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November 06, 2012 8:47 AM Hating on Numbers

By Seth Masket

In the latest effort by pundits to grab Nate Silver’s hands and hit him in the face with them while asking “Why are you hitting yourself?”, we see Michael Gerson’s column that begins with a dismissal of Silver and morphs into an attack on political science. There are a few points in here on which I feel compelled to comment, so I’ll take them one by one. Here’s Gerson:

Silver’s prediction is not an innovation; it is trend taken to its absurd extreme. He is doing little more than weighting and aggregating state polls and combining them with various historical assumptions to project a future outcome with exaggerated, attention-grabbing exactitude. His work is better summarized as an 86.3 percent confidence that the state polls are correct.

Well, yes, that’s more or less accurate. Why pundits get so offended by this is beyond me. Silver is hardly making the argument that everything important in politics can be captured by polling models. What he is doing is trying to combine current polling and historical trends into the most accurate prediction of the election results we can come up with. Political journalists are often criticized for focusing too much on the horse race. We regularly observe a media approach in which any new poll becomes a news story, and in which Sunday talk shows focus on who’s ahead and who’s behind, and what the person in second place needs to do to get into first place. So suddenly some guy comes along and says, “Well, if you’re going to talk about the horse race, we might as well at least know which horse is ahead and by how much.” And then he gets slammed for making it all about the numbers? Poll-watcher, heal thyself.

More Gerson:

An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community.

No one’s arguing that they do, least of all Silver. Sure, there’s plenty more to understanding an election than just following the polls. Just how would the candidates govern should they win? Who would form their administration? How much slack will they be granted by the ideological activists who backed them in the primaries? How much power do the candidates have to follow through on the things they have promised? Could they work with Congress? These and lots of other questions are terribly important, but they don’t get a lot of attention in the thick of a presidential campaign. Blaming this on Nate Silver is like blaming the guy who built the scoreboard at Dodger Stadium for society’s ignoring the poetry of modern baseball.

Yet more 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.

Uh oh, here it comes.

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.

And there it is. Okay, let me see if I can lay this out for Gerson. Obviously, the study of justice and the common good has an important role to play within political science. Indeed, we have a whole subfield that deals with such issues. We call it political theory. But there’s a lot more to study! What forms of government produce the greatest equality and economic advancement? How productive are divided governments? To what extent are democratic governments accountable to and representative of their citizens? What explains the outcomes of elections? What are the costs and benefits of partisan versus nonpartisan elections? Why do people vote, or choose not to? These and many, many other questions are not only important, but also empirically answerable! We can find data and derive answers, sometimes using the “profusion of numbers and formulas” Gerson derides. This does not strain the soul and significance from politics; indeed, it provides answers to some of the questions that have vexed us ever since two people started making decisions on behalf of a community.

Now, Gerson took a serious detour from polling to political science. Silver is not a political scientist and, as far as I know, has never claimed to be one. His focus for right now is forecasting elections, and he’s taken a pretty thoughtful and data-driven approach to the task. If you don’t want elections to be about the horse race, don’t talk about them that way. But I’ll take Silver’s numbers over all the media references to “momentum,” “narrative,” and “relatability” eight days a week and twice on Sundays.

Update: See also John Sides.

Further update: Peggy Noonan calls the election for Romney because “all the vibrations are right.” Seriously. I wish she’d be more transparent about the frequency and amplitude data.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.

Comments

  • yellowdog on November 06, 2012 12:03 PM:

    Gerson lacks the credibility to lecture anyone about ethics and morality in public life. He is a veteran of the Bush II Administration. His efforts to sell the Iraq war for President Bush were masterpieces of misdirection--and the ethical cloud of that enterprise should linger over him for the rest of his life.

  • Rich on November 07, 2012 11:46 AM:

    The punditry has been bankrupt as a source of opinion for a long time. By picking horse race narratives (along with he said/she said0 as a way to be "balanced", they've blundered into territory where they are at a distinct disadvantage. Most journos seem innumerate and cannot adequate interpret poll findings, instead misjudging small changes over time and cherry picking w/o consideration of methodology, etc.

  • eserwe on November 07, 2012 12:04 PM:

    Gerson's argument is just silly. Whatever the complexity of the reasons that influence people to make their voting decisions, it usually distils into a binary or near binary outcome. The forecasting models people like Silver use are not representations of the complexities in the elementary decision making process. They are merely a bit of QC on the distillate and some slight repackaging.

    Gerson reminds me a bit of a scene in Brecht's Life of Galileo in which a cardinal visits Galileo with the intention of engaging him in a learned disputation in Latin about Galileo's astronomic findings. When Galileo asks the cardinal to switch into the vernacular language so that his assistant Andrea can follow the discussion, the cardinal expresses his deep felt disappointment how doing so will deprive the scientific discourse of all its elegance and splendor.

  • Rick B on November 09, 2012 7:29 PM:

    Seth, you ask why pundits get so offended by Nate Silver's publication of his models. In Gerson's case it is clear that Gerson is a perfectionist. He demands a precise and unequivocal statement from Silver, while Silver is a statistician who understands the limits of mathematical predictions.

    Gerson prefers a fallible but human pundit who states "Obama will win!" without the hedging of "It's an 86% chance." The hedging means that the prediction is coming from some non-human source which is also not a god - gods being, of course perfect.

    A perfectionist like Gerson wants a human's guess or a god's certainty. He has no room in the middle for some entity who is neither fallible nor infallible. It's got to be either/or. The perfectionist always wants to know the reason why certainty was not possible rather than an accurate (and to him, incomprehensible) measurement of the uncertainty.

  • jheartney on November 10, 2012 8:59 PM:

    I think you all are missing the main point. Gerson doen't hate numbers as such; he hates numbers that show his side is losing. If Silver's predictions had been for a Romney sweep, Gerson would have been happy to tout them.

    Republican pundits aren't truth-seekers any more than used car salesmen are social workers. Gerson, Will, Krauthammer, Scarborough and the rest have the goal of promoting right-wing success by putting out the most Republican-friendly coverage and narratives that they can find. Nate Silver spoiled their game, so they don't like him. It's as simple as that.