'Tis pedantry to estimate nations by the census, or by square miles of land, or other than by their importance to the mind of the time.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-82)

Censuses


Suffragettes and Suffrajedi


In 2001, after an internet campaign claimed that if enough people put their religion down as Jedi, the government would have to recognise it as such, 390,127 people (0.7%) wrote 'Jedi' on their forms, theoretically making it the fourth largest 'religion' in the country. The authorities, however, simply added these numbers to the 'no religion' tally. Fourteen people in Scotland put their religion down as 'Sith'.

Censuses have attracted protests ever since they were first devised. During the 19th century, thousands of Britons spent the night sitting in railway stations to avoid being counted. When the first detailed census took place in 1841, enumerators in many neighbourhoods were provided with police escorts in case the public turned nasty.

Most census protests revolve around a supposed invasion of privacy or a fear that the government might use the data to increase taxes. In 1753, however, the reason was religious. Because the Bible describes a plague that killed 70,000 people after a census of the Israelites, some people in Newcastle took this to mean that a census was displeasing to God. 

The Suffragettes commonly used censuses to make their point: one glued a poster over her form saying 'no votes for women, no census' while another simply wrote: 'no persons here, only women.' In Germany in 2011, a protest group sent out an alternate census that looked identical to the original, only with questions such as 'What drugs do you take?' and 'Have you ever had breast or penis enlargement surgery?'

The UK Census could be on its way out. It's thought that, at £480m, it is just too expensive and that there are other ways to get the information more cheaply. Critics point to the importance of the data for public administration, as well as its help as an indicator of issues affecting the country. Census figures, for instance, warned Russia of the number of young men dying in its post-1989 alcoholism epidemic.

According to China's third national census, just 100 surnames account for 87% of the Chinese population.

Censuses Jesus


As 'everybody knows', Mary and Joseph had to go to the city of their birth, Bethlehem, for a Roman census so they could be taxed. In fact, the Roman census never involved going back to where you were born: with everyone on the road, all the inns full, no-one looking after your house, or fields, or livestock, that would be insane. And despite the line in Luke (2:1) saying that 'In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world', there was never a complete census of the whole Roman world. In fact, Roman authorities at the time had no authority to hold a census in Judea at all - that was King Herod's prerogative.

There was a census around the time of Jesus's birth, under the Roman governor Quirinius (who was appointed after the banishment of Herod's son) but it was in 6CE, after Herod's death. So, either Jesus was not born during a census, or he was not born during the reign of King Herod. In fact, the whole story looks like an attempt by ‘pro-Davidian’ chroniclers to associate Jesus with David's city (Bethlehem). The problem is that Jesus's earthly parents came from Nazareth. If Jesus was to be the true Messiah, the writer of Luke needed a mechanism to get the family to Bethlehem in time for his birth - hence the census idea.

1851 was the first UK census in which the urban population out-numbered the rural.

According to a census in the 1920s, of 14,000 Eskimos living in Greenland, only 300 had ever seen an igloo.

WILLIAM BEACH THOMAS (1868-1957)

In successive censuses gardeners are continuously found at the head of the tables of longevity.

AARON SORKIN

Certainly, last year we did an episode about the census and sampling versus a direct statistic. You just said the word 'census,' and people fall asleep.