneering information technologies, the security state and computing as well as time travelling were dealt with. Also the vast socio-cultural effects following the big technological changes were discussed about as were the museums’ challenges of collecting the material culture of intangible information. The participants were also taken on a tour around the new gallery, which definitely proved to be worth seeing. No wonder this was the venue of choice for the Queen to get her tweet wet in the social media scene.


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