What happened when MPs took a maths exam


Could it be that Labour leader Ed Miliband's demand that all school pupils must study maths until they are 18 has been prompted by new evidence that his own MPs struggle with numbers?

The man in charge of the party's policy review, Jon Cruddas, admitted this weekend that he is "barely numerate". And when the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) recently tested the ability of honourable members to answer a relatively simple mathematical question, only a quarter of Labour MPs got it right.

A total of 97 MPs were asked this probability problem: if you spin a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads?*

Among Conservative members, 47% gave the wrong answer, which is disappointing enough. But of the 44 Labour MPs who took part, 77% answered incorrectly.

(*The correct response, of course, is 25%.)

Graph of MPs' ability to calculate probabilities

The survey also asked MPs if they generally felt confident when dealing with numbers -

  • 76% of Tories said they did
  • 72% of Labour MPs surveyed expressed confidence

However, when asked if they thought politicians use official statistics and figures accurately when talking about their policies, only 17% of Conservative respondents agreed, as did 30% of the Labour members who took part.

I wish I had been a fly-on-the-wall when the Ipsos Mori pollsters conducted the survey. The maths question was put to 41 Conservative MPs, 44 Labour MPs, nine LibDems and three from other parties in face-to-face interviews.

Given the confidence in their numeracy expressed at the beginning of the survey, I wonder how the 60% of members who got the answer to the probability question wrong felt by the end.

The research was commissioned by the Getstats committee at the RSS (of which I am a member), part of a 10-year long campaign to improve the way Britain handles numbers.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    This is why we need an appointed House of Lords full of scientists, doctors, etc. At least some of the people leading our country need to have a basic grasp of maths...

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Can we take a look at that great buzzword "growth"?

    There seems to be very little understanding of the notion that growth is somehow "sustainable". My point being that any constant or persistently positive rate of growth is by definition, exponential and therefore, extremely unlikely to be indefinitely sustainable. Population, consumption, economic, etc.

    Will we or our leaders ever "get" this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Why don't branches of science talk more?

    By giving results by party the reserachers must have expected people to draw comparions - but as any medical reseracher could have told them the sample sizes are FAR too small to draw conclusions across whole populations......

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    This only reflects wider society - I am have long argued that lack of numeracy is a more pressing issue then lack of literacy. at least with language you can usually understand them even if they use the wrong word/make a spelling mistake......

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    This story is doing the rounds but I have been unable to find any verification from the Royal Statistical Society who carried out the test.
    There is no mention of it on their own website on on that of the Getstats committee, so perhaps we could have more details?

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I always thought MP's were being wilfully devious and misleading when using statistical data for their own ends but perhaps we have been too harsh - perhaps they are just incredibly stupid. Regarding the comments about biased coins - when someone asks you the question you can just clarify and ask 'is it an unbiased coin' - not really difficult

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Only 23% of Labour MPs got the answer correct, yet 72% professed confidence when dealing with numbers. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect in action:


  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    My first though was '25%' , then almost immediately I wondered if it was a sort of trick question and doubted my first answer. Probability sometimes follows funny rules. The Monty Hall problem:
    Is a great example. Changing your original answer improves your chances of winning which seems counter intuitive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    73. knockon

    Given that the question does not tell us whether the coin is fair or not then the person answering the question should give an answer which takes into account variations in the coin structure an all the possibility that the structure may be rig to give one side a greater chance of landing on that side.

    Only if it a perfect and fair coin would the answer be 25%.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    So Labour can't add up.

    We worked that out ourselves after 12 years of them running the economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    I worry about Dave - I think he may be quietly having his own little breakdown.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    My degree is in Mathematics and the number of people who tell me proudly that they are "rubbish at maths" is worrying. You wouldn't be proud of not being able to read, would you?
    We need to sort out our attitudes to being numerate in Britain, then maybe we can put the Great back again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    I cannot believe you guys are giving me so many negative ratings... :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    knockon I agree it is how you phrase it. In the real world "unbiased" does not exist, hence the tendency to get hot/cold streaks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Dave, it's still (unlikely) a result! Thus it is taken into account, eg a roulette wheel black/red probability is NOT 0.5, a zero exists. Again, the question should be phrased " a fair coin" as it does a " fair dice" when talking about the probability. The re-throw wasn't mentioned, but if it was then we're back to how the question is phrased.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    knockon, in most cases you throw the coin again if it lands on its edge. The point is that there is no such thing as an unbiased coin. This problem of throwing a coin twice is a classical problem that goes back to Laplace et al.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    sadly Dave, I am a mathematician and you are wrong. firstly, there is a tiny possibility that the coin would land on it.s edge!! also, the question would've be phrased as a 'Fair' coin, so the answer would be les than 0.25 rather than more as the probability of the one side is 0.4999999999. This does explain a lot about Mp expenses! They didn't do it on purpose...just mistakes!!...likely..not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    So what are we saying 95% of politicians would fail a basic competancy test.

    Don;t think anyone is really surprised.

    Any they want 400 more in an Elected House of Lords.

    No stuff it full of life appointed scientists, engineers, proven business leaders and other top knowledgeable/capable people.

    Richard Dawkins, Alan Sugar, Terry Leahy, David Nutt etc..............

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Actually if you ask any mathematician the answer is GREATER than 25%, because in most cases the coin will be biased, either heads or tails, therefore the probability of two heads in a row or two tails in a row is greater than you would expect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Statistics and probability have a huge flaw.
    In itself that is a statistic and is called "Sods Law".

    A Cardiff University lecturer stated there IS a "Sods Law", is mathematical and has a profound reaction to everything statistical. The best part discovered was that IF something is to go amiss, the time when it will happen will generally be for the worst outcome possible.

    25%? Computer says "No".


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