Lies and Statistics

One of the hottest issues in Canadian political circles this past summer has been the Harper government’s decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary questionnaire. The new voluntary form will provide data that is just as meaningful without unnecessarily invading people’s privacy with the force of the law, so argues the government. I’m no scientist, but I know enough about sampling techniques to understand that this is clearly a bad call.

The outcry from the scientific community about the move has been surprisingly loud. Statistics Canada chief statistician Munir Sheikh, previously an obscure mandarin, became a public figure when he resigned his post rather than risk associating himself with the government’s efforts to sell the change. Additionally, a recent editorial in the prestigious science journal Nature suggests that the census flap is just the latest example of the federal government’s “apparent disregard for science-based policy.”

Indeed, in a recent article in Maclean’s, John Geddes puts forward the idea that ignoring the advice of scientific experts is part of a conscious political strategy by the Harper government to curry favour with working-class everyman voters who may not identify with those Harper likes to label as scientific elites. “In the census controversy [Harper’s aides] seem willing, almost eager, to take on virtually the entire Canadian research establishment,” writes Geddes.

If Harper and his team refuse to take direction from the scientific community, perhaps they might pay attention to a part of their perceived power base: the business community.

Among the critics of the census decision is the Canadian Institute of Actuaries (CIA).

“Actuaries have extensive knowledge of risk and probability, and they warn that exchanging the current mandatory long-form questionnaire–the results of which are a valuable tool for business and setting public policy–for a voluntary survey would render the results unreliable,” says the CIA in a press release.

The insurance industry, which obviously relies heavily on the work of actuaries, should take note and speak out. Given that many insurance professionals are expecting the return of a hard market soon, the issue underscores the need for underwriters to have the best possible data available to them to ensure rates and terms remain as competitive as possible in the circumstances. After all, as Mark Twain was fond of saying, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Daryl Angier, Editor


© Copyright 2010 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the September 2010 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P.
Transcontinental Media G.P.