A Huge Victory for Science, Too

UPDATE: OK, this was so blindingly obvious that half the bloggers and pundits in the world came up with it. Can’t win ’em all.

In the end, my favorite take on it has to be Rachel Maddow’s.

When I say that last night’s events are a huge win for science, I don’t mean that the funding situation is more promising, though of course the result is far more benign for the scientific community than the alternative “tea-party” beholden administration would have been.

I refer rather to the stunning demonstration of the value of quantitative expertise that has been provided by Nate Silver and his critics, and the very impressive demonstration of how people without quantitative skills would be wise to defer to those who have them. This may end up being a consciousness-changing event in the Beltway culture, and it is very much to the advantage not so much of science as an institution nor of science as a body of knowledge, but to the renewed respect for science as a process within the capital culture.

I’m not the only person to notice the similarity between climate denialism and “Nate Silver denialism”. To someone interested in both climate and US politics, it is plain as day. Various tweets confirm. Even Sarcastic Rover gets in on the act. (Lots more where that came from, as a little Twitter searching can easily reveal.) But even though it verges on a ploddingly obvious connection, I can’t resist adding my two cents, since this all was very revealing on some of the key topics that exercise us here. Specifically, why does the press spin climate science and sustainability matters so execrably, and what can we do about it.

Let me offer some background for the apolitical and those watching from a decent distance in other countries.

Nate Silver is a data nerd.

American elections are a delightful field of endeavor for the data nerd, surely unequaled in other countries’ electoral processes. This is attributable to the antiquated and ill-adapted method of voting, wherein the majority in a state, however slim, votes in proportion to the population of their state. (It’s also slightly skewed to the smaller states but that is neither here nor there.) Thus, a presidential election effectively constitutes 50 simultaneous mini-elections with effectively identical choices, among strongly overlapping but hardly identical demographics. Economies of scale appear in the process of public opinion polling. Motivated by the political sector itself, a few organizations conduct such polling.

Because America is a two-party system the dynamics of democracy pull strongly for a very close split. One aspect that is remarkable is how thoroughly polarized these sides have become, but that doesn’t concern the thrust of my argument here. Rather, the point is that we a handful of organizations produce a handful of polls gauging the opinion of 50 otherwise identical elections with a variety of overlapping demographics. Now these polls are noisy. We have been hearing in various states and nationally, it’s Obama, it’s Romney, back and forth. Huge spikes appear even in the individual calculations of a particular state by a particular polling agency. Margins of error are typically quoted as +/- 4% or 5%, and margins of victory in key states are substantially lower than the uncertainty.

That one could obtain a viable prediction from such data is quite a reasonable expectation from those who are familiar with quantitative thinking, but to others who are not, it seems absurd. If you have twenty polls with a five per cent margin of error and an eight percent range, surely combining them makes for a huge 18% uncertainty, which is to say your guess is as good as mine. More to the point, from the professional commentator’s point of view, my guess is at least as good as yours.

The idea that more information is hiding in the copious data than might be casually obvious is anathema to some of them. They didn’t pick political journalism as a career because they enjoy math.


Their defense was simple. Nate Silver, they argue, called 49 out of 50 states correctly in 2008 out of sheer luck. Lots of people made predictions, I suppose, so one of them might just get lucky. There is no reason to make a New York Times blogger out of him for that, no reason to believe that his predictions will hold yet again. Besides, it is more dramatic if Romney has the momentum, which he obviously has, see?

We’re familiar with this at the most rudimentary and empirical levels in climate. I don’t have a good temperature record here and I don’t have a good one there, I hardly have one anywhere. So why am I so sure about the damned hockey stick?

In both the political and climate prognoses, the technical answer is broadly the same. Uncertainties do not add. More information reduces uncertainty. That’s why it’s called information. The set of all polls contains more information than the polls from any individual organization.

C. P. Snow complained a half century ago about the “two cultures” problem in academia; the lack of acculturation among scientists and the lack of rational constraint among liberal arts types. And while it’s true that there’s a fair amount of autism spectrum personality types among scientists (though not as much as among engineers, I’d wager) it turns out to be easier to add culture to a scientific worldview than to add science to a culture-focused one. Some folk just really hate math, and that their bread and butter job can be better done by an algorithm terrifies them. So denial is unsurprising. As Al Gore pointed out in his movie, it’s hard to convince someone of a fact when that person’s livelihood depends on disbelieving it.

Reporters on the science beat seem to feel very much like reporters on the political beat, that it is their job to weigh the evidence and present “narratives” that pass their gut check. The Nate Silver incident gives us another instance where we can watch them fail to identify where the real expertise is, and do so out of loyalty to their own professions rather than to the truth. And besides, looking too carefully just gives them a headache.

Anyway, the point is this is not going away. It really may be a turning point for the injection of objective methods into public discourse, which obviously have been at an appalling low point. How? Well, what about Silver’s final predictions for the 2012 presidential election? Here they are:

He was on the right side of the line on at least 49 out of 50. (Florida was still undecided last I looked.) 50 out of 50. Even Republicans noticed this.

images: Slate, xkcd, Nate Silver’s blog.

UPDATE: Joe Romm makes the connection too, (h/t R L Miller) pointing to this peculiar tweet from David Frum:

but Frum should be cut some slack here. He was being sarcastic.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen points to this remarkable example of strident, willful cluelessness among the old school pundits:

Time magazine’s Joe Klein told POLITICO. “Polling is inexact, especially with the cell phone factor — not enough data over time for pollsters to be absolutely sure they’re getting it right.”

In a column headlined “I don’t know,” Klein wrote earlier this week, “Anyone who claims to know who is going to win is blowing smoke.”

UPDATE: In comments, Dan Olner points to Krugman’s column The War on Objectivity, defending Silver before the outcome was known. Krugman may have been the first to publicly compare Nate Silver denialism with climate denialism among others:

They know, just know, that Nate must be cooking the books. How do they know this? Well, his results look good for Obama, so it must be a cheat. Never mind the fact that Nate tells us all exactly how he does it, and that he hasn’t changed the formula at all.

This is, of course, reminiscent of the attack on the Bureau of Labor Statistics — not to mention the attacks on climate science and much more. On the right, apparently, there is no such thing as an objective calculation. Everything must have a political motive.

This is really scary. It means that if these people triumph, science — or any kind of scholarship — will become impossible. Everything must pass a political test; if it isn’t what the right wants to hear, the messenger is subjected to a smear campaign.

UPDATE: Rachel Maddow makes the point in free verse

UPDATE: Gavin beats me to the punch!

UPDATE: Peter Gleick tweets: the success of @fivethirtyeight is not what makes #climate science right. It would be right even if his projections had been off.

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