Friday, November 09, 2012

A win for Nate. A win for reality.


And boy has there been an assault on reality.

In his Andrew Olle lecture Friday night ABC broadcaster Mark Colvin described what's been happening this way:

"I'm talking about the way people can create their own reality stream.

It's particularly far advanced in America, because a quarter of a century ago they abandoned the fairness doctrine, a federal regulation which mandated a degree of balance on the airwaves.

So now you can run a creationist channel that rigorously excludes Darwinists from the airwaves - you can say again and again that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and refuse even to look at the documentary evidence, and so on.

In 2004, the writer Ron Suskind wrote a famous piece in which he quoted a Bush aide - reliably believed to be Karl Rove - as follows:

"The aide said", wrote Suskind, "that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality judiciously, as you will we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors;and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

I imagine most of us here tonight would categorise ourselves as the reality based community, but we too are beleaguered."

New York Times data geek Nate Silver was feeling beleaguered.

A few days back Paul Krugman took up his story:

"For those new to this, Nate is a sports statistician turned political statistician, who has been maintaining a model that takes lots and lots of polling data — most of it at the state level, which is where the presidency gets decided — and converts it into election odds. Like others doing similar exercises Nate’s model continued to show an Obama edge even after Denver, and has shown that edge widening over the past couple of weeks.

This could be wrong, obviously. And we’ll find out on Election Day. But the methodology has been very clear, and all the election modelers have been faithful to their models, letting the numbers fall where they may.

Yet the right — and we’re not talking about the fringe here, we’re talking about mainstream commentators and publications — has been screaming “bias”! 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."

Nate - for the most part - failed to strike back, or back away from his assessment (one arrived at by calculations rather than judgments by the way, like in Moneyball).

The end result? Darn near exactly what he predicted:

Reality (specifically, data) triumphed over people who preferred to choose their reality.

As Jon Stewart said last night: "This was the historic election between arithmetic, and belief. And belief wasn’t going down without a fight."

Watch the full eight minutes. It's worth it.

Essential reading:

. The war on Nate Silver, the after-action report - Brad DeLong

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