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A Method to their Mathlessness

November 7th, 2012 · 22 Comments

I’ll confess, while not particularly invested in the outcome of the presidential race, I shared the amusement of my Democratic friends watching staunch conservative pundits doing their best impression of the former Iraqi information minister in the weeks before the election. We saw a string of prominent conservatives confidently projecting landslide victories for Mitt Romney, and waving aside all the (as we now know, highly accurate) statistical models projecting a solid Obama win on the grounds that “all the vibrations are right” for Republicans. That said, given the role that partisan pundits play, I can’t really say they were wrong to do so. Indeed, the next time the best available models project a clear Republican win, their Democratic counterparts would probably be wise to do at least a little bit of the same thing, and gin up reasons (however spurious) to think the polls got it wrong this time.

Ideally, professional pollsters have no particular agenda beyond accurately forecasting the outcome of a race. But pundits are trying to influence outcomes, and forecasts don’t just predict outcomes, but at least partially help to determine them. There’s plenty of social psychology literature showing bandwagon effects in elections: Voters on the fence often pick the candidate they expect to triumph anyway, because it’s nice to be on the winning side. Campaign workers become demoralized if they think they’re laboring those long hours for a hopeless cause. A 20 percent chance of victory is still a chance, after all, and you don’t want people throwing in the towel prematurely. Here as in many areas of life, when the odds are heavily against you, being a perfectly accurate assessor of your chances can actually make the odds worse. If you are rational, you will want to have some irrational beliefs. So I don’t expect supporters of a candidate who’s unlikely to win on election eve to acknowledge this, any more than I expect the coach of an underdog team to deliver out an honest read of the stats as a pre-game pep talk. We don’t make fun of coaches for this, because we all understand they’re engaged in a bit of socially appropriate bullshitting.

Which is all well and good when it’s just the pep talk—especially on election eve, when it’s too late to alter a losing strategy. The danger, of course, comes when the coaches start believing their own pep-talks—or as Chris Hayes (channeling Biggie) puts it, when you’re actually so high on your own supply that you start rejecting negative information generally, even when adaptation is still an option. One contributor to this is surely the epistemic bubble created by an increasingly complex, interconnected, and self-sufficient conservative media ecosystem. But there are other factors that probably increase the tendency too.

Pundits are most often, at least initially, writers—which is to say, storytellers. So when polls were less frequent, less accurate, and less widely disseminated, it wasn’t much trouble to weave a story about how polling that looks bad for your team has failed to capture some ineffable factor (“the soul… is not so easily number-crunched“) or was conducted too early to account for some supposedly game-changing news story like Benghazi. A compelling storyteller might even feel free to ignore the polls altogether.

Now, though, we’ve got a larger array of polls, as well as increasingly sophisticated tools for aggregating and weighting them in statistical models that can also factor in external data about things like economic performance. Our predictive tools are better, and our media environment guarantees that the outcomes they project will get wide circulation well in advance of the election. A decade ago, it would have seemed bizarre for a statistician to be one of the most controversial and high-profile figures of a presidential campaign, partly because nobody would have found it plausible that race polling roughly even nationally could be called for one candidate at a high degree of confidence weeks in advance. Even if it could, a political media dominated by a few networks and major papers would have found it convenient to give those projections less attention and play up the sexier “dead heat” narrative. Players’ morale aside, nobody much wants to watch a game whose winner is a foregone conclusion either. Ignoring and slapdash storytelling aren’t really viable options anymore.

The thing about pep-talks, especially when you’re not hearing them live from a charismatic speaker in a small room full of comrades, is that they don’t work nearly as well if they’re obviously just pep talks. It is rational to have some irrational beliefs, but it’s more or less definitive of belief that you can’t consciously recognize it as irrational while you hold it. So in an age of modeling, a little offhand bullshit no longer cuts it: Now you need elaborate counter-models, a-la UnskewedPolls, or at least some more facially compelling argument for why all the models are systematically biased and untrustworthy. What was once the self-contained rational irrationality of a few election eve beliefs metastasizes and builds its own supporting superstructure, in much the same way as one lie can give rise to a whole elaborate network of lies designed to cover it. Or, for the logicians, the way the principle of explosion dictates that a set of propositions containing a single contradiction can spawn an infinity of falsehoods. At some point, the cost of this cognitive infection becomes too high, and a bit of rational irrationality becomes plain old irrational. The belief system you have to sustain to maintain your election-day optimism becomes an obstacle to strategic adaptation that might actually justify that optimism.

A resounding electoral defeat focuses the mind wonderfully, though, and while no doubt we’ll see the most thoroughly embubbled floating dark speculations of some massive conspiracy to rig the election, conservatives who don’t like losing are probably going to get a lot less dismissive of statistical modeling pretty quickly. Mocking the scientists is all fun and games when it’s abstract evolutionary theory, but most people don’t want to refuse lifesaving biotechnology. They may also become somewhat more skeptical of large swaths of the conservative media ecosystem whose primary function is not, in fact, to achieve electoral victories, but to attract eyeballs and extract revenue from conservative audiences. Those goals aren’t necessarily complementary: Ideological publications often do better when the other side is on the ascendant.

In the longer term—notwithstanding the massive and massively daunting security and anonymity challenges it poses—the real solution to this tension (and the ludicrous lines at polling places around the country) is an Internet voting system that lets every citizen with a modern phone—or just access to a public library—cast (and change) their ballot anytime between the conventions and “election day” as easily as they’d update a Facebook status or Instagram a kitten. The results probably become obvious a lot quicker—with a bit of volatility as groups voters decide they can individually afford a third-party protest vote, then realize that collectively they can’t—but the cost of action falls so low that morale concerns are far less significant. And on election night, my journalist friends can all begin drinking much earlier.

Tags: Horse Race Politics · Journalism & the Media


       

 

22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeffrey Goldberg // Nov 7, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    I’ve been pondering the same thing. Campaigns have an interest in “managing” expectations of activists and donors.

    But when we see unjustified optimism from outside of a campaign (or affiliate) we have to look for other explanations. One of course, for talking heads is that the more extreme their claim, the more airtime they will get. Also they have little to gain if they make an “average claim” correctly, but if they make a long shot claim correctly, their career is made.

    I also think that there are irrational foundations for the kinds of behavior we see, but as always, we should explore the rational explanations first, and only posit irrationality when there is compelling evidence.

    Cheers,

    -j (not the Atlantic journalist of the same name)

  • 2 Luis // Nov 7, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Julian, a more constructive approach for a smart party, instead of trying to fudge things towards the end, would be to partner with political psychologists to better understand opinion formation – i.e., take a data-driven approach not just to measuring opinions, but to changing them. The seat-of-the-pants approach (with a sprinkling of focus groups) most parties take now isn’t that much different than seat-of-the-pants punditry.

    (Mind you, no science is needed for basic steps in this direction. The Republican party could do worse than reading this Frum tweet, which has no science but does contain a fair bit of common sense.)

  • 3 Infidel Links, Post-Election Thoughts « Infidelworld // Nov 7, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    [...] A Method to their Mathlessness (Julian Sanchez) [...]

  • 4 RobF // Nov 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    This is a superbly insightful post.

  • 5 Why Partisans Can’t Read Polls | The Penn Ave Post // Nov 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    [...] Can’t Read Polls Posted at 12:15 on November 9, 2012 by Andrew Sullivan Julian Sanchez explains: Ideally, professional pollsters have no particular agenda beyond accurately forecasting the [...]

  • 6 Daniel // Nov 9, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Another key issue which doesn’t seem to be discussed is that journalists of every ideological persuasion might have an (understandable) bias towards not saying that one party will definitely win, in part because they’re hedging their bets, but in part because they don’t want to discourage people, either from the winning or the losing party, from voting. This is a sizable difference between Silver’s research on baseball and politics; in the latter, the data assembled affects the voting. Of course that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t assemble the data, but he might want to be mindful of that.

  • 7 BioProf // Nov 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    “Ideally, professional pollsters have no particular agenda beyond accurately forecasting the outcome of a race. ”

    I don’t think this is true, except for the final polls. Every poll is simply a snapshot of what is at a particular time. Some are more in focus than others, but none of them should be seen as predictive. The forecasting comes from aggregators and evaluators like Wang and Silver who use polls as raw data, and, as always, some data is better than others. Their skill is in knowing which is which and weighting the data accordingly.

  • 8 Climate science is Nate Silver and U.S. politics is Karl Rove | Grist // Nov 9, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    [...] In the face of model projections like Silver’s, Jonah Goldberg said that “the soul … is not so easily number-crunched.” David Brooks warned that “experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.” Joe Scarborough said “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue.” Peggy Noonan said that “the vibrations are right” for a Romney win. All sorts of conservative pundits were convinced the Romney campaign just felt like a winner. [...]

  • 9 Climate science is Nate Silver and U.S. politics is Karl Rove | "Global Possibilities" // Nov 9, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    [...] In the face of model projections like Silver’s, Jonah Goldberg said that “the soul … is not so easily number-crunched.” David Brooks warned that “experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.” Joe Scarborough said “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue.” Peggy Noonan said that “the vibrations are right” for a Romney win. All sorts of conservative pundits were convinced the Romney campaign just felt like a winner. [...]

  • 10 Why partisans can’t read polls | Saint Petersblog // Nov 10, 2012 at 6:41 am

    [...] Sanchez explains why partisans can’t read [...]

  • 11 Patrick C // Nov 10, 2012 at 9:59 am

    This section from your post truly sums it up: “Mocking the scientists is all fun and games when it’s abstract evolutionary theory, but most people don’t want to refuse lifesaving biotechnology. They may also become somewhat more skeptical of large swaths of the conservative media ecosystem whose primary function is not, in fact, to achieve electoral victories, but to attract eyeballs and extract revenue from conservative audiences.”
    What’s the term now – “infotainment”? The right has now seen the results of this alternate universe where pretend characters say things just to get paid. The problem is those things have suddenly morphed into “facts”. Karl Rove denying hard math live as the numbers rolled in was sad but incredibly interesting.

  • 12 “La La La I Can’t Hear You” Comes Home to Haunt GOP, in the Election, and on Climate « Climate Denial Crock of the Week // Nov 12, 2012 at 9:45 am

    [...] Dave Roberts in Grist: In the face of model projections like Silver’s, Jonah Goldberg said that “the soul … is not so easily number-crunched.” David Brooks warnedthat “experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.” Joe Scarborough said “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue.” Peggy Noonan said that “the vibrations are right” for a Romney win. All sorts of conservative pundits were convinced the Romney campaign just felt like a winner. [...]

  • 13 Climate science is Nate Silver and U.S. politics is Karl Rove… « UKIAH BLOG // Nov 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    [...] In the face of model projections like Silver’s, Jonah Goldberg said that “the soul … is not so easily number-crunched.” David Brooks warned that “experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.” Joe Scarborough said “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue.” Peggy Noonan said that “the vibrations are right” for a Romney win. All sorts of conservative pundits were convinced the Romney campaign just felt like a winner. [...]

  • 14 The power of consequences « Learning from Dogs // Nov 14, 2012 at 3:06 am

    [...] Dave Roberts in Grist: In the face of model projections like Silver’s, Jonah Goldberg said that “the soul … is not so easily number-crunched.” David Brooks warnedthat “experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.” Joe Scarborough said “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue.” Peggy Noonan said that “the vibrations are right” for a Romney win. All sorts of conservative pundits were convinced the Romney campaign just felt like a winner. [...]

  • 15 DavidT // Nov 18, 2012 at 11:51 am

    “Indeed, the next time the best available models project a clear Republican win, their Democratic counterparts would probably be wise to do at least a little bit of the same thing, and gin up reasons (however spurious) to think the polls got it wrong this time.”

    That’s exactly what they did in 2004. The polls giving Bush a slight lead over Kerry couldn’t be trusted, Democrats argued (though I’m not sure if they used the word “skewed) because they gave an equal number of self-identified Democrats and Republicans. That *couldn’t* be right, because for decades Democrats had outnumbered Republicans (even in years the GOP won). Party ID, they argued, while not as unchangeable as race or gender, changes very slowly. So pollsters should weight for party, and if they did, Kerry would be ahead.

    Of course Bush won, and the exit polls found–surprise!– self-identified Democrats and Republicans roughly equal in number.

  • 16 Bob Macrae // Nov 25, 2012 at 3:55 am

    First rate assessment of the conditions surrounding the election bs quotients. There does seem, in retrospect (by many considered the best “spect”) a difference in dem response in 2004. Given the courts Bush v Gore decision method of just stopping the count the dems had at least a better than even chance of being right.

  • 17 Paul Harrison // Dec 3, 2012 at 3:34 am

    Jeez, you USA folk are so cheap. A proper election is done on paper. Why? Paper allows scrutineering. It allows an election result that can be trusted.

    A computer can not be scrutineered. Trust me, I’m a computer scientist. A computer is a device for showing you elaborate fictions. There are no files in your computer, there are no folders, there are no buttons on the screen to press, there is just an elaborate system to display colored pixels in a certain arrangement. That funny video where the guy presses candidate A and the computer selects candidate B? That’s not how a fixed computer works. The computer simply appears to work correctly, then reports the numbers it has been programmed to. Then it deletes all trace of tampering from itself. This is *easy*. Get it?

    You can afford, as a nation, to take the day off to vote in properly manned polling stations. Other countries such as my own, Australia, manage it without any problems. The (small) expense is worthwhile.

    Oh yeah, and we do this with a preferential voting system.

  • 18 Michael Howe // Dec 4, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    I only really started paying attention when you said “And on election night, my journalist friends can all begin drinking much earlier.” But I think there was some sense prior to this statement.

  • 19 Barr // Jan 14, 2013 at 9:46 am

    Julian, one thing that you miss is the IMHO, pundits are generally wrong. By now, it’s clear that most are paid to be wrong.

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