A layman's take on the long form census issue

Last weekend I was out with friends and at one point we were in the company of chick drama in high gear. To avoid the drama, we turned to any escaping conversation to distract us we could come up with: after exhausting some sports chat I thought I'd bring up the long-form census issue. This is a major story, occupying the entire Macleans.ca website for possibly the rest of 2010. It might cost the Conservatives their government.

Suffice it to say, of the four guys in attendence none of them knew that any such controversy was going on. Of all the topics on the planet that might be of a going concern to these four Canadian males ranging from 28 to 33 years of age, this ranked somewhere with the ongoing crisis of gang wars in Portugal on the scale of political issues in which they cared about. So I explained to them the crisis, how the lead statistician with Statistics Canada resigned in protest, and that Harper was taking heat for diminishing the statistical value of the returns.

On this bit they were more than a little bit confused. How, they asked, was making the long form census voluntary instead of mandatory going to reduce its statistical value?

This, remember, is the major point of opposition to the Conservatives' new plan: if you make the census voluntary rather than mandatory, the claim goes, the data shall be useless. The issue is framed as one of personal liberties versus intensely vital knowledge for the setting of government policy. (Well, except for some Liberal wingnuts who think otherwise)

The notion is that the mandatory census will have information the voluntary census would not. So what happens when their point turns out to be wrong? What happens when it turns out any information obtained is meaningless?

One of the guys in the group was selected to fill out the 2006 long form census. Another was selected to fill out the 2001 long form census. Neither of them wanted to do it, and both got the followup (phone call/visit -- one got one, one got the other) insistence that the form must be filled out. Both of them didn't want to do it. Were it voluntary, as the Conservatives propose, the followup visit would have been the end of it: just thought we could change your mind. TTFN! Instead it wasn't voluntary, and both of them ended their mini revolutions and filled out the form for Statistics Canada.

And both of them lied their asses off.

As discussed, the census isn't a hot button issue with them. Until that conversation none of us knew they both were chosen. They both fibbed: one of them extraordinarily viciously. He made sure every thing he wrote down was a lie. Unlike Homer Simpson, they weren't even part of a "ball of lies", he just made sure every question was answered totally inaccurately. The other merely lied in the sense that he gave close to the real answer but never the actual answer: he really worked 11 weeks over the summer but wrote down that he worked 17, his dwelling was built one category newer than it really fell into, that sort of deal.

These are real people. These are ordinary everyday Canadians. They may have had no objection to the long form until they got it. Now they would prefer to have it voluntary. In theory they like that its mandatory to give accurate answers. In reality...well, if they got the mandatory long form in 2011 they would lie again. They couldn't even figure how StatsCan was upset about it not being mandatory anymore. People will just lie. They did!

Making the long form voluntary doesn't add a selection bias: it simply impacts the selection bias that was already there. People may chose to lie on the long form now that its not mandatory: but you can't tell me that those who oppose being forced to do it would be less likely to make some bullshit up. The 'Jedi Knight' issue is really only a small one: at the end of the day, the way that the census is performed is going to give you a lot of good data, and some bad data.

The Conservatives plan on cutting back the proportion of that data which is bad. They've increased the number of forms handed out which should improve the data which is good. Meanwhile, Statistics Canada is upset that the Harper government is going to let Canadians throw their form in the garbage.

They would much prefer it if you put garbage on the form for them.