Politics · Ranting · Sociology · Theory

Stats Can’t… Political Will Does

I am not a scientist.  Political, social or otherwise.  Even though I am currently avoiding calls from Student Loans looking for the $40,000 I spent on my liberal arts education that would classify me as a scientist – politics and sociology are not hardcore sciences.  They are exercises of Public Relations, Social Statistics, Academic Theories and Political Agendas… an orgy of rhetoric in a bed of outmoded premises.

To be a scientist, your results need to be 1) reproducible 2) based on objective and universally-defined variables and 3) as disprovable as they are provable.  When dealing with humans, human behaviour and human organization it is rare that the scientific method can be employed and yield authentically objective results.

When social and political “scientists” come close to uncovering a “truth”, that truth is generally fleeting.  If it isn’t fleeting, that is when you correlate variables that could be considered objective like income, age, highest level of education attained and sex (not gender though) and the same results occur and have been occurring since we’ve been measuring such things… the “truth” uncovered is still apparently meaningless.

I say they are meaningless because you can sift through piles and piles of studies that say things like… reducing poverty in a neighborhood will reduce crime, or, if you provide free education people will get educated, or, gambling leads to social ills… and it doesn’t seem to matter.

Politicians don’t need to be experts… but they should listen to the experts.  Unfortunately they usually don’t.  Why don’t they? Because what the experts usually say is not “economically feasible” or the validity of the data is called into question.

I was in a meeting with one of our provincial high level government officials (who I will not name) who said in response to a suggestion that if you reduce poverty, you can reduce healthcare costs… “I know that some people believe that… but the data just doesn’t exist to prove that is true…”  Well… I know that some people believe that the system is self-correcting, and that trickle-down economics works…… but the data doesn’t exist to prove that is true either.

Our governments… all of them… are in a unique position in history.  Never before have they had access to so much data on so many people about so many things.  Never before has there been such a direct line between legislators and the people they are supposed to represent.  Never before have they had the capacity to actually get it right.  And they are all wasting it.

They are either wasting it because they don’t know what to do with it… or they are wasting it because the things they are finding out directly interfere with their own individual, or party’s political agendas… or they are wasting it because it is so much easier to go with the status quo… even if the status quo doesn’t seem to be working anymore.

And of course, the best way to hide this wastage is to manipulate the data so that it appears as though the status quo is chugging along tickety-boo… To pull a jedi mind trick of sorts over… “These are not the stats you’re looking for”… a trick that academics have known for a long time, and one that our leaders have learned well.

Which brings me to the census fiasco… While it is completely dangerous for the government to be tinkering with our census’s research design… and it is completely scary the way that they are trying to manipulate the only organization in the country with the capacity to collect such data… The hub-bub over the census may all be in vain anyway… Data is useless unless you have competent people analyzing it.  And the gutting of the SSHRC program last year, the one that funded Master’s and PhD ‘s for all of our budding social and political scientists, ensured that there would be a lack of competent analysts by the time this census data is ready to reveal.

Really, we don’t need a new census to tell us common sense things like the neighborhoods with the highest levels of poverty have the highest levels of crime.  We don’t need a new census to tell us that the richest of us are getting richer and the poorest of us are finding it harder to stay safe and healthy.  We don’t need a new census to tell us that the premise all policy makers are working from anyway is one which assumes that the free market is indeed free, and will save us all in the end so it doesn’t matter what the census data says anyway.

The census has always had sampling problems, even when the long form was “mandatory.”  Meaningful results from large samples are only possible if 1) the sample is random and 2) the sample has a “normal” distribution… two things which are incredibly difficult to attain in social statistics even if the most anal of designs are employed. What about all those Canadians without addresses?  The census doesn’t care about them, which is just as well because they would skew the sample anyway…

That being said, if you don’t make the long-form census mandatory… then you have to deal with non-responsiveness… which further interferes with the theoretical randomness necessary for the census to be theoretically valid.

Social statistics can do a lot of things.  They can identify trends, they can help admen manipulate the masses, they can tell us what people think about this issue or that, they can explain human behaviour in a way that no other method can.  But, they can only do that when statisticians collect valid data and analyse it objectively.

A mandatory census can help us get better data, but it can’t change the fact that without the political will to listen to the experts help them understand and turn that data into appropriate and contextually relevant policy… removing the mandatory long form return probably won’t make too much of a difference when the results are released 2-3 years after the data is collected.

Because no matter what… stats can’t do anything… it’s political will that does.


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