Friday, January 09, 2015

On systematically overestimating population sizes

Back in May 2011, I wrote a post looking at how Egyptian Copts and American Muslims overestimate their numbers. Certain high estimates commonly given by organizations are unrealistically high, requiring unusual and improbable conditions to be true. Egyptian Coptic birth rates would need to be uncommonly low if there were to be many more Egyptian Copts than registered in multiple surveys and censuses, for instance, while American Muslims would need to be uncommonly disconnected not only from the telephone but from the American state. I suggested that, for these groups, overestimating the size of their groups might provide a certain sense of comfort, a belief that they are not such small minorities as all that.

What about when the situation is slightly different, when people outside a particular group provide overestimates of that group's size? This was a topic touched upon in Ipsos MORI's October 2014 survey "Perceptions are not reality: Things the world gets wrong". The below slideshow does note the extent to which this occurs.

In The Guardian's Datablog, Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett processed the data at length. My attention was caught by the overestimates provided for Muslim populations.

I do not know where these figures come from. The tendency towards countries with larger Muslim populations providing larger overestimates befuddles me. Where do these figures come from?

The Guardian's quote of pollster Bobby Duffy gets to the problematic import of these misbeliefs. How can politicians and others effectively counter incorrect beliefs, especially when they have the potential to lead to unpleasantness. (Eurabia might well seem more plausible if you think France is already 31% Muslim, I grant you. But why would you believe it?)

The real peril of these misperceptions is how politicians and policymakers react. Do they try to challenge people and correct their view of reality or do they take them as a signal of concern, the result of a more emotional reaction and design policy around them?

Clearly the ideal is to do a bit of both – politicians shouldn’t misread these misperceptions as people simply needing to be re-educated and then their views will change – but they also need to avoid policy responses that just reinforce unfounded fears.

Thoughts? I'm honestly confused as to how these overestimates come about. Answering this question would go no small way towards dealing with the consequences of these incorrect beliefs.


Michel S. said...

I suspect it's the same evolutionary instinct that made us latch on to disconnected events and weave a conspiracy theory out of it ... we're biased towards identifying potential threats and so outliers make a stronger impression than things we're used to.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the primary reasons is the that Immigrants concentrate in the cities.

In my neck of the woods, the rural areas and the suburbs are almost completely white European in decent. But if you go to the local city (which is a small American city that you have never heard of) it is a regular United Nations full of Muslims, Hindus, Orthodox Christians (as exotic to the locals as the other faiths).

The end result is that were people live is more homogeneous then the country at large but where they go to socialize and shop is far more diverse then the country at large. And I think that people get their preconception of what the country as a whole is like not from where they live but from where they shop.