We use census records for a lot of basic information about our ancestors and relatives, but sometimes what we find leaves us with more questions. I found one relative whose birth date seemed to change with each census! On several census records, he had different birth years recorded as well as an age listed that indicated yet a third possible birth year. Another person I was researching, according to different census records, was born in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, more questionable data.
How can we analyze conflicting data in an official government record? First, notice who gave the information to the census taker. Some records indicate an (X) by the name of the person supplying the information for the census. Maybe Uncle Jim thought his sister-in-law who lived with them was born in North Carolina rather than South Carolina, and that was how he answered the census taker's question. An answer of "Carolina" or "Dakota Territory" could be recorded as different states. Other errors could come if the census taker used ditto marks for the birthplaces of family members, perhaps assuming that everyone was born in the same state or country.
Variations in the spelling of names could reflect the literacy of the person giving the information or just be the way the census taker heard or spelled a name.
Some discrepancies in birth dates are really based on when the census was recorded. Not every US census has been in April of the enumeration year. Perhaps what looks like a difference in a person's age is really based on when her actual birth date was and when the census was recorded.
Finally, there's the matter of handwriting. Bless those census takers who had neat, precise handwriting. Others obviously did not. A 9 can look like a 4 or an 8, a 7 like a 2, all of which can cause problems if I only look at one census year. For several years I have done volunteer transcription of census and other genealogical records for free database projects. Transcribers attempt to record data as accurately as possible, but we realize that what is seen by us might not be what was actually written.
After all we're only human - information givers, census takers, and transcribers. It makes for one more reason to look for information in a variety of sources.