The Jensen Project, researching, and the disappearing Canadian census long form

I couldn’t watch The Jensen Project (Friday, July 16, 2010) for more than about 3 or 4 minutes at a time as I had to keep channel surfing away from this bizarre ‘nanotechnology-themed’ tv movie. It was an awful fascination that kept me coming back.

I gather the writers did their science research by watching Agent Cody Banks (a 2003 Disney movie). They updated the concept so that the nanobots weren’t simple metal-munchers (the nanobots once unleashed would grab atoms to replicate themselves; they seem to particularly metal in the Agent Cody Banks movie. Now the nanobots (sometimes referred to as computers) were injectable (maybe they watched the Bionic Woman reboot?) into hapless victims whose biological processes could then be controlled by a phone app. That’s right. The nanobots could manipulate your hormones, your neurotransmitters and any number of other bodily systems so that you could be cured or killed at the touch of a fingertip by whoever was holding the phone/controller.

My favourite part was where the ‘evil ones’ had to procure a molecular assembler. There are only three or four in the world according to the story. Naturally, the evil chief scientist dashes off to pick one up and returns with it tucked under his arm. Yes, you wouldn’t worry about dropping it. After all, there’d be at least another two or three left in the world.

By comparison with The Jensen Project, Agent Cody Banks was a model of storytelling and scientific accuracy. The Disney movie correctly identified a fullerene (even if the actor was having trouble with the terminology). At least some of the character behaviour made sense and the story had a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ approach so the viewer could make allowances for the flights of fancy.

I searched for information about The Jensen Project as I was curious about any science consultation that might have taken place. Nada, there was no listing for a science consultant and, as far as I can tell, the writers have minimal writing experience (one or two writing credits including The Jensen Project) with some experience in production and none seems to have had a science background of any kind.

Regardless of how much experience you have, research is always important as we’re finding out if the discussion about the prospect that the Canadian long census form is about to disappear is any indication.

As Beth at The Black Hole noted,

All of this brings up questions about politicians’ understanding of the importance of data and evidence-informed practice, not to mention their ignoring the scientific experts on the matter – in this case, the statisticians at Stats Canada.

Beth did a little more investigating using Twitter,

This lead me to check out Clement’s [Tony Clement is the Cabinet Minister responsible for Statistics Canada] Twitter stream, where he referred to having a mandatory (as opposed to voluntary) long form as “state coercion” – I guess it’s fine to have the state “coerce” you to complete the short form – or, you know, obey any of our other laws – but they draw the line at the long form?

In response to a commenter who asked how the census discussion was relevant to science trainees (The Black Hole’s focus) and described the posting as ‘tory-bashing’,

… to call this random Tory bashing is pretty unfair. The census data is a tool that many scientists and social scientists use daily in their research. While it might not be directly relevant to whichever field of science you are in or thinking of when making this comment, it has a huge effect on trainees in epidemiology, public health, civil engineering, and even industry bound trainees. [emphases mine]

This blog is on issues affecting science trainees and a move like this which strips information from the public domain and many researchers is something we definitely see as having an effect.

Hope this helps explain a little why we found it important to post.

Dave [Note: Beth and Dave run the blog]

Interestingly, Tony Clement the minister defending this move fought against it according to Jeffrey Simpson in his July 17, 2010 column for the Globe and Mail,

Last fall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided his government would oppose the mandatory long-form census. Since then, nothing has changed his mind. His right-wing ideology and political instinct combined to make a policy that’s being denounced by almost every leading institution and commentator in Canada.

His decision was also opposed inside the government by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and by Industry Minister Tony Clement, who’s responsible for Statistics Canada, the agency that administers the census.

Both wrote to the Prime Minister, underscoring the importance of the mandatory long-form census to compile the most accurate statistics on which so much public policy and private-sector decision-making depends. [emphases mine]

Dave Bruggeman at Pasco Phronesis has also weighed in with some telling points (and sardonic humour which I haven’t reproduced here but do go and enjoy),

To the north, Canada is preparing for a census in 2011 (it does so every five years compared to ten for the U.S.), but is dealing with a very different methodological debate. The Conservative government, expressing a concern over the privacy of its citizens, has opted to make the census long form (distributed to twenty percent of the population, the remainder receive a short form asking for very basic information) voluntary. (Much like in the United States, you can be fined for not answering census questions.) However, the national privacy commissioner has received all of three complaints about the census since 2001, and Statistics Canada takes stringent measures to maintain confidentiality of census data (much like the U.S. Census Bureau), not releasing detailed census information for decades, if ever.

So the publicized rationale for the change does not reflect a statistically significant analysis of public opinion, but the anecdotes of a few people who caught the attention of Members of Parliament. [emphases mine]

Simpson goes on to suggest Harper’s possible  motivation,

What’s the point of all this, politically? There hasn’t been a hue and cry in years past about the fact that a fifth of Canadians have been required to fill out the long-form census. Past governments of both political stripes, like governments throughout the Western world, do something like this, and it’s one of the reasons why Statistics Canada is regarded internationally as one of the very best statistical agencies in the world.

… this sprang from Mr. Harper’s ideological core conviction about Big Government and, more important, a tactical political sense that here was an issue that could activate his party’s populist base – that could galvanize the core with bogus but potent arguments about the perils of the “nanny state,” the “elites,” the “bureaucrats,” the same sort of people who connive to take away your guns, raise your taxes and threaten your liberties, against whom only the Harper government stands resolute.

Personally, I’m wondering if this census storm isn’t simply a diversionary tactic.

2 thoughts on “The Jensen Project, researching, and the disappearing Canadian census long form

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