journalism, politics

The Nate Silver backlash and the War on Objectivity

Nate Silver writes:

Although I hope that this chart serves as a useful reference point — and as a reminder that other data-driven sites that look at the polls with the same philosophy that FiveThirtyEight applies are achieving largely the same results — I’m more interested in looking at this data in a macroscopic way.

Suppose, for example, that you take the consensus forecast in each state. (By “consensus” I just mean: the average of the different forecasts.) Then you weigh it based on what each state’s share of the overall turnout was in 2008, in order to produce an estimate of the national popular vote.

Oh my goodness, Nate — you are such an ideologue!

But seriously, it’s harder to imagine a dumber argument than the idea that “skewed polls” are an attempt by a liberal media conspiracy to hand the election to Obama. Just ask yourself which of the following arguments is more logical:

1. “Oh gee, Romney only has a 25 percent chance of winning. I guess there’s no point in going to vote.”

2. “Hey, if Romney can pick off five states that have a very slight lean toward Obama right now, he wins! Let’s get out there and make sure we have turnout!”

Well, duh.

But this is part of a larger issue. This is part of a full-scale War on Objectivity (I’d like to say I thought of that term before Krugman, but I never committed it to paper.)

It’s one thing to say bias exists in the institutional level (as always, see Andrew Cline’s excellent summary) or personal level. Some stories and some situations will require difficult judgments.

It is, in the words of Monty Python, completely different to suggest that everyone acts in accordance with strictly political bias at all times. (Oh no! When I cleaned my gutters, I cleaned them from right to left! Clearly that was a political statement on Romney’s post-primary campaign!)

Call me an idealist, but I think people can be fair. I think it’s possible to find baseball umpires who don’t step on the field predisposed to favor the Red Sox over the Yankees or vice versa. I don’t think the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency magically convinced all of Lance Armstrong’s former teammates to invent specific details of their team’s doping regimen. I don’t think all my high school teachers gave me good grades because they thought I was sweet.

And when it comes to several groups of people (some of them with distinct political points of view) independently analyzing numbers from multiple sources and reaching similar if not identical numbers, I think you’d have a hard time calling that process ideological.

With Nate Silver in particular, just look at his chart — in every state that could be called a “swing state,” even if you believe Michigan, Minnesota and Arizona are in play, his numbers are neither the ones that most favor Obama nor the ones that most favor Romney. Maybe he has an extreme moderate bias?

So Silver has no incentive to skew his projections — if he were trumpeting every bit of Obama news (he wasn’t, as you know if you read him a bit, but we’ll play hypothetical here) to tell Romney supporters they shouldn’t bother, he’s doing an extremely poor job of it. And his numbers may be out of whack with your favorite cherry-picked Rasmussen or PPP poll, but they’re solid in comparison with every other meta-projection site. The attacks on him are, in strictest logical terms, a steaming load of crap.

So why do people attack him?

Because there are some people — and I’m not saying they’re representative of either major party — who simply won’t accept anything, no matter how mathematically or scientifically sound, that doesn’t fit their view of the world.

And that explains their economic views, their views on climate change, their views on evolution … well, their views on pretty much everything.

On Nov. 8, if Romney wins, I’m sure a bunch of people will snicker and say Nate Silver was “wrong.” He would be “wrong” in the same sense that the hurricane forecasters, whose models were pointing Sandy toward landfall around Cape May, were off by a few miles. There’s a bit of variability in everything — especially hurricanes. But the forecasters generally did a good job in telling us what was coming, in some cases giving us best-case and worst-case scenarios.

When a weather forecast tells you it’s supposed to be 80 degrees and sunny, but it turns out to be 65 degrees and rainy, that’s “wrong.” Sure.

If the forecast tells you it’s supposed to be 35 degrees and the thermometer only dips down to 37, you can go ahead and pretend you’re smarter than all the weather people if you like. But you still should’ve brought a jacket.

And if you think the weather people were just conspiring to make you wear a jacket — you’re an idiot. Or maybe you are the “ideologue.”


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