Save the census:
Many years ago as a student pilot I asked my instructor what to do if your engine stopped when you were flying at night.  He said, “When you get low, turn on your landing lights.  If you don’t like what you see, turn them off again.”

That was a joke.

Actually there might be more in it than he implied.  You can see farther at night without a flashlight.  A flashlight is splendid for things close up, but will blind you to things at a distance that are illuminated by natural light.  You can see farther without headlights at night in a car if the windshield is clear and there are no oncoming headlights.  Of course you cannot get a car with a clear windshield.  By law, they are all tinted.  It put an end to drive in movies.  I think they don’t want us driving at night without headlights.  Motorcycles in Florida are required to have their headlights on at all times.  Safety, they say.  Poppycock.  If they wanted motorcyclists to be safe they’d require helmets.  They don’t want you to travel invisibly. 

My instructor was joking.

Many years later I was aboard a sailboat handling the wheel.  I saw that there seemed to be a fathometer.  I called to the captain and asked how it worked.  He said it was a sonar device that told how deep water was.

“Can I turn it on?”


I did.

“And this is how many feet deep the water is?”


“How much was this boat draw?”

“Eight feet.”

“It says three feet.”


It was a joke.

Evidently the fathometer registered water under the keel rather than actual depth, and three feet of clearance was pretty good for the shallow waters we were navigating.

But it is not always a joke.  There is a website for the General Social Survey.  A bunch of people are selected every year to answer an extensive survey.  The site will let you select things like the year you are interested in and what the survey found.  It will then do correlations.  For instance, suppose a couple of questions asked, “Do you own a car?” and “Do you own a refrigerator?”  Not only could you learn how many own each, but the percentage of refrigerator owners who were also car owners.

To my delight, the questions included, “How many of your grandparents were born in the United States?” and “How many children do you have?” and “How old are you?”  I thought this would be interesting.  I would ask of people over 40 how many children they have and where their grandparents came from and then track that over the decades that this ambitious project and been active. 

No soap.  They asked the grandparents question just two consecutive times and then never again.  You could not know whether there was a trend.  They had turned out the lights.

I had written recently about the Canadian census and how it is being replaced by a sort of voluntary survey.  I thought that it was just Canada, and the obvious failure or the census to follow real trends would be fixed.  But as it turns out (Save Your Census, Stephen E. Fienberg and Kenneth Prewitt, NATURE vol. 466 no. 7310 August 26, 2010 page 1043) the trend is global.  As the demographics of the world become nastier, the classical census is being abandoned.  And the census is the gold standard against which any other demographic measure must be calibrated.  It is of vital scientific interest. 

And in case you are curious, yes, it is the developed countries with the most worrisome demographics that are leading the way into the darkness.

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