This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.


← Humanist religious question census campaign launched

Mike Kemp's Avatar Jump to comment 15 by Mike Kemp

Let's not make the mistake of thinking the census matters. There are several reasons why it can't.

  1. As others have pointed out in relation to the religious question, the wording of the question can easily skew the answer. Since it is never going to be possible to concoct an unbiased question, the skew cannot be removed.

  2. The chances of people answering honestly are slim. It is unlikely that people want to divulge personal information, though only about 10% exercise their assumed (but not legal) right not to respond to the census. The rest may simply make up answers that are superficially believable. This leads to an unquantifiable error in the result.

  3. The enumerators are not reliable. A lot of otherwise unemployed people are taken on and they have no real commitment to accuracy or any professional commitment to discharging the task properly. Faced with pressure from unhappy respondents they are likely to take easy paths like falsifying census forms rather than encouraging some sort of compliance. Some can save time by making up responses. I've heard many anecdotes about this happening, but as far as I know it is not a quantifiable error.

  4. When the data is gathered and analysed, what is the probability of it being used in any sensible way? The claim that governments need this information to plan sensibly assumes that they will do that. But what exactly? Is politics really driven by scientific analysis of data, or is it perhaps a rather haphazard affair driven by the latest headlines, panics, dogma etc. And to be fair, without knowledge of the error, would it be sensible to make any plans based on the results?

  5. I may be wrong about this, but if there is a chance that anyone you know will see what you have answered to a question, especially this religious one, you are not likely to answer correctly. I can imagine that the "wrong" answer, if it may be seen by a family member or even the enumerator, may be a dangerous thing to enter.

No doubt we can be told fairly reliably that a certain percentage of the population answered Christian, Moslem, or whatever, but it means nothing. Does the government wants to know whether to build more mosques or churches in the public interest?

Perhaps a nice high result for Christianity will secure the position of the established religion in the national constitution. Below what level would it be considered necessary to disestablish the church of England?

On a personal note, When I lived in the UK I had no qualms about making up my responses. In fact in the 1981 census no one even delivered me a form, so I have some responsibility for the errors of government to plan properly in the past.

Mon, 07 Mar 2011 07:35:56 UTC | #599580