Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Federal Government Implements Ignorance is Bliss

The Federal government decided to scrap the mandatory long form of the census in favour of a mandatory short form and a voluntary long form. Of course, as any statistician will tell you a voluntary survey is largely useless due to the problems that come with selection error. That is, it is likely to be those who are specially motivated who will fill out the form and send it in while the ordinary Joe or Jane is likely going to to put off adding an extra piece of work to their life. Even if by some miracle a perfect selection-free sample was obtained there is no way to know this and so the results will always be open to being accused of being biased. Say, for example, the voluntary survey showed 35% of Canadians were atheists (or born agains) then the church (or secular humanist) leadership would point out selection error as the explanation whenever anyone wanted to act on these numbers.

Why this change you ask -- well here is the explanation given by the Globe and Mail and a spokesman for the government:
The move is a response to protests from some Canadians who resented the personal questions in the long form. Similar opposition has been raised in the United States by some Republicans opposed to Washington collecting and analyzing data.

“Our feeling was that the change was to make a reasonable limit on what most Canadians felt was an intrusion into their personal privacy in terms of answering the longer form,” Erik Waddell, spokesman for Industry Minister Tony Clement, said Tuesday.

Given that this information is locked away in the bowels of the archives and annonymously aggregated for analysis it is hard to see what the real priovacy concern is here. Furthermore, sometimes minimal intrusions into privacy should give way to the idea that decisions should be based on knowledge and understanding rather than ignorance and prejudice. Of course, this government has largely been dedicated to the idea of decision making on a data-free basis (see management of the prisons and crime file for this purpose) so why should anyone be surprised?

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