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A nod is as good as a wink to a blind bat

August 13, 2010

Another day, another justification for dropping the mandatory long-form census by the Conservative government.  Today’s argument comes from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty; he basically argues that because a bunch of policy wonks came voluntarily to a meeting when invited by the Federal Finance Minister that most Canadians will fill out a 40 page census form if they receive one, as long as we ask them nicely.  Flawless little bit of logic, that.  Because, you know, most Canadians are very similar to those people he met this week.

Even beyond the astounding ignorance of this statement there was a more subtly offensive idea in his point.  He asks us to dismiss any rational attempt to use rigorous methods to analyse the state of our nation.  He implies that somehow, ‘Canadians being nice’ will compensate for the statistical bias they are adding to the census.  Can the Finance Minister quantify how ‘nice’ Canadians are and how willing they are to fill out 40 pages of questions if they don’t have to?  Even if he’s right, the census will be biased towards ‘nice people’ who do something just because they are asked, and who have the time and leisure to do so.

The Damage is Done

This brings up something I haven’t heard anyone mention yet.  The damage is now done.

You see, the original problem with dropping fines for not filling out the census (I never had any problem with dropping jail penalties, since this was never enforced it seems a non-issue issue) was that it would create a huge difference in returns from previous census’ and drop the number of people filling it out in an uneven and unpredictable way.  The new problem we face now, even if the government completely reverses their decision, which seems unlikely, is that the government who is collecting this data has been undermining it and badmouthing the very collection process all summer.  That’s going to influence a lot of people.  I would predict that even if the census were mandatory next year that the number of people not filling it out will actually skyrocket because the government is essentially handing it out to people while winking and whispering ‘nawww, don’t fill it out, it’s all a sham, we have to give it you, but we don’t really want to’.

So Flaherty’s assertion that Canadians will fill out the census if you ask them nicely doesn’t fly, because he’s not asking them at all.  No matter what happens, Statistics Canada is going to need years to rebuild their credibility with any Canadians who have believed the current government’s statements.

Called Out by Nature

In other news (well other census news, ok I’m obsessed) the Conservatives were called out by Nature itself this week.  Not Mother Nature, although I’m sure she’s upset at the Conservatives too, she’s just not very, you know, vocal.  No, the esteemed scientific journal Nature this week put out an unprecedented editorial slamming the Conservative government for scrapping the long form census and undermining statistical data that researchers in Canada and around the world rely on.  This isn’t Maclean’s calling them out, it’s not even some pop science magazine like Scientific American.  This is Nature. This, along with the journal Science, are the big scientific journals for general science.  Every scientist in the world of any stripe will hear about this very soon and shake their heads.  Now, scientists are usually a hard lot to pin down to agree on anything. Look how long it took them to definitively state that human’s were causing global warming. But there are just a few things they ALL will agree on if you ask them (in no particular order)

  1. The Earth goes around the Sun
  2. Human’s and Apes have common ancestors
  3. The entropy of any closed system will inevitably increase over time AND
  4. We always need more data, not less; and collecting data without controlling for relevant variables makes that data completely useless

Like asking Canadians, nicely

Please fill out these 40 pages of detailed information, but you know, we wish we didn’t have to, and its kind of intrusive don’t you think? Sorry,  so, try to return it whenever you can, if you feel like it. Thanks

The New Conservative Government of Canada
The Government of Canada
— Statistics Canada

A Concession

This week Prime Minister Harper did made a concession on the census but its one that indicates all their arguments are nothing more than diversions.  They added a couple of questions on Quebec language to the still mandatory short census.  This was only hours after a Quebec court agreed to hear a Quebec language group’s complaint that undermining the long-form census would violate laws meant to protect French language rights.  By caving in on this issue the Conservatives are indeed demonstrating that statistical somehow voluntary census collection is fine for most information unless it happens to relate to a voting group that the Conservatives are afraid of or want to get votes out of.

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