The Long-Form Census (and Madison Avenue Journalism)

Census day is here and who knew a government questionnaire and the return of its mandatory longer version could inspire such goodwill among Canadians . . .Suzanne Crone, a writer living in Uxbridge, Ont., was excited to complete her census online. “I was just thrilled that it was coming back and we were back to the Information Age,” Crone told CBC News. She completed the short-form census, found the questions clear and says she understands how the information would be useful for running the country. If census data becomes unreliable, “it’s governing by assumption and just taking shots in the dark,” . . .

Census expert Doug Norris says Crone’s census sentiments are widespread in Canada this time around.[1]

It seems that Canada has its share of spin journalism. However, next time the CBC decides to conscript a Shopping Channel shill to promote the mandatory long-form census, it might be prudent to find one who actually completed the mandatory long-form census. Seriously. The narrated comments from this lass from Uxbridge sounds like a CPAC commercial (if CPAC had commercials) that those artsy accountants at Statistics Canada would put out.

To all foreigners, given such a maligned impression of Canadians by our own media; I assure that it is not so. I did a turn as a census taker in 2011, albeit in rural Ontario about 75 km north-west of Toronto. And while the short-form posed little hassle (in that neck of the woods, Internet connectivity was still problematic); the voluntary long-form posed a few anxious moments. And of those who attempted to complete the form online, many were irked about having to repeat the process because the system went down mid-way without saving their existing data. And the poor farmers who had to gad about and count the number of maple trees on their spread.

A couple of observations. I have used such statistics for research purposes. Census data in any country is not particular informative. It usually duplicates information found in other government agencies (i.e. CRA), which may make it useful more as an internal check of the credibility of that other data. Although having some value in the designation of government services, it is naïve to believe that government largesse is based on such pure rationalism. Case in point; Bombardier and Liberal governments.

The importance of scrupulous accuracy through a mandatory process rather than a voluntary one is a pathological anxiety of bed-wettings statisticians. Our society is inundated with surveys with considerably smaller sample sizes. And yet decisions are made upon such results. It is true that small-survey political polls have become increasingly unreliable. However, such self-reporting chicanery can occur on a census, whether mandatory or voluntary, and more likely the former. Case in point: the unreliable income and benefits data. Or better still, estimation of utility bills. I am sure that the marijuana grow-ops in Dufferin County are disinclined to give even more potential evidence to self-incriminate themselves. And after the collect-it-all NSA affair, people are even less inclined to disclose their private affairs or to fudge about it.

And in truth, there is too much faith in empirical studies. First, there are a multitude of ways by which the raw data can be massaged through presentation, key omissions, selectivism, curious computer coding, interpretation of the data, and plain ol’ deceit and mendacity due to pre-existing prejudices, confirmation bias, sociopolitical advocacy and agendas of the researcher(s), etc. And because it doesn’t pay, few studies are peer-reviewed, which is supposed to act as the key check against deceit and dissembling.

Therefore, most studies are useful mostly as journalistic gossip. Indeed, the validity and value of a study or survey may ultimately depend upon the reputation for intellectual integrity and competence of the researcher(s). This is not to discredit this epistemological tool, but to be realistic concerning the whines of our statisticians. Consider that Donald Trump campaigned by the seat of his pants without considerable dependence on big data. Or that an overabundance of superfluous data may, in fact, make it more difficult to find terrorists.

The one thing I found about the part-time, extra-cash job in 2011 was that I found out more about my community neighbours than I really wanted to know. One finds people who dwell in these large houses so alone, after the spouse and kids have left. Or they are in the midst of a separation and divorce. There were an inordinate number of folks who were considerably impoverished and hanging on in quiet desperation. And so forth.

On more thing. The story, which we were told about fines and incarceration; it doesn’t happen. This is mostly because of the fear that such a judicial procedure would cause such a backlash, it would destroy the future integrity of these censuses. Therefore, in practical actuality, the census is voluntarily, notwithstanding the scare tactics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Daniel Schwartz, “Census excitement obscures questions about its future,” CBC News Politics, May 10, 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/census-day-long-form-future-1.3574525.

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