Lab NotesLiving between the linesNotesObservationsReflections

Truthfulness of personal information as indicator of social morality?

ObservationsCan the level of accuracy of personal information items be indicative of the moral virtue of the social system in which the information is used?

This question came to me while I was doing some renovation at home while listening to Tapestry CBC One radio show. This week, Mary Hynes met Sam Harris in the wake of the publication of his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. A surprisingly short interview given that this show’s usual practice is to devote its whole hour to a single personality or subject. By listening to Harris, one understands. He certainly offers a convincing argument about the ability of science to shed light on a moral issue, or even to decide between what is right and wrong. However, the fierceness of his attacks against religions quickly annoys, thus weakening his argument.

Still, neuroscience, for example, can objectively observe through scanner and hormonal analysis that, in general, an altruistic action provides wellness to human beings who do it as those who receive it. It also observes as exactly the opposite effect with a selfish action, that it is even worse for a malevolent action. Many developments in biology, ethology and ethnology as well as psychology and sociology do offer increasingly revealing insights on various moral issues. As Harris points out, science offers here the advantage to transcend cultures, religions and moral systems because of the provable and universal nature of its conclusions.

What with the quality of personal information? The short answer is that, on one hand, science is dependent on the quality of its data and that this quality often depends on the willingness or ability of human beings to tell the truth. Still on the other hand, the level of accuracy of the provided information is measurable… scientifically.

The anecdotal answer comes from to two recent observations about the necessity…  to lie. (more…)

Critique of Census

Critique of Canadian census : Introduction

The Conservative government decided that for the 2011 Canadian census, answer to the long form would no longer be mandatory, but voluntary instead. This decision provoked a sharp polarization between those determinedly for or against it.

This Critique of Census notebook attempts an open critical exploration of the many technical, social, legal and ethical issues raised by such an information production operation about a country and its population. Over the weeks and according to what makes the news, additional questions will be presented. For each of them, the answers obtained will be published, and then synthesized.


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A Quantitative Methods Professional Answers Us…

Débats - DebatesThis is a response to previous post from a professional who wrote me, but do not wish to be identified for the moment:

Quantitative methods professional

The idea that a volunteer sample reduces the reliability and the validity of data is today as accepted an idea than the one that the earth is round. […] There are many articles that deal with the extent of the bias, its reasons, the ways that can be used to circumvent these biases somehow, etc. But one can never really succeed to circumvent them.

[As for Justice Boivin’s finding] I have not read the arguments in favour of a voluntary survey and how they think they can avoid the sample biases. Of course there is uncertainty about the reliability of data from the NHS, since we have never done this exercise before. There is one certainty about the fact that the data will be biased, but it is difficult to predict in advance the extent and nature of this bias.

Increasing the number of long questionnaires will not change the bias, and nothing leads us to believe that an advertising campaign can correct the bias. The campaign could very well increase it (especially if only in the two official languages). (more…)

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Questions for Statisticians and Specialists in Quantitative Methods regarding the Reliability of a Voluntary Census

In the wake of the decision on a application for judicial review form the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada

ObservationsFederal Court’s Justice Richard Boivin heard evidence and testimonies presented in support of and in opposition to the National Household Survey (NHS) which, being voluntary, replaces the old census long form, which was mandatory under fine and even imprisonment. The judge ruled this week that “there is uncertainty about the reliability of the data that will come from the NHS” … except that the Court is “not convinced that the data of the NHS will be so unreliable as to be unusable.”

Let’s recall that the Conservative government decided to remove the long form from the mandatory status of the Canadian census to make it voluntary instead. To offset a possible decline in participation, it provided an increase of around 50% of the number of long questionnaires (from 3 to 4.5 million households at an additional cost of $ 30 million) plus an advertising campaign to spur participation.

Many statisticians, demographers and researchers have criticized this decision. According to them, a voluntary survey would lead to a significant decrease in participation, particularly in certain portions of the population (the poorest, the least educated, of certain ethnic backgrounds). The result would be less representative and thus biased data which would distort the demographic profiles of country, regions and local communities. However, beyond these general statements, public interventions in the media so far have provided no statistical demonstration in support to this claim. Justice Boivin’s finding seems to confirm this perception.

So I make an appeal to statisticians and specialists in quantitative methods in order to clarify certain key elements of the debate. (more…)

Critique of CensusLiving between the linesNotesObservations

Canadian conservatives battling over the census… in USA

ObservationsI wrote in July that the Conservative government’s decision to abolish the compulsory nature of the census’ long form probably originated from an observation of the recent controversies surrounding U.S. Census as well as of the potential political risks and opportunities in their import in Canada.

Subsequent conservatives’ statements have amply demonstrated that the rationality of their decision was more one of partisan calculation than of administrative rationality or respect for the rights of citizens. Today, the Liberal Opposition tabled a bill to make the long form mandatory, still along with fines, but no more imprisonment. As if the opposition in the Commons blindly followed to the letter their role in one of the possible scenarios envisioned by the Conservatives.

However, the American inspiration for the strategy and the discourse in support has never been so clearly brought to light than by the statements of Minister Tony Clement on Tuesday. Jennifer Ditchburn of The Canadian Press reports that according to Clement, the enumerators could beat the system and make off with the personal information of Canadians. Although Statistics Canada has clear policies, “some enumerators are recruited in the same neighbourhood as respondents. This means, says Clement, “your neighbour may know some of your most personal and more intimate information.”

The minister described the situation here in the U.S. where, constitution requires, the census must be conducted by enumerators.

In Canada, the census is self-administered … since 1971. One reason for the abandonment of enumerators was specifically related to a matter of respect for privacy. It was less to avoid the risk of espionage, but to reduce the intrusiveness and the intimidating presence of a visit by a possible neighbour and therefore the bias resulting from the reluctance to answer questions honestly, even to answer at all. Indeed Statistics Canada’s policy for telephone follow-up reminders is to rely on enumerators who should not be from the area of citizen contacted.

In short, the cat is out of the bag. Latest Clement’s arguments are clearly American import copy and paste that have no relevance in the Canadian context. So gross an error would have not occurred if the conservative decision had been taken on the basis of some needs analysis to improve the Canadian census. Moreover, if one had wanted to improve the census, one would have amended the long form rather than spend the summer denigrating the questions it contains, and even those he does not…

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Citizen Awakening of the Data Subject?

In the wake of controversies over the census, Facebook and others

ObservationsSaturday, I cleaned the house while listening to a lecture by sociologist Saskia Sassen on the evolving concept of citizenship in a globalizing world recorded for the Big Ideas show (mp3, video). The conference focused on the multiple micro changes that globalization causes in the definition and experience of citizenship (or of the political subjectivity, in other words).

Sassen reminds us that while we tend to experience citizenship as an unitary condition, in fact citizenship is made of a whole bundle of components. At the heart of citizenship, there is a bundle of formal rights that are recognized by State. But there are as well around many other social elements that might not derive from our connection to the State (such as the physical environment of the city vs. the countryside). So one can unbundle citizenship to look as how each of these elements emerges, changes and disappears; thus how the whole idea of citizenship is evolving as a result.

This idea brought me back to that of a citizen awakening as data subject. A theme that corresponds to a wish I expressed as early as in 1988 in my contribution to the book Human Rights in Canada: Into the 1990s and Beyond.[1] Sassen’s lecture called this question to me: are we now also witnessing this historic micro change of the addition of the status of data subject into the consciousness of contemporary citizen? (more…)

Critique of CensusLiving between the linesNotesObservations

2011Census’ Theatre of Fears

Do you know someone who completed the census out of fear of fine or imprisonment? Or someone having not completed it who feared it? No? Then ask: What does Harper government fear?

Decision to transform the mandatory census’ long-form into a voluntary survey has led to genuine alarms. Scientists, business communities and local administrations dread deterioration of the data necessary to their work and decisions. Organizations acting for linguistics minorities, women and other communities worry about losing sound figures on which they base their advocacy.

However, accusations that Conservatives try to undermine the gathering of information that might contradict their policies are not plausible. It would be a dangerous game: skewed results from botched census could as much disserve them. It does not fit with a 50% multiplication of long questionnaires (from 3 to 4.5 million at additional cost of $30 million) plus a participation promotion campaign. Moreover, this government’s punctilious programs’ reviews and, especially, this Conservative Party’s wedge politics strategies require very reliable statistical benchmarks. (more…)

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