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FRANK GRAVES RESPONDS TO SCRAPPING OF MANDATORY LONG CENSUS FORM – July 16, 2010

This statement was written as a response to “Give Me Back My Compulsory Long Form Census Questionnaire“ by Dr. Alex Himelfarb, Director of the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs, at York University.

[Ottawa – July 16, 2010] – As a professional researcher, I am dismayed by this development. But I believe that this latest episode is just a symptom of a broader malaise which is increasingly infecting our society. Ironically, some 50 years after the coining of the term Post Industrial Society, where knowledge and intellectual capital occupy “axial” significance, we seem to be seeing a withdrawal into know nothingism and seat of the pants decision making styles.

The role of accurate empirical indicators in guiding societal decision making traces its way back to at least the encyclopoedists and their notion of political arithmetic. Notably, the term “statistics” is rooted in “measures of state”. The evolution of statistical data to inform decision making has advanced dramatically over the past century. There have been dry wells dug in the search of an ideologically neutral calculus of decision making (the social indicators and social accounting movement of the seventies are examples) but overall, the idea that sound knowledge of social and economic conditions was a precondition for good policy and management in an increasingly complex and turbulent world seemed to be a given.

In recent years, this assumption of the critical role of reason and evidence seems to be under siege. In the Government of Canada, social research has been largely abandoned. But the problem is not unique to Ottawa. Everywhere, statistical standards are eroding badly. In a world of Survey Monkey, Poll Daddy, and the ubiquitous online polls found on most media websites, scientific sampling and measurement are not even remote considerations. The voluntary, self-selected samples which produced the Literary Digest “poll” debacle in the last century and led to the development of scientific survey research are increasingly becoming the norm, even within the polling and market research industry.

So it is refreshing and important to hear authoritative figures like Alex remind us of the continued need for sound statistical evidence to chart our way through the turbulent and complex new society we live in. I am not entirely sanguine that these voices will be heard and I fear the ultimate costs will be poorer and less fair decision making. If there is one clear lesson from the past, it is that seat of the pants intuition and ideology are all notoriously bad methods for sound decision making at the societal level.

Frank Graves,
President

6 comments to FRANK GRAVES RESPONDS TO SCRAPPING OF MANDATORY LONG CENSUS FORM – July 16, 2010

  • Anne Creighton

    I am horrified by the government’s position on this. Are they acting on research? Have you seen anything that would suggest there is broad support for this among conservatives? I am a card carrying member and feel sick.

  • CW

    You should do a poll of businesses to get a sense of how bad they figure this might be for the economy.

  • mak

    I agree with this government that the mandatory census must be scrapped.
    Human nature rebels at the very idea of being coerced.
    How does anyone know if the data collected is in any way accurate?
    Can data collected by coersion be depended upon to be accurate?
    It can’t be. Not if humans behave like humans, and we are human.
    We have a whole bueaucracy built on faulty data gathered by a faulty system of fear, intimidation, and coersion.
    Let’s find a way to make it a win – win experience for both the people filling out the census and our country.
    Only when data is given willingly, can it depended upon to be accurate. That is human nature.
    Accurate information will give us a solid system for developing programs of value to the citizens.

  • JNG

    If I am threatened with fines and/or jail time to make me fill out a census long form which I feel is personally intrusive I will answer every question fictionally out of spite. If “experts” feel that threatening people to fill out a form will give them more accurate information than an optional form would I can’t imagine why.

  • Phil, Winnipeg

    Mr. Graves:
    I can see how this particular issue is a difficult one for you to reconcile your position about, but I do suggest you do take some time to think over your response since you oversee an institution that presumably elicits voluntary opinions from people in an unbiased manner.
    For the record, I have received the ‘mandatory’ long form and I did answer the 7 or 8 questions that every Canadian citizen should respond to, but refused to fill out the rest, even under threats from Statistics Canada personnel. First, I find it galling that a survey could be made mandatory from a government bureaucracy. Second, many of the questions I felt were very bureaucratically self-serving. Third, there are questions that are intrusively personal and could serve no realistic purpose other than bolster the means by which complacent, presumptuous civil bureaucrats seek to extend their tenure and increase their funding.
    Our bureaucratic institutions have gotten too large, inefficient and expensive and are not only out of our reach, but even from control by the federal and provincial governments that implemented them. Before I am simply labeled a capitalist or a neo-con, I can assure you my position in politics is both socialist and industrial in outlook and practice.

  • Nicole, Winnipeg

    I too have had to fill out the long form and found it to be personally invasive. It was like a whole history of my life being given to a stranger. I did not like the force and fear based tactics used by stats can either. They asked me to give other family members birthdates which is a privacy violation in my opinion. That is not the type of government I wish to have. I should have a choice as to what questions to answer. I’m glad it’s been scrapped!