Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2012/ 22 Mar-Cheshvan, 5773
Nate Silver's numbers racket
By Jonah Goldberg
In the last week or so, an intense kerfuffle broke out over the poll-prognosticator
On any given day, Silver might have announced that -- given the new polling data -- "the model" was now finding that the president had an 86.3 percent chance of winning. Not 86.4 percent, you fools. Not 86.1 percent, you Philistines. But 86.3 percent, you lovers of reason.
Not surprisingly, for nervous
"On the right, apparently, there is no such thing as an objective calculation. Everything must have a political motive," Krugman fumed. "This is really scary," he added. If "these people triumph, science -- or any kind of scholarship -- will become impossible."
Now, bear in mind that Jordan's critique centered on what Jordan (a numbers-cruncher himself) argues is Silver's over-reliance on small-state polls.
And on this rock the future of science -- nay, scholarship itself -- shall founder!
Now, I have no idea whether Silver's model is the psephological
The truth is that any statistician can build a model. They do it all the time. They make assumptions about the electorate, assign weights to polls and economic indicators, etc., and then they wait for the sausage to come out. No doubt some models are better than others, and some models are simply better for a while and then regress to the mean. But ultimately, the numbers are dependent on the values you place on them. As the computer programmers like to say, garbage in, garbage out.
I'm not saying Silver's just lucky or shoveling garbage. He's a serious numbers guy. But so are the folks at the
They couldn't all be right.
What interests me is the way people talk about math as if it's divinely prophetic. It's as if they subscribe to a religion that simply apes the terminology of science. To listen to many of Silver's defenders, questioning his methodology is akin to rejecting evolution or the laws of thermodynamics, as if only his model is sanctified by the god, Reason.
I wonder: What kind of scholarship do we have to look forward to when, in the words of Krugman, "facts really do have a well-known liberal bias" and a difference of opinion over poll-weighting foretells the end of science?
Don't get me wrong; I do understand that math can be ironclad. We know the decay rates of isotopes, how fast things will fall in a vacuum, what compounded interest rates will yield and all that.
But I like to think that people are different, more open to reason, and that the soul -- particularly when multiplied into the complexity of a society -- is not so easily number-crunched. Obviously this is a romantic view out of step with the times.
Still, isn't it possible that the passionate defense Silver arouses from some people on the left has just a bit more to do with the comfort he dispenses than with the sophistication of his analysis? And isn't it also possible that some of the conservatives screaming bloody murder about how his model has to be rigged are paying homage to the same cult of the numbers?
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