Last week’s election produced some some encouraging developments for civil rights and liberties. Most of the candidates who made disgusting comments about rape lost their races. Gay marriage was passed through ballot initiatives in several states, and the first openly gay Senator and bisexual Representative were elected. (Krysten Sinema, the bisexual Representative, was also thought to be congress’s only “out” atheist, but she recently rejected that label.) Marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Washington. Here in Maryland, casino poker was legalized and undocumented immigrants were given access to funding in state schools.
By far my favorite development, however, was the triumph of Nate Silver and other political “quants” over the traditional political pundits. In other words: the triumph of skepticism and rationality over bias and propaganda. The triumph of thinking with your brain instead of your gut. The triumph of honest analysis over hopeful analysis (often indistinguishable from lying). The most important part of this story is that the media ate it up and reported it with a gusto, making it one of the central stories of the election’s aftermath. The conservative media dug their own grave by setting the election up as a referendum on empirical prognosticators like Silver, and left-leaning pundits have been rejoicing in this landslide for NateSilver and rationalism. We saw many high-profile conservative pundits, notably David Brooks and Peggy Noonan, using their condescending rhetoric in embarrassing attempts to poopoo Silver’s brand of rational prognostication and replace it with their own crystal-ball “analyses”, followed by the most devastating imaginable outcome on election day. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
Beyond the pure, simple joy at seeing pompous pundits humiliated (don’t worry about them, they won’t miss a step), the reason I’m so happy about this is that it has the potential to move the culture towards becoming more rational. In particular, I think Americans may become more skeptical of pundits who are telling them what they want to hear and more amenable to objective analysis. (For an excellent take on how this all relates to climate change policy in particular, I highly recommend this post by David Roberts.) Sure, the Confirmation Bias means that it will be damn hard to bring people over to the side of objectivity, but this was a particularly spectacular rout. There was even an apology from Dean Chambers, the right-wing’s foil to Silver, for his misguided analysis on the “Unskewed Polls” website. There’s consternation among conservatives that the Romney campaign bought into the bad projections and thus failed to devise an appropriate campaign strategy. All in all, it would be tough to have followed this story since before the election and be left entirely unswayed. Here’s hoping it left an impression on the American psyche.
The magnitude of the “win” by Nate Silver and other poll aggregators reminds me of the part in Moneyball where the A’s win something like twenty-two games in a row and it attracts all sorts of media attention. Billy Beane and the A’s had confidence in their methodology and believed that it was the best way to help them win games, but the spectacular nature of the result was something they never could have predicted. The same thing happened on election night with Nate Silver’s projections. In the end, it was pure luck that made it such a big story. (Silver’s own model predicted only about a 20% chance of a perfect 50/50 state projection.) The irony is really quite rich: the rationalists, whose rejection of any reliance on luck is central to their worldview, ended up benefiting from tremendous amounts of it in order to sway public opinion to their mode of thinking. However, it’s also a bit sad to have it confirmed that the public is still swayed more by haphazard events (like an election result) than by skeptical argument. I hope that will be changing.
I also hope that this election will usher in a new era of rational punditry, just as the Moneyball story ushered in a new era of rational analysis in Major League Baseball.
I think it bears mentioning that Nate Silver’s baseball analysis played a significant role in my personal interest in skepticism before I knew that such a movement existed. As an avid Fantasy Baseball participant, I consumed quite a bit of baseball analysis from all sorts of sources in the late 1990′s. Around then, I found a site called Baseball Prospectus. Baseball Prospectus was a revelation: they provided opinions about baseball backed up with evidence and statistical analysis. Their opinions were right. No more wasting my time with the opinions of the windbags on ESPN and the pages of The Sporting News! All I needed to do was look at Baseball Prospectus (plus Rob Neyer and a few other skeptical sources.) Before long, Baseball Prospectus began publishing one “Nate Silver”‘s player projections on their site, and Nate soon became my favorite writer for that website. I won most of those seasons of Fantasy Baseball, and it was not long before I began noticing the value of this same process in many other endeavors: the faster you can separate the skeptics from the windbags, the faster you can find truth. (In competitions like Fantasy Baseball and poker, this translates to gaining an edge on your opponents.) This process, I later learned, is the essence of Skepticism.
Given his role in my introduction to the skeptic/rationalist movement, it seems only fitting to me that Nate Silver should be the new standard bearer for Rationality in the public eye.
Oh, man. I just checked the Bestsellers on Amazon. At first I was pleased to see Silver’s The Signal and the Noise up there at #6… but Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly both have books ahead of him on the list. Well, at least this means I don’t have to worry about there being a steady supply of suckers to beat at the poker tables! (1461)