Sunday, November 25, 2012

Write Shallow, Narcissistic Prose, Become a Published Author in the Times!

With our limited audience at the Billy Rubin Blog, we pine for the kind of attention that Lori Gottlieb has received throughout her professional career. Dating back to her days as a post-bac premed student, she was earning a name for herself in national publications: here, for instance, she dished up the skinny in Salon on interviews with mean people at Harvard Medical School back in 1999. Since then she has undertaken a rather dizzying set of career changes (for instance, she dropped out of med school after two and a half months because "she didn't like being around sick people"--even though the first two years of med school involve almost zero exposure to sick patients) but all the while pumping out essays and eventually, books, mostly memoirish accounts of her various professional adventures and misadventures. Today she has the kind of legitimate following that would make us pee our pants out of delight. Our envy is unadorned.

That said, much though we covet her following--or at least the idea of a following, though not so much hers in particular--we'd never stoop to the type of writing in which Ms. Gottlieb engages. Key recent examples include last year's offering in The Atlantic, "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy", as well as this week's remarkable meditation on the decline in psychotherapy, "What Brand is Your Therapist?", which appeared in the Friday edition of the Paper Of Record. "Remarkable" in that it really isn't an analysis at all of the profession and the challenges it faces, although it does provide some verbal window dressing in the first few grafs to make it seem so. Instead, it's the kind of piece for which Gottlieb is justly renowned: a me-me-me account of her experiences trying to start up her practice. Fully, three out of the 39 paragraphs do not contain the words "I", "me", or "my"--and the remaining 36 typically feature one of those three words in the first or second sentence. You may think you're reading about the modern state of psychotherapy; actually, you're reading about--may we use her first name?--Lori.

Here at the Billy Rubin Blog we have no qualms with the memoir, nor with centering a narrative around the concept of me. We are huge fans of Hunter Thompson, Ruth Reichl, PJ O'Rourke, Bill Bryson, Joan Didion, and Calvin Trillin--all fine writers whose central subject is often (sometimes only) the first person. But Gottlieb is playing at something else entirely: she's posing as a serious analyst about serious issues when in fact she is, at best, a shoddier version of the above masters of the craft. "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy" is in essence the uninformed musings of a trainee. She displays no evidence of having spent any serious time studying such an important topic or having considered what the research might have to say about parenting styles. Basically, she used her media persona to spin a couple of therapist-patient sessions (while a greenhorn, no less) into a full-fledged theory of childhood emotional development. Was The Atlantic doing anyone any favors by publishing this? Is the New York Times doing the same this week?

We think not, so waste not your time when you see her name in print, unless you, like us, can't avert your eyes from disaster in the same manner as watching the aftermath of a car accident. Which is, in summary, an apt description of her oeuvre.

Monday, November 5, 2012

One Offs: MA Question Two and Nate Silver F/U

Normally at the Billy Rubin Blog we like giving a good 12 paragraphs to explore the intricacies of an idea, but no time for that today. Before the election, though we want to follow-up on two themes about which we have been writing this year: Physician-Assisted Suicide and, more recently, the phenomenon of Nate Silver.

In Massachusetts this year, Question Two on the ballot proposes a legalization of PAS. It is often described as a "liberal" issue. I don't think it is, and I'm voting No--as emphatically as one can, given that voting consists of coloring an oval black, but there you have it.

The reasons to oppose PAS, especially from a lefty point of view, are twofold:

a. Hospice is wildly underutilized; and
b. PAS should only be practiced in a place in which all citizens have equal access to good health care, and even with the Affordable Care Act we are still a long way from that.

PAS has the feel of a hot-button issue--strong opinions on both sides with heated rhetoric and fierce stands based on core moral beliefs. But unlike, say, abortion, PAS is mostly a smoke-and-mirrors debate where there's very  little "there" there. Even in Oregon, the PAS pioneer, there have been only about 600 "prescribed" suicides in 18 years since legalization. But PAS has substituted for a more substantive discussion about how we will treat end-of-life issues in the US. At a time when we need to examine how we spend money on our health because we cannot sustain our current model (which isn't a good model anyway), that's lousy politics for the left, right, and center.

Onto Nate Silver.

We wrote that being "against" Nate Silver generally showed a contempt for science and mathematics, and we still stand by that claim. However it's important to note that Silver isn't a stand-in for Truth, and that if his success in political prediction matches that of his baseball analysis acumen, the Dems may be in for a very rocky night tomorrow and the Billy Rubin Blog staff will have one phenomenal hangover Wednesday morning. That is, Silver's statistical baby for baseball, named "PECOTA", hasn't performed significantly better than other models predicting player performance and has done so using a cranky, Rube Goldberg-like statistical contraption. Colby Cosh of Maclean's (a Canadian publication) heaps reams of skepticism on the Silver phenomenon here.

Cosh's writing is really good and provides some fresh insight from a guy who appears to be steeped in the numbers, although that said I think he's mostly missing the point. As can be found here and here (and talked about over here), there are number-crunchers who can provide plausible scenarios of why we might wake up trying to familiarize ourselves with the phrase "President Mitt Romney". But this is a question of "what is the underlying reality of the campaign, and how do we find data to help make an accurate prediction?" That question of late has frequently become morphed with "which guy do you want to win?", and Silver, who is almost completely a numbers geek with very few overt partisan leanings, has gotten pegged by conservatives as being in the tank for the Obama cause: right wing paranoia if ever there was any. This is why people have been giving pushback on Silver attacks.

Indeed, there were plenty of Dem-leaning commenters on the Cosh/Maclean's piece that welcomed the critique, because they endorsed the idea of data-driven analysis and not cult-of-personality devotion to Silver. Said one commenter: "I think Silver is a good thing for journalism, but it is misleading to call him a statistician or a scientist. He's something else entirely: a data journalist. He's a very bright guy to have spotted the gap in the market which opened up thanks to the easy availability of data, which mainstream journalists have no training or inclination to use." That sounds right to me, and is the best explanation of King Nate's popularity. Indeed, Silver's book Signal and the Noise is mostly a journalist's account, and it's a really good read.

We will wake up Wednesday morning and will know, given many Senate and House races in addition to the 50 state Presidential races, whether Rasmussen's polls, which have always favored Republicans by about 2 points this year, are more accurate than Quinnipiac's or anyone else's. If so they're probably doing something right and have a better model. Sure, some on the left have foolishly conflated support for Silver with support for liberal political issues, but crying foul against libs who Don't Get It is an exercise in false equivalence. The vast majority of the right wing screeching about Silver has not had to do with an opposition to Silver's possibly errant calculations, but rather with a resistance to any data that does not support one's ingrained assumptions.

More than anything else, this is why we find the Republican Party as currently constituted a menace to society, and until this problem is fixed, we have a very deep political problem in this country.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

What Being "Against" Nate Silver Really Means

Here's a prediction:

Barack Obama is going to win the Presidency.

Does that mean he's definitely going to win it? No.

Is he likely to win it? Yes, he is. He's got about a 3 in 4 chance of winning. It's not a coin flip. Romney has to have a lot of things break his way on Tuesday to capture the White House.

Why am I fairly--but not absolutely--confident that this will be the outcome? Because I've been following the polling for the past two months. There are a lot of sites that analyze various kinds of data and have a computer model to predict who is going to win, including, the Princeton Election Consortium, Votamatic, Real Clear Politics, and a host of others (see Votamatic's blogroll for the others). I have been keeping up with them, and for the most part, they're generally in agreement that Obama is the clear favorite.

The most famous of these predictors is a geeky stats guy named Nate Silver, whose blog back in 2008 became so popular that the New York Times incorporated it into their product. And as the campaign has proceeded, Silver has analyzed the race and provided reams of commentaries, caveats, and digressions worthy of a Talmudic scholar. But he's been extremely clear about the bottom line over the past few weeks: Obama is the favorite.

That means he is likely to win but is not a lock. A very simple analogy will suffice: as of today, with three days to go in the race, Obama is up by two and Romney has the ball on his own 17 with one timeout and 1:20 on the clock. Most teams in that situation won't win, although of course some will. Now, if you were to bet on Team Romney, you'd want something better than even-up odds. If you offered a bet with anyone at that moment in the game that Team R would win, you would find no end of people willing to take you up on the bet. This is where we are in the Presidential Race, and this is what Silver has been writing for some time.

The bet scenario is in fact quite real, as Silver, in what appears to have been a fit of pique, took an even-up bet on Obama with Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe". Two grand will be donated by the loser to the Red Cross. The bet arose from some trash talking on Morning Joe, where Scarborough called Silver "a joke" and more-than-implied that he was in the tank for Obama. See here for further explanation (including the incoherent warbling of NYT's most famous tweedle-dee, David Brooks), and here for a rundown of other attacks on Silver.

The comments indicate that Scarborough is either irredeemably stupid, or frightfully uninformed for a TV news anchor, or deeply cynical, or some combination of all three. A casual perusal of Silver's blog indicates that he's a guy fascinated with statistical analysis much more than he is of partisan politics. There is never a potshot laid at Romney, even when he so richly deserves it. Yet because he happens to be a guy delivering news that one with a Republican bent doesn't want to hear, suddenly Silver himself becomes the subject of personal attacks due to his perceived partisanship.

Ladies and gentlemen: the Republican Party of 2012.

What being against Nate Silver really means is that you are against a particular way of thinking about the world, and the boundaries go well beyond calling the Presidential horse race. It's a mindset that refuses to accept any information that does not fit with predefined conceptions about the world, whether that information relates to an increase in global temperatures, the existence of evolution, or the value of public health. In short, it is a medieval understanding of the world, and the contempt shown for Nate Silver--an otherwise harmless and bright dweeb--is an exemplar of that way of thinking, if it is worthy of the term "thinking" at all.

I am distrustful of Republican political philosophy for a variety of reasons, all of which may be wrong. But I will be voting for Barack Obama--a politician for whom I now have very little enthusiasm--not so much because of these differences in philosophy, but because of the Brownshirt-flavored anti-intellectualism of the modern Republican party.

ps. Also worth noting that Silver's new book, The Signal and the Noise, is an exceptionally good read.