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Where the truth lies…

July 26, 2010

Like most of you, I have for years spent dreary summer vacations at the beach, reading bodice-ripping page turners and discussing just how early is too early for cocktail hour. This summer, however, I have been at my desk reviewing first-year elementary statistics and the reliability 0f voluntary survey data. What a refreshing change!

Honestly, I have been absolutely shocked at the sustained outcry over the Harper government’s cancellation of the long-form census. I could hardly rouse myself to care about statistics on the eve of my first-year exam in the subject. And yet, the announcement has blown up into a political debacle that has dominated headlines and discussions for weeks. When it comes to arcane policy discussions, methods of obtaining reliable statistical data might be tough to beat. Surely Harper’s strategists figured that such a change, announced during the height of summer doldrums, would pass unnoticed. I mean, who cares?

Well, it turns out LOTS of people care. People from a cross-section of Canada – business leaders, policy makers, academics. All of whom rely on the detailed data of the long form census to make crucial decisions in their sectors. The result has been nearly universal – and vocal – condemnation. The decision is such bad policy, and undermines Statistics Canada’s mandate so severely, that our Chief Statistician was compelled to resign.

Even still, why should we care?

There is the obvious reason that the long-form census provides unrivaled data for decision making by industry and policy-makers, and a fount of information to academics and other research groups across the country. Despite the Industry Minister’s insistence to the contrary, a voluntary survey cannot achieve the statistical rigour of a mandatory census. And good data is essential, especially in the much-vaunted knowledge economy. Data mining is a cornerstone of this new economy, and its effective performance requires good, reliable data. And it didn’t get much more reliable than StatsCan long survey census data.

The government’s specious argument that the survey is too intrusive is undermined by the data – only two Canadians complained to the privacy commissioner about filling out the 2006 census. As reported, that’s 0.0000067 of Canadians, which even with my elementary knowledge, is pretty statistically insignificant. The numbers don’t back up the policy.

Indeed, there’s the rub. Numbers don’t always back up policy. Justifying policy decisions with data is what we should expect from a transparent, accountable government. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. For instance, Statistics Canada (again! so damn inconvenient!) released numbers last week showing that the rates for both crime and violent crime specifically have declined consistently during the last decade – dropping 17% and 22% since 1999 respectively. Nonetheless, the government has introduced Bill C-13, “tough on crime” legislation that will reportedly nearly double the cost of administering prisons, at an additional cost of nearly $5-billion (!) annually. How does Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews justify the urgency of such a bill? By citing an abstract need to “keep Canadians safe”.

This isn’t simply a case of ideology trumping data. Indeed, as Paul Saurette, Assistant Professor of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, argues persuasively (sorry – forgot the link. It’s a great article which you should read here), it is evidence of this government’s embrace of “epistemological populism”. As he writes:

[epistemological populism] is a theory of knowledge that assumes that the most reliable and trustworthy type of knowledge is the direct individual experience of “common” people – the lessons of which can be unproblematically universalized. In such a theory, the more numerical, general, and statistical the analysis, the less trustworthy it is. For as we all know, our own eyes never lie but numbers can say whatever they want them to say.

This strain of thinking has been increasingly evident in politics. This is especially true  in the United States, where conservative radio talk show hosts rant about “elites” and “eggheads” who don’t understand what regular people just know to be true. Here in Canada, those who cite the need for accurate data are, in the conservative think-tank Fraser Institute’s estimation, “vested interest groups” and “elites”. Satirical conservative pundit Stephen Colbert captured the essence of epistemological populism in his White House correspondents’ dinner speech:

That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.

This is why the long form census decision is big news. This is why people are up in arms. The long form census is the best data we have in this country, and is essential to understanding our society. But relying on data encourages – indeed, should necessitate – evidence-based decision making. But data can be inconvenient, and may contradict our assumptions (just ask any disappointed graduate student). Instead of changing assumptions, epistemological populism encourages our prejudices and assumes that the data is wrong – we can just believe our guts. And that allows a government to do whatever it feels is right.

As a modern democracy, we must expect better from the government. We should be beyond governing by hunch and feel. Science policy works in two directions. This blog is mostly about policy for science, but science for policy is also essential. Ignoring the data when crafting policy is unconscionable. Eliminating the data altogether is unforgivable.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    July 26, 2010 16:09

    Worth waiting for, as usual. A giveaway for an idealogical decision (especially one that is not expected to gather moss on its quiet journey down the hill) is that the politicians (and their shrills) called to defend the decision appear to be on different pages. At first the justification was privacy concerns, then it was one of the options provided by StatsCan with volume to be countered by sending out more voluntary forms, then it was that other countries are changing their means of data gathering, etc. It was like a crazy whack-a-mole game, as each hollow justification was summarily shot down: the minimal complaints by the public, the resignation of Munir Sheik, the finding that the US is going back to mandatory census-taking.

    Why should we care? Because short-cutting data collection for convenience, without understanding the fundamental rifts that such policy shifts will cause, will lead to decisions based on ideology, pork barrels and stupidity rather than evidence, informed thought and knowledge. This is a form of willing ignorance, executed in a manner that presumes the government knows better than the electorate and the experts in their own ministries. Indeed, the government is acting as though its been in power as long as the Chretien natural governing party….

  2. SpongeBob permalink
    July 26, 2010 20:13

    We get to a point where we are not sure if the government is just plain stupid or utterly crooked.
    As you said, statistics show that crime rate is going down, not supporting the will of the government to be tough on crime. Other scientific facts go against some policies of our government. Neuropsychology shows clearly that the parts of the brain responsible for the evaluation of the consequences of our actions evolve slowly during teenage years. Teenagers put themselves in trouble more often than the rest of the population, and they are not necessarily “bad” or “evil”. Of course, for some people, the fear of jail or hell is the only way to control a population.
    What about species extinction, global warming? Scientific studies warn us every week. Changes are faster than what can be managed by evolution and adaptation. Of course, if you do not believe in evolution, if you think there is a Master Plan, and that our faith lies in the hands of the Planner, you will not try to do something useless; after all, who are we to go against His will? Maybe I am getting paranoid, dunno. Maybe they just enjoy putting people in jail, especially those that are different from them. Maybe they just believe that women should stay home, it will help unemployment statistics, sorry, their gut feeling about the number of unemployed, who by the way are just lazy. Maybe they have a gut feeling that rich should be allowed to be as rich as possible, and the will of non lazy poor people to get rich (or die trying) is what drives society towards real progress.
    In the meantime, some people will not answer the long survey. My gut feeling tells me poor people with low education level, and those coming from countries where the governments really know too much about citizens will be unable or reluctant. All of a sudden, we will have less poor people, and, let’s say, less people from Chinese or Russian origin. Excellent, this means there is no need for social or integration programs.
    So the question remains, why do they do all this, why are they trying to bring Canada decades back in time? Their will to impose ignorance and manipulate people is unprecedented in Canada. Scary.

  3. SpongeBob permalink
    August 26, 2010 07:16

    There in an Opinion paper in this week’s Nature (Vol 466, 26 August 2010) by Stephen E. Fienberg, Carnegie Mellon University, and Kenneth Prewitt, former Director of the United States Census Bureau.

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