I just got home to find my 2011 census waiting for me on the doormat – with its attractive purple colour scheme and the impressive words ‘your response is required by law’ filling me with a sense of purpose.
I’m not joking – I am genuinely excited by filling out the census, although I’m not sure ‘nerd’ counts as an ethnic group. The census is a tool for a load of nerds at the Office of National Statistics to gather a massive glut of data, which they can gorge on for years to come.
Statistics don’t have a good reputation but they are quietly amazing, a bit like the nervous-looking boys who sit at the end of the row in University Challenge and occasionally pipe up with the right answer to a bizarre maths question.
The word ‘statisticians’ sounds a little bit like ‘magicians’, and I think there are some similarities between the two (although scientists might not like being compared to wizards). Statisticians take raw data and find the underlying patterns – revealing the potential of the knowledge we already have to change our understanding of the world.
A great example would be the so-called British doctors study that began in the 1950s, and showed a clear link between smoking and lung cancer. This is something no-one would argue with today, but at the time the stats were revolutionary, the hard evidence for a suspicion that had been building for many years.
The stats from the 2011 census will be used (slightly less impressively) to plan public services. But, on a more controversial note, there’s been a campaign by the British Humanist Association for more people to describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ in the survey.
The BHA wanted to run billboard ads with the message ‘if you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so’, but rather strangely they met with some opposition. Apparently the companies who own the advertising space were concerned this might offend people. I’m honestly not sure why – is it offensive to have no religion?
The BHA’s argument is that the UK Government can justify increased spending on projects like faith schools based on the results of the census. They’re concerned that many people who aren’t religious are describing themselves as members of a particular religion because they feel they ‘culturally Christian’, for example.
Aside from my horror of how this could skew the data, it’s a serious point. I’m not religious, and I want my non-religious voice to be heard and my non-religious opinions to be considered. Ticking the little box that says ‘no religion’ means a lot to me.
So I’m excited about my opportunity to create one more tiny datapoint in the UK census database. Statistics are only as good as the data they’re based on so I’m off to play my part right now…