Saturday, November 3, 2012

Nate Silver Continued

The total furor over Nate Silver continues to stun me.  I was surprised (though I shouldn't have been) that the red team would declare war on somebody with a message they didn't like ("For Obama to lose at this point, the polls have to be wrong"), but what has surprised me is the utter lack of comprehension of what he does.

From the left now we have Natalia Cecire, who seems to complain that Silver, well... I'm not sure:
The "Nate Silver phenomenon" is a perfect example of Second Gilded Age puerility, a form of political commentary that is concerned not with meaning or ethics but rather with phenomenality, especially as translated into abstract forms, chief among them numbers. When I use "puerility" in this way, I don't mean it pejoratively but literally: this is a form of boyishness, as boyishness has been constructed in U.S. history. It's concerned first and foremost with abstract play—even a certain virtuosity with play—and it is entirely bound up its own game. And it is a game that may be a little ruthless, a game that implicitly must be played by a white, boyish figure, a Tom Sawyer who insists on playing even when a slave's freedom is at stake.* Silver's Wunderkind image creates kind of persona from whom we are prepared to receive statistical models; it is entirely appropriate that his statistical forecasting began not in politics but in sports.

This is profoundly weird.  Polling data gives information about the likely actions of voters, and when faced with this information, we need to know:

  1. If the polls are not wrong in a systematic way (i.e. if they are only wrong in the way that comes from randomly calling a group of people that doesn't represent the actual electorate) what are the chances of Obama's re-election
  2. What are the chances the polls are systematically wrong?

Silver throws in the assumption that polls are roughly as likely to be systematically wrong as they were in past elections, runs the math on item 1, and comes to the conclusion that the answer to the first question is "roughly 100%" and the answer to the second one is "roughly 18%."

In 2000 I recall a deep uncertainty, and in 2004 I remember having to figure out the answers to these questions myself.  It was real work to stay on top of the simple objective facts of the polling landscape.  Now, I look at for 30 seconds, and have that work done for me, far better than I could have done it without making it into a full time job.

It's not a game, in that it's not useless or play, or irrelevant, or whatever Cecire seems to think is wrong with it (though if somebody reads her piece and can better understand what she's saying, please share), but it's also not even really punditry.  What he does is statistical grunt work that anybody with a graduate level statistics class could do and get the same results.  There is and never was supposed to be any "secret sauce" or prognostication, it's just an effort to wring all the available data out of the polls and present it in a useful format.  Nate Silver provides a utility, and getting upset at him for what is and is not in his results is like getting upset at the electricity company because there's nothing on TV.

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