That census debate, late Victorian edition

The objections to the census on Biblical grounds are now a thing of the past; the objections on the ground that the census is inquisitorial have also, there is good reason to believe, gradually lost their force… it is now agreed among all civilized nations that a census is a useful and desirable thing.

Thus spake the scientist and administrator G.B. Longstaff (1849-1921) in an address to the Royal Statistical Society on June 25, 1889. Longstaff’s discussion of the imperial census activity scheduled for 1891 sheds fascinating light on today’s Canadian debate: I’m not sure anyone has yet pointed out, as Longstaff did that night, that New France, Acadia, and Newfoundland are where the first censuses of any kind since antiquity were taken, and that only then did the idea return to find acceptance in Old Europe.

It took about fifty years, mind you, to convince the restless, suspicious people of Britain to accept even the most rudimentary nose-count; among the new factors which predisposed them to accept it was Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). (As time goes by I become more convinced that Malthus, for his approach rather than his conclusions, belongs to the rank of Hume and Adam Smith in the history of ideas, and may even approach that of Newton and Darwin.) Readers will find matter of particular interest in Part II of the body of Longstaff’s address, wherein he discusses what questions it is appropriate to ask in a census. He commences, perhaps revealing his training as a lepidopterist, with a taxonomic observation:

Statisticians may be divided into two classes, (a) those who clamour for much information on many subjects, even though such information be confessedly very imperfect; and (b) those who, being of a more sceptical turn of mind, prefer to ask for very little, and to concentrate their efforts on getting that little with the greatest attainable accuracy.

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