Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The reviews are in

Presumably the Cons' goal in going along with yesterday's hearings on the census was to try to pretend that the census crisis is more a case of "two legitimate sides, we've chosen one" rather than "we have no clue what we're doing". But if there was ever any hope that a full day's repetition of already-debunked talking points would manage to make the Cons look any less ridiculous, we can now say conclusively that the attempt failed, thanks to the likes of...

Scott Feschuk:
Let us pause now and spare a thought for poor Tony Clement. The minister in charge of Statistics Canada – or, as it will soon be known, Vague Hunches Canada – is not that different from you or me. He has a job. He likes his job. He wants to keep his job.

But to keep his job, Tony Clement must now wake up each morning, walk out into the world and say things that make him sound like a wet-lipped halfwit.
John Ivison:
the government’s solution — to make the mandatory form voluntary — has received such blanket condemnation — even from those who are normally staunch Conservative allies, such as seniors organization CARP — that the government is looking not so much out of touch, as out to lunch.

Mr. Clement claimed that a $30-million advertising campaign and a much larger sample size will eliminate concerns about the quality of the data gathered in the 2011 census.

But a number of other witnesses disagreed. Former chief statistician Ivan Fellegi, said the next census could be “unusable” because the information will not be comparable to data from previous years. He urged the government to follow the recommendation suggested by the National Statistics Council (NSC), the government’s advisory group, which has called for the threat of jail sentences to be removed and some questions on household activities to be dropped for the next census in 2016.

This seems to be a common sense compromise but common sense and a willingness to compromise seem to have deserted this government of late.
John Ibbitson:
Industry Minister Tony Clement’s obdurate testimony at Tuesday’s Industry committee hearing, the hostility of Conservative MPs on the committee to witnesses defending the census, and the rapidly diminishing opportunities for compromise point to a government determined to eliminate the mandatory long-form version of the census, no matter what anyone says or pleads.
Mr. Clement’s argument was a masterful defence of a false fact. Canadians, he said, were disturbed by the intrusive nature of the questions that traditionally go out to 20 per cent of Canadian households...

But the National Statistics Council, whose 40 members are appointed by the government to advise Statistics Canada, asked the agency to provide data on all complaints registered either directly with Statscan, or referred to Statscan from MPs or any other source, concerning the last census in 2006. The total number of questions, complaints and concerns: 166. From a census that was sent to 12 million households.

NDP MP Charlie Angus was entirely right to call this a “manufactured crisis.”
And Dan Gardner:
(H)ang on, the government's defenders say. People quote data from voluntary surveys all the time. Every opinion poll that appears in the media is voluntary. How can that be squared with the insistence that the census must be mandatory to be as accurate as possible?

The short answer: It can't.

"Opinion polls are generally trash," Ron Melchers, a statistician at the University of Ottawa says. Response rates on private surveys are low and falling. It's not uncommon for four out of five people to refuse to answer. Or more. That creates huge opportunities for bias to creep in. "My aged mother will answer any survey she's asked to answer. She's isolated, she's alone, she's grumpy and irritable, and she hasn't got all of her marbles. These are the people who are most likely to respond to a lot of these polling surveys," says Melchers.

StatsCan conducts voluntary surveys but it uses the census data to "weight" the results -- that is, to adjust it and correct for bias. Private pollsters generally don't or can't do that. And soon, thanks to the government's decision on the census long form, neither will StatsCan.
(T)he census is unique. And uniquely valuable.

Or at least it was until Stephen Harper came along.
Update: And let's not forget Aaron Wherry:
(I)f we can say anything about the quinquennial census, perhaps it is this: not until it was made an issue, did it become an issue.

This morning of hearings, an industry minister and two former chief statisticians summoned to Parliament Hill to discuss the nature of data collection in a democratic society, was often so profound. And if the 2011 census is destined to be rendered useless to future generations, at least our descendants will have these two hours to tell them all they need to know about the state of this nation’s management as it embarks on the second decade of the 21st century.
(I)f the source of this present debate is not great public outrage with the machinery of government, the explanation would seem to be simply this. That what we see here, and what we saw today, is simply a government made greatly uncomfortable by its own role and place in society.

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