All the data that’s not fit to print

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Can the irony be any more succulent?

Mere days before Statistics Canada took the extraordinary decision to sit on the final batch of data stemming from its 2011 voluntary survey because, it said, the numbers don’t accurately reflect current conditions, the 1921 Census of Canada went public, showing what life was like, in authentic detail, for citizens nearly a century ago.

That’s great for fans of family trees and downright awful for anyone else who seeks to obtain a faithful picture of our present times – though some might yet extrapolate from the form and fit of great-grandma’s bloomers the spending habits of the modern, smartphone-addicted tween demographic.

Still, StatsCan insists the problem with the 2011 data had little, or nothing, to do with the controversial shift to an optional household survey, from a mandatory nose count of the population, three years ago.

Indeed, Marc Hamel, a census manager, told The Globe and Mail  this week, “We were in the final stages and some of the results seemed odd, a bit. When we went back to the data-processing steps, we discovered that one of the steps was not applied correctly. . .It is unfortunate that it was in the late stages. But it’s lucky we found it before it was released.”

The actual statement on the numbers-crunching agency’s website is a marvel of circumspection: “The release of the third and final set of data from the 2011 National Household Survey is postponed to September 11, 2013. The release focuses on income, earnings, housing and shelter costs. Statistics Canada found issues in data processing that need to be addressed prior to release. All the data previously released from the National Household Survey are not affected.”

I guess we’ll just have to take its word on that. It’s not as if the agency has any real context for assessing the verisimilitude of the results from the voluntary questionnaire. Apart from the fact that the household survey boasts a much lower response rate than the census (according to the Globe piece, it’s 68.6 per cent versus 93.5 per cent), the new system is still in its infancy.

But why is any of this necessary?

For decades, Canada led the developed world in the quality, comprehensiveness and accuracy of its census data. The numbers served a useful, and often crucial, purpose when legislators sought to craft and implement social and economic policies. The findings materially contributed to health, education and infrastructure programming.

In a 2010 letter to Tony Clement, who was the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, the Canadian Sociological Association (CSA) argued that “Long‐form data are used by businesses, provinces and municipalities, economists, urban and community researchers, policy analysts, sociologists, and other scholars in the humanities and social sciences (including geographers and historians).

“Religious and ethnic groups are also users. They all rely on the mandatory long form census for solidly representative and accurate data – especially when data are disaggregated to community or minority‐group levels. Whatever the unit of analysis, an accurate statistical portrait of the population – one that allows for cross‐tabulation – is required.This cannot be provided by the voluntary NHS because bias – due to the under‐representation of specific groups – is likely. Aboriginal people, recent immigrants, low‐income families, and perhaps even busy professionals may fail to respond.”

A subsequent CSA blog post rather archly observed, “If the minister responsible for Statistics Canada is to be believed, the long-form census was eliminated so that upright citizens would no longer be threatened with jail time for failure to complete and return a census form that asked intrusive personal questions. A more convincing reason is that we have a government that not only says ‘Don’t bother me with the facts!’ but also wants to ensure that no one else has access to the facts.”

Without facts, of course, we are left with assumptions, suppositions and, in the words of American commentator George F. Will, “factoids” plucked “from the ether.” As he wrote in a piece that appeared recently in The National Post, “implausible and utterly unsubstantiated claims flourish when there is indifference to information.”

How odd that such sentiments should belong to one of the continent’s more notable conservatives.

You might even say, it’s ironic.

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