Canadian census:
When Canada does a census next year (Save the Censes NATURE vol. 466 no. 7306 July 29, 2010 page 532) there will be a change of procedure.  In the past there has been a short form, “Who are you?” and a long form with more extensive questions.  The long form was sent out to about 20% of the country, and filling it in was mandatory.  Somebody decided that this was intrusive, invasion of privacy and all that. 

Well I am all for privacy, although I really don’t have any secrets except for passwords that let me access communications.  The communications themselves are not secret.  But a government that must establish policy for a country really ought to know what is going on in that country.  If they can force you to pay taxes, they can force you to tell them what they need to know so that the tax money can be spent in your interest.

That’s the theory.  In fact my impression is that a lot of governments are rolling along minding their own agenda with little regard to what the people want.  Scotland united with England by secret government deal that the people of Scotland would never have approved.  The European Union sacrificed large amounts of sovereignty of a number of nations.  It was not something that people there wanted, although they have pretty much tolerated it.  Most Americans would like to see immigration, legal as well as illegal, reduced or eliminated.  The attitude of the plutocrats is that the government needs to explain to the people that it’s good for them.  Somebody needs to explain to the government who is paying the bills and what democracy means.  Don’t get me started on wars. 

So theory does not quite fit reality.  But in principle, a government has the right to query the population.  Nonetheless the change was made.  There was a howl of protest from many who used census data to study things about the country.  They pointed out that if filling out the form was not mandatory, a lot of people would not do it.  The response of the government was to say, “All right.  We’ll give it out to 30% to make up the difference.”

The howl became a screech. You can’t compare data from a year when answering was voluntary with data from a year when answering was required.  There will be systematic changes that you cannot account for.

There are even experts who say it is unnecessary to count everybody.  With modern statistics you can just count a representative bunch.  But these studies are periodic and in order to measure a time course you have to use the same procedure every time.

At first I dismissed the whole matter as being something of interest only to experts.  They have to know how many schools to plan to build and where more roads are going to be needed.

But of course the census is absolutely vital.  They are counting babies.  I mean they are counting babies and the people those babies grow to be.  If the country is dying, then a census is the best measure.  And of course countries are dying. 

Besides, a real count is transparent.  Everybody knows what it means.  Even I understand it.  A count of a select group designed by experts and calculated to attempt to give the same bottom line can only really be done by experts.  What assumptions are they making?  What makes them think they have done the job right?  And what is the gold standard against which they will measure their success?  Those questions have answers, and those answers are available to and understandable by those whose business it is to look into these things.  But I am far more interested that they be understandable by and accessible by those whose business it is not at all.  It’s called keeping the government honest. 

The old, “People will panic,” issue arises again.  Tampering with an expensive but simple system lets somebody tamper with the results. 

I do not mean to propose that there is a massive conspiracy.  The people in power I fear just aren’t capable of bringing one off.  But the politicians have one and only one goal – to be reelected.  And the people will more likely vote for the politicians again if the people are happy.  And the way to keep people happy is to tell them what they want to hear.

People want to hear that they are wise and good and that their actions are appropriate and effective.

When it comes to fertility, we might indeed be wise and good, but we are mostly ignorant about how it works.  And the more we are comforted, the more distant the day when we demand to know.

There have been 5,073 visitors counted so far.  (Don’t worry about your privacy.  Some machine somewhere may know who you are, but there is no way for me to find out.  In fact my statistics program is supposed to tell me things like where visitors are coming from.  [.edu would mean from a school.  .uk would mean from the United Kingdom .con would mean from a prison (that’s a joke) and so forth.]  But I have not figured out how to access the numbers.  After all, I’m no smarter than anybody else.)

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