Statistics are political

Today is the New Zealand Census. And if that comes as a surprise to you, your surprise is not a surprise to me. If that makes sense.

I’m obviously a political nerd, and have heard almost nothing about the census. Officially, at least. We’ve had the one letter to our household with the access code (which was … not particularly well written), and there was a Stats NZ stall at the Newtown Festival on the weekend, but besides that, I’ve only heard from people having trouble with it.

People who haven’t received access codes, and have been on the phone to Stats NZ multiple times trying to get one – which can’t be authorised by a first-tier support person, it has to be bumped up to a supervisor, and which can only be sent by snail mail, not email, or maybe it can be sent by email, but it takes a week? Nobody seems to know.

(Let’s take a pause here to remember that New Zealand Post, under the guidance of awesome progressive statesman Sir Michael Cullen, shut half its processing centres and halved the number of deliveries throughout the country, which is why it takes so long to get mail from Wellington to … Wellington.)

People who will not be able to fill out the census because Statistics NZ, in its pursuit of cutting costs and pushing everyone online, has completely screwed up the process for people who are blind.

I suppose I have the option of being out of New Zealand on 6 March. Maybe a quick trip to Aussie is in my future, so I can boycott the Census without breaking the law. It’s a sad situation where I must contemplate being a refugee from my own country to make a critical point about the need for Government to own its responsibilities.

And then there’s the perennial issue, the issue Stats NZ have been aware of since well before the previous census: its complete erasure of trans, genderfluid and any other people who don’t fit neatly into two boxes marked “male” and “female”.

It feels like Stats NZ has not only dropped the ball on sex, gender, orientation and identity, it’s kicked the ball as hard as it could and shrugged as it went over a fence. Its own justification for the lack of questions demonstrates that it’s incredibly easy to explain the difference between biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. But they won’t. The very scientific and unbiased conclusion they’ve come to is “well, it’s too hard and there aren’t many of them anyway, so who cares?”

I care. I care about marginalized groups being represented and included in the official records of our society. I care about the huge amount of work done by gender diverse people and groups who have tried so damn hard to help Statistics NZ get this right, and who have been ignored for years because some platonic notion of statistical propriety trumps their existence and welfare.

I care that it took four years for our world-leading source-of-much-nationalist-smugness health system to find one surgeon who can provide gender confirmation surgery and wonder if maybe that would be different if we didn’t erase trans people from our premiere official population count.

I care about the message that is sent when the Minister for Statistics blames people’s “silly answers” in test surveys for the lack of decent gender and sexuality questions – yet “Pastafarian” – a parody specifically created to mock our attitudes towards organised religion – is not only permitted but gets its own autocomplete suggestion on the online form.

Screenshot from Twitter.

I also care about the assumptions our society makes about sex and gender and childbearing. At the last census I recall, but cannot confirm (damn Google) that Stats NZ stated they “impute” people’s sex based on their answers to a range of questions – so if you ticked male but said you’d given birth to two children, they would “correct” your sex to female. This is obviously completely unproblematic and hunky-dory as long as it makes the data ~clean~.

At this stage, there’s an outstanding OIA request on FYI.org.nz asking if Stats NZ continues this practice. It will clearly not be answered before the census closes today.

It simply irks me that for all the head-patting and condescension the LGBTQI+ community gets from Stats NZ, and the hand-wringing over ~reliable data~, the census is a shambles anyway. They’ve even re-jigged the meshblocks so apparently it’s going to be hell for anyone doing long-term research to match this census to previous ones (edit: though I’ve also heard they recalculate previous census data to match the new meshblocks). A couple of additional questions to shine light on an underrepresented and marginalized community whose health, legal and social needs are often ignored and diminished was hardly going to ruin everything for the data nerds.

This is something we should all care about. Not just because of the particular concerns around gender, sex, accessibility, and a government department’s ability to get the basic logistics of its primary job right.

Statistics are political. Data are political. They do not exist in a vacuum, because they are shaped by human perceptions and decisions from day one. Decisions about who should count, or what should count – religion but not political ideology; (assumed female fertility) but not sexual orientation – are political because they have political impacts.

A minor but illustrative point: the census includes motorcycles and scooters under “Other”, not “Motor vehicle”, for commuting options. What about a scooter makes it not a motor vehicle? How does this data reflect assumptions about how people commute, or should commute, or want to commute? How does this reinforce our preconceptions around policy to reduce congestion or address climate change?

I’m sure there’s a reason. I’m sure there’s academic papers and statistical standards and longstanding taxonomic principles in play. And every single one of those exists within a simple context: our society has been car-obsessed for a century with all the consequences for urban design, social behaviours and infrastructure spending.

It’s very nice to think you’re able to sit above the world everyone else lives in and observe it like a wise man atop a mountain, but it’s bullshit.

(This is also why groups (*cough*TOP*cough*) who try to claim neutrality or objectivity, because their policies are “evidence-based”, are either lying or kidding themselves (*cough*TOP*cough*). The only thing more dangerous than having biased data is having biased data and insisting it is not biased. If we willfully ignore the role of unconscious bias and attitudes in shaping the data we collect, decisions justified by that data will only harm people.)

It does make it wonderfully easy to ignore the existence of the queer community and then say “oh no, we made that decision on entirely statistical grounds” though.

The problem is, census planning takes a hell of a long time. The work putting together the 2023 census is likely already well underway, and making the kind of significant shift that’s clearly required – producing modern, relevant information with modern, relevant and inclusive processes – may simply be beyond the capabilities of a department which couldn’t even take decisive action moving its staff out of a lethally unsafe building.

2017 rewind: The evidence Gareth Morgan doesn’t want to see

TOP three! See, it’s funny because I said “TOP”. The 5% dream may have slipped from Gareth’s grasp, but he’s vowed to keep on trucking, and now even more women have resigned over his evidence-based behaviour he should have every success.

Originally published 24 August 2017

Gareth Morgan. You can’t escape his (hopefully deliberate? Possibly ironic?) Big Brother-esque visage on a distressing number of Wellington buildings, commanding you to CARE. THINK. VOTE. And if you spend any amount of time in the circles of #nzpol Twitter, you can’t escape him railing against anyone who criticises, questions, or so much as engages with his message. “2-bit blogger”, “toothless sheep”, “clot”, “pathetic Jacindaphiles”, do you even care? WELL DO YOU???

It takes a very particular kind of arrogance to assume that you, and you alone, are gifted with the objectivity and sense and rational capabilities to thoroughly sift and measure every aspect of society and come to the only proper, true, evidence-based solutions to all life’s problems. It requires a total lack of self-awareness to notice that all of these evidence-based solutions just happen to align with one’s pre-existing assumptions – or to even realise one has pre-existing assumptions.

But many people are arrogant, and many people can’t reflect on their own thinking. Pretty much everyone believes that they’ve formed their opinions sensibly and thoughtfully and based on evidence (which is why the idea that elections are or should be about Pure Battles Of Policy is rubbish), and very few of us question the subconscious biases and contexts that influence our thinking. So that’s not really Gareth Morgan’s problem.

Gareth’s problem is that he’s an old, white, rich man.

*waits*

Now that the angry trolls are off yelling at me on Twitter about reverse-sexism and ageism and politics of envy, let me explain: none of those things make Gareth Morgan a bad person. None of them are inherently bad things. But each represents another layer of mud on his windscreen, obscuring his view and making it inevitable he’s going to crash into something. And he can’t even see that it’s there.

We live in a society which holds fast the belief that being a man makes you more rational, and being white makes you more intelligent, and being old entitles you to a public platform, and being rich proves you’re right about everything. We have a frankly religious attachment to Enlightenment thinking, raising “evidence” on a pedestal which cannot be challenged. It’s a virtue to not have ideology. “We’ll just do what works,” they nod seriously, from seats across the whole political spectrum.

Yet that is not how the world is.

We know, for example, that many medications do not work as effectively on women, because they are more often tested on men (note: cissexist framing). We know in social science research that the way a question is phrased delivers markedly different results.

Our preconceptions can literally affect our ability to do math.

But none of this gives Gareth Morgan pause, because he’s getting constant positive reinforcement for his worldview. Our society’s base settings mean he’s right before he’s opened his mouth. Criticism from other people –who aren’t as old (therefore authoritative) as him, who aren’t white men (therefore rational), people who aren’t rich (therefore correct) – just tells him he is the lone noble crusader for truth and objectivity in a world populated by gullible fools who need to be educated.

So his personal attacks aren’t immature bullshit, because they’re true; and he can’t be sexist, because he’s sensible; and none of you silly people were going to vote for him anyway so it doesn’t matter.

You must be wrong: you’re criticising Gareth Morgan. And if that weren’t the rational thing to believe, he wouldn’t believe it.

The evidence Gareth Morgan doesn’t want to see

Gareth Morgan. You can’t escape his (hopefully deliberate? Possibly ironic?) Big Brother-esque visage on a distressing number of Wellington buildings, commanding you to CARE. THINK. VOTE. And if you spend any amount of time in the circles of #nzpol Twitter, you can’t escape him railing against anyone who criticises, questions, or so much as engages with his message. “2-bit blogger”, “toothless sheep”, “clot”, “pathetic Jacindaphiles”, do you even care? WELL DO YOU???

It takes a very particular kind of arrogance to assume that you, and you alone, are gifted with the objectivity and sense and rational capabilities to thoroughly sift and measure every aspect of society and come to the only proper, true, evidence-based solutions to all life’s problems. It requires a total lack of self-awareness to notice that all of these evidence-based solutions just happen to align with one’s pre-existing assumptions – or to even realise one has pre-existing assumptions.

But many people are arrogant, and many people can’t reflect on their own thinking. Pretty much everyone believes that they’ve formed their opinions sensibly and thoughtfully and based on evidence (which is why the idea that elections are or should be about Pure Battles Of Policy is rubbish), and very few of us question the subconscious biases and contexts that influence our thinking. So that’s not really Gareth Morgan’s problem.

Gareth’s problem is that he’s an old, white, rich man.

*waits*

Now that the angry trolls are off yelling at me on Twitter about reverse-sexism and ageism and politics of envy, let me explain: none of those things make Gareth Morgan a bad person. None of them are inherently bad things. But each represents another layer of mud on his windscreen, obscuring his view and making it inevitable he’s going to crash into something. And he can’t even see that it’s there.

We live in a society which holds fast the belief that being a man makes you more rational, and being white makes you more intelligent, and being old entitles you to a public platform, and being rich proves you’re right about everything. We have a frankly religious attachment to Enlightenment thinking, raising “evidence” on a pedestal which cannot be challenged. It’s a virtue to not have ideology. “We’ll just do what works,” they nod seriously, from seats across the whole political spectrum.

Yet that is not how the world is.

We know, for example, that many medications do not work as effectively on women, because they are more often tested on men (note: cissexist framing). We know in social science research that the way a question is phrased delivers markedly different results.

Our preconceptions can literally affect our ability to do math.

But none of this gives Gareth Morgan pause, because he’s getting constant positive reinforcement for his worldview. Our society’s base settings mean he’s right before he’s opened his mouth. Criticism from other people –who aren’t as old (therefore authoritative) as him, who aren’t white men (therefore rational), people who aren’t rich (therefore correct) – just tells him he is the lone noble crusader for truth and objectivity in a world populated by gullible fools who need to be educated.

So his personal attacks aren’t immature bullshit, because they’re true; and he can’t be sexist, because he’s sensible; and none of you silly people were going to vote for him anyway so it doesn’t matter.

You must be wrong: you’re criticising Gareth Morgan. And if that weren’t the rational thing to believe, he wouldn’t believe it.