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.

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