Chuck Puchmayr and science

A couple of times now I’ve heard Chuck Puchmayr say that public surveys done by the City of New Westminster aren’t scientific, and by “scientific” I assume he means a survey that samples a representative sample of the population to provide a statistically significant result that can be applied to the overlying population.

And you know what? He’s right. They’re not. They usually only engage the people who are very interested in a given subject, so they artificially bias towards people who have strong opinions on either side. If you don’t care about, say, heritage houses in Queens Park, you’re probably not going to go to the effort to fill out a survey about heritage houses in Queens Park. There are ways to try to unbias the results (weigh them against the demographics of the general population, for example) but even those have biases. It’s tough to make a public opt-in survey scientific, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad.

But then Mr. Puchmayr seemingly goes on to reject them and instead replace them with either his walks around neighbourhoods or with the opinions of people showing up to public hearings.

The mind wobbles!

Walking around a neighbourhood and talking with people that you may or may not know is only scientific if you talk to every single person there, or if you choose people in an unbiased way (and the odds are stacked against you from choosing people in an unbiased way — everybody has biases, either implicit or explicit). And then you’re only targetting one specific neighbourhood. You’re a councillor for the entire City of New Westminster, you’re not a councillor for Fifth Street.

And public hearings are even more biased than public surveys! There’s less effort to fill out a survey, so people don’t necessarily have as strong an opinion about a given subject. But to show up to a public hearing and speak in public? That’s a tremendous barrier and only the very opinionated are going to show up and talk. Using the people who come out to a public hearing as a basis for an opinion that’ll affect the entire city is horribly unscientific!

Mr. Puchmayer, please educate yourself on survey methodology. A public survey of 500 people is more representative of walking around a neighbourhood and talking to a dozen people, and it’s way more representative of listening to five people talk at a public hearing.

Besides, you were elected based on the results of a public survey. Or was that unscientific too?

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