Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

Why would a government organisation tasked to collect data, upon which important decisions will be based for years to come, not want the most accurate figures possible.

Since 1801, every ten years Britain has set aside one day for a census - a count of all people and households. It is the most complete source of information about the population that we have. A census is conducted in each year ending in a one; the next will be next year, 27 March 2011

A great deal of personal information is collected via the census process but we can sleep easily in our beds in the knowledge that none of the detail will be published until after we are long gone.

Once census records are made public, 100 years after they are collected, they mark the beginning of a journey for thousands of people to discover the lives, loves and lifestyles of their ancestors. However, this expensive operation is not carried out so that, years later, somebody can discover whether their great, great grandfather was a toy salesman or a high court judge. The main purpose is to provide data for decision makers. It is, therefore, important how questions are asked because if framed in the wrong way the question can vitiate the answer.

In 2001 there was, for the first time, a question about religion. The question was, “What is your religion?” It doesn’t take much thought to realise that this is a loaded question. By assuming that all participants hold a religious belief, the question captured some kind of loose cultural affiliation, and as a result over 70% responded ‘Christian’, a far higher percentage than nearly every other significant survey or poll on religious belief in the past decade.

The data on religion produced by the England and Wales 2001 census gave a wholly misleading picture of the religiosity of the UK, cutting the number of non-religious people in half. This pattern is set to be repeated in the 2011 census, because the same single, flawed question on religion will be used again.

The British Humanist Association worked with the Office for National Statistics to try and improve the question for the 2011 Census. However, despite agreeing to the testing of alternative questions and admitting that the existing question was flawed, the ONS took the decision to keep the same inadequate question for 2011. It is true that one of the given options is to tick ‘No religion’ but by that time the leading has been done.

Why is this issue important?

After the 2001 Census, the figures collected were used to justify the following policies:
• Increase in the number of faith schools
• The continuation of collective worship in schools
• The public funding and support of ‘interfaith’ and faith-based organisations above the support offered to secular organisations
• Suggestions of an increase in the role of faith in Britain under the coalition government
• The appointments of government advisors on faith
• Contracting out public services to religious organisations
• Keeping the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords as of right
• Continued high number of hours dedicated to religious broadcasting
• Specific consultation at government and local level with ‘faith communities’ over and above other groups within society
• Continued privileges for religious groups in equality law and other legislation

Is there a conspiracy to distort the figures that the census will produce? I doubt it. It is probably best to apply Hanlon's Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

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