Early Morning Thoughts On Nate Silver


I've been up since 4:45AM this morning. My dog got into a bag of Oreos the other day and is battling some Bridesmaids à la Melissa McCarthy bowel movements. The bad news? The whole 4:45AM thing. The good news? I'm pretty sure I was the twelfth person to read this.

Mr. Silver puts Pres. Obama's chances of re-election at 92%, up from 86% yesterday--a move that's sure to stoke the fire of those who insist on his liberal hackery.

But is it hackery? No. Is it mathematical MAGIC?! No. Mr. Silver is simply reading the writing on the wall, and in nothing doth man offend fellow man, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not media bias in all things, and obey not his partisan leanings.

Yet the attention/wrath/adoration that Silver has elicited this election cycle points to a worrisome trend in political science, while I'll detail later.

Allow me to "pull a Silver" and aggregate some news opinions leading to my own personal analysis. First, from fellow wonk Ezra Klein:
Come to think of it, a lot of the odder critiques of Silver have been coming out of Politico. But that makes a kind of sense. Silver’s work poses a threat to more traditional — and, in particular, to more excitable — forms of political punditry and horse-race journalism. 
If you had to distill the work of a political pundit down to a single question, you’d have to pick the perennial “who will win the election?” During election years, that’s the question at the base of most careers in punditry, almost all cable news appearances, and most A1 news articles. Traditionally, we’ve answered that question by drawing on some combination of experience, intuition, reporting and polls. Now Silver — and Silver’s imitators and political scientists — are taking that question away from us. It would be shocking if the profession didn’t try and defend itself.

More recently, we in the media — and particularly we in the media at Politico — have tried to grab an edge in the race for Web traffic by hyping our election stories far beyond their actual importance. The latest gaffe is always a possible turning point, the momentum is always swinging wildly, the race is endlessly up in the air. It thus presents a bit of a problem for us if our readers then turn to sites like Silver’s and find that none of this actually appears to be true and a clear-eyed look at the data shows a fairly stable race over long periods of time. 
My guess is Silver and his successors will win this one, if only because, for all the very real shortcomings of models, election forecasters have better incentives than homepage editors. For instance, note that all these attacks on Silver take, as their starting point, Silver’s continuously updated prediction for the presidential election, which includes point estimates for the popular vote and electoral college, and his predictions for the Senate races. Those predictions let readers check Silver’s track record and they force Silver, if he wants to keep his readers’ trust, to make his model as accurate as he can. That’s a good incentive structure — certainly a better one than much of the rest of the media has — and my guess is his results, over time, will prove it.

And a right-leaning op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post via Michael Gerson:
The current mania for measurement is a pale reflection of modern political science. Crack open most political science journals and you’ll find a profusion of numbers and formulas more suited to the study of physics. In my old field of speechwriting, political scientists sometimes do content analysis by counting the recurrence of certain words — as though leadership could be decoded by totaling the number of times Franklin Roosevelt said “feah” or George W. Bush said “freedom.” 
This trend in social science, according to Yuval Levin of National Affairs, is “driven by a deep yearning — fed by a kind of envy of modern natural science and its power — for the precision of mathematics in a field of study whose subject can yield no such certainty.” The modern belief that only science yields truth results in the application of scientific methods beyond their proper bounds, and the dismissal of other types of knowledge, including ethical knowledge. Political science seems particularly susceptible to precision envy. 
Politics can be studied by methods informed by science. But it remains a division of the humanities. It is mainly the realm of ethics — the study of justice, human nature, moral philosophy and the common good. Those who emphasize “objective” political facts at the expense of “subjective” values have strained out the soul and significance of politics. It is an approach, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “that stores the sand and lets the gold go free.” 
Over the past decade, there has been a revolt among political scientists against a mathematical methodology that excludes substantive political debates about justice and equality. A similar revolution is increasingly needed in political commentary. The problem with the current fashion for polls and statistics is that it changes what it purports to study. Instead of making political analysis more “objective,” it has driven the entire political class — pundits, reporters, campaigns, the public — toward an obsessive emphasis on data and technique. Quantification has also resulted in miniaturization. In politics, unlike physics, you can only measure what matters least. 
And so, at the election’s close, we talk of Silver’s statistical model and the likely turnout in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and relatively little about poverty, social mobility or unsustainable debt. The nearer this campaign has come to its end, the more devoid of substance it has become. This is not the advance of scientific rigor. It is a sad and sterile emptiness at the heart of a noble enterprise.


Polls are an utter waste of time. I'm inclined to like Nate Silver for the sheer fact that he aggregates and condenses dozens of them into one coherent, detailed analysis--a useful heuristic that saves me time, energy, and hair-pulling.

Yet I also side with Gerson in his frustrations with modern political science methodology. It's not just a matter of there being black swans that we can't predict. It's a matter of trying to quantify the unquantifiable--human behavior--and having that distract from issues far more relevant. Quantification has indeed resulted in miniaturization. "In politics, unlike physics, you can only measure what matters least."

Back to Klein:
If Silver’s model is systematically biased, there’s a market opportunity for anyone who wants to build a better model. That person would stand to gain hugely if they outpredicted punditry’s reigning forecaster (not to mention all the betting markets and all the other forecasters). The math behind what Silver is doing isn’t that complicated and the polls are easily available.
Incapable or unwilling to do this, Gerson seeks instead to trivialize Silver's work. It's a cheap trick, but Gerson makes good points in the process.

Anyway. In only a few short hours this will all be over (ALHAMDULILLAH) and every additional word I write here will be no more relevant than the one that preceded it (that is to say: not at all). In closing, here is my prediction for the electoral map. I suspect I'll be wrong on New Hampshire, and Florida is a complete toss-up. Wouldn't be surprised if we saw a recount there, but I think Pres. Obama will win by more than 30+ points in the electoral college, so this won't be a 2000 repeat by any means.


Additional thoughts on Gerson. Not like you care. But for what it's worth, this came up during a FB conversation with Ryan Decker. I think he makes an important point about Gerson's argument.
I think Gerson's real complaint is that he wants political science to limit itself to political philosophy (after all, that would make it easier for innumerate pundits like him to compete). Philosophy has its place, of course, but there are a lot of highly policy-relevant questions that are best answered with good quantitative analysis. What matters is choosing the right tool for each job, then using it correctly. Demanding that the discipline limit itself to tasks for which quantitative tools are inappropriate is demanding that the discipline severely limit its relevance. 
What I think Gerson is missing is that the move towards quantitative analysis in poli sci is not driven by illusions of hard science. I've known a few political scientists (and quite a few other social scientists), and none of them have ever indicated that they think they're a hard science or that running a regression will make them one. The urge to use quantitative tools is driven by the simple fact that a lot of questions are best answered by them, and poli sci people saw that if they didn't tool up someone else would get to pursue those questions. 
What I'm saying is that Gerson is preaching to the choir. He built a straw man about social scientists thinking they are physicists, then he knocked it down--all as a way of feeling better about his innumeracy
In my experience with political scientists, what Decker says is true. They aren't striving to turn a non-science into a science, they don't seek legitimacy in numbers.

Unfortunately, that very claim is at the heart of Gerson's argument, which is why the rest of it doesn't really hold water. There are snippets of tangentially related truth, like I alluded to above in the "yet" paragraph, but after my conversation with Ryan I felt the need to  qualify them. Honestly, I should probably qualify the "yet" paragraph even more, but the heart of this post is about Nate Silver, not political science methodologies. I'll have to save that discussion for a future post!

Try to contain your excitement.


Post a Comment

© Raesevelt All rights reserved . Design by Blog Milk Powered by Blogger