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?


Comments 5 of 87



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