Census mourned on World Statistics Day

The UN's first worldwide celebration of statistics is being marked as a day of mourning by Canadian statisticians, following the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census in June.

The United Nations' first worldwide celebration of statistics is being marked as a day of mourning by Canadian statisticians, following the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census in June.

The cancellation of the long-form census and its replacement with a voluntary survey in 2011, announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government four months ago, has "cast a shadow on this celebration," Don McLeish, president of the Statistical Society of Canada, said in an email.

The society is marking the UN General Assembly's official proclamation of Oct. 20, 2010, as the first World Statistics Day with an online video featuring a mock funeral for the mandatory long-form census.

Harper said his government scrapped the mandatory long-form census because it is not appropriate to threaten people with jail time for failing to provide "detailed personal information" requested by the census.

However, statisticians, opposition politicians, some provinces and municipalities and many community groups across the country opposed the cancellation, citing the importance of the data quality that only a mandatory census — not a voluntary survey — can provide.

Canada was in fact one of the first supporters of the UN bill that created World Statistics Day, McLeish said in an interview Wednesday.

"It seems a bit ironic that within days of sponsoring this bill and the pronouncement of this, the government would turn around and cancel the one of the most fundamental sources of information we have," he said.

He is hopeful the mandatory long-form census will return in some form within the next few years, he added, and the goal of the video is essentially to keep the issue sufficiently alive that such a comeback remains possible.

In the meantime, he believes there is still cause for celebration.

"Official statistics does have a pall cast over it, but the rest of the statistical universe is celebrating their growth," he said, pointing to the use of statistics in areas ranging from clinical trials of drugs to financial systems.

Statistics a 'vital tool': UN

On Wednesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement lauding statistics as a "vital tool for economic and social development" that provide the basis for many governmental, business and community decisions.

Liberal science critic Marc Garneau marked World Statistics Day by issuing a statement reiterating the Liberal Party's commitment to reinstate the mandatory long-form census.

The UN proclamation came as a surprise to some Canadian statisticians, including University of Toronto professor Jeffrey Rosenthal.

Talk on statistics in the headlines

Statistician Jeff Rosenthal is giving a public lecture highlighting the debate over the long-form census, the Ontario lottery insider win scandal and the rash of pedestrian deaths in Toronto. It will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 20, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the University of Toronto, in Room 2117 of Sidney Smith Hall at 100 St. George St.

"When I first heard about it, I said, 'Are you kidding?'" he recalled, adding that most statisticians are happy to remain out of the limelight.

He supports the proclamation, however, and thinks it is extremely timely given the controversy over the long-form census.

"The government made what I consider to be a wrong decision," he said, "but that doesn't take away from how important statistical ideas and analysis are. And I think despite this unfortunate decision by the government, it's appropriate to celebrate all the important successes and relevance of statistics."

Inspired by the census controversy, Rosenthal is giving a public lecture Wednesday on "Statistics in the Headlines" as part of a celebration launched by his university's statistics department.

He said the debate revealed an "anti-statistics" feeling among some Canadian politicians.

"There's a bit of a feeling that [if] statistics don't support the position that you were hoping for, it must be the fault of the statistics and the statisticians," he said. But at the same time, he was amazed by the amount of public reaction calling for the mandatory long-form census to be reinstated.

"I think it does speak to an awareness out there … that these statistical information and data actually are important to the way we run our society and the decisions that we make."

A UN website lists official national celebrations of World Statistics Day.

In Canada, they include the posting of short online videos about Statistics Canada for the general public, along with a coffee and cake event for Statistics Canada employees in Ottawa. 

The event will feature a panel on Statistics Canada's contribution to the social and economic sectors and the importance of official statistics in a democratic society.