Sunday, November 4, 2012

Nate Silver, A Heartfelt Thank You for the Line; or, Yet Another Reason to Vote for Barack Obama

Tomorrow and Monday, I'm off. Tuesday night, election night, is a work night for me. I have missed election night coverage once before standing in line for hours and hours to cast my vote after work. I have a pleasant memory of listening to a small radio with headphones.This was how I experienced the election of Bill Clinton 20 years ago. I had said "Yes!" under my breath a number of times for key battleground states, trying to contain my excitement as it became more and more obvious that Clinton would beat Bush, Sr. After a few interruptions by people asking me what was happening, I learned to contain myself. I was just not used to missing television election coverage.

The long lines I encountered were the result of having too few voting machines at my polling precinct. The reason was surely voter suppression. I had worked all day at a library, which was used as a different precinct where lines were nonexistent. I was not happy to be in a line that ran through the parking lot of the precinct where I had to vote. People would actually drive by the line asking how long we had been waiting and drive off after hearing the answer. Where I had worked, people had voted without a wait.

It was a bit more fun to confirm the rumor in the line that Clinton had been projected our next president. I remember someone interrupting  me yet again. I took my headphones off to say: "Oh yes, they said a few minutes ago that Clinton has won." It was at least another hour before I cast my vote. I don't know how they vote in Montgomery, AL now. We use paper ballots in Opelika, AL and there is no wait here. It is much much much better. I am actually able to plan voting as a small stopoff on the way to work. I can't even begin to imagine the luxury of paper ballots combined with early voting.

In this year's election, there is a different line: Nate Silver's line on the horse-race nonsense that is America's educational tool for whom to choose as president. I now consider Mr. Silver to be one of the few journalists in America, adding him to the column with Rachel Maddow. I made this decision after reading his column this morning, if a blog can now be called a "column." His brilliance is a little subtle but bear with me. Here is the final argument of his piece:
Yes, of course: most of the arguments that the polls are necessarily biased against Mr. Romney reflect little more than wishful thinking.
Nevertheless, these arguments are potentially more intellectually coherent than the ones that propose that the leader in the race is “too close to call.” It isn’t. If the state polls are right, then Mr. Obama will win the Electoral College. If you can’t acknowledge that after a day when Mr. Obama leads 19 out of 20 swing-state polls, then you should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public.
But the state polls may not be right. They could be biased. Based on the historical reliability of polls, we put the chance that they will be biased enough to elect Mr. Romney at 16 percent.
Mr. Silver gives Gov. Mitt Romney a 16% chance of winning and that is almost entirely based upon the possibility of systematic bias in the polls. Here is the key point of this assessment: pundits (as opposed to journalists) who come up with totally fallacious arguments based on one poll or another are just plain wrong. There is very little, if any, evidence that one poll would be correct even as a snapshot in time. Additionally, pundits who now say the race is "too close to call" are merely shilling for their media outlet whether it be on television or otherwise. The polls, when coupled with the electoral college, are very clearly leaning or almost falling over to scream that Obama is likely to win. No, Mr. Silver does not say Mr. Obama will win... and that is a major distinction.

In explaining polls, we usually say they are within a certain percentage of being wrong. The more people you survey and the more random the sample, the more likely that the poll will be right. It could, within that percentage, be wrong. Nate Silver has scientifically calculated that percentage to be 16%, period. Reading the article you must also believe that Nate Silver is using valid methods to aggregate the polls, which I believe he is and want the election to help prove.

By reaching out and attacking the "too close to call" statement (which almost every pundit is now basing their arguments on) Nate Silver is attacking the very heart of punditry. His cold mathematical calculations are exactly what pundits are pretending to go on and on about. If so, they are wrong, It is the idiotic horse-race media show that Mr. Silver is attacking. If you want to use the science of polls, here it is. Splat! Ready to go on to another story like global warming? Well, by all means do that, because unless you want to read out of a statistics textbook, here are the numbers in one fell swoop. [By the way, Nate Silver does a fine job of explaining those statistics textbooks as well.]

So, does it matter which way the results go?  Scientifically speaking...not really. By giving us the actual scientific "line" or odds, Mr. Silver has put his reputation on the "line" which is something the pundits just do not do. And this is why Nate Silver is a true journalist. He has presented the facts as he knows them.

If the election goes to Romney, it might muss up Mr. Silver's reputation a bit, that is, in the eyes of the unscientific. After all, it would have defied the odds. Yes, there is 16% chance of this happening. But will Nate Silver subsequently be correct about the unreliability of polls and punditry based on the polls? Hopefully, yes. In the case of Romney winning, we should be able to prove the polls completely unreliable.  If Mr. Silver is to be believed, polls used by pundits will take a hit if Mr. Romney wins. If Mr. Romney loses, pundits will take a direct hit because they have battled with political science in the form of Nate Silver.

I say Nate Silver is a geek genius until proven otherwise. He already has the creds under his belt. So, if you like geeks over pundits (which surely you do), vote for Barack Obama. If Gov. Romney wins, you never know what strategies the pundits will use to lie their polls into the clear.

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