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Nov 08 2012

The Clear Liberal Bias of Math

Perhaps the most deliciously ironic element of the election was watching all the wingnuts convince themselves that Nate Silver (always him and not Nate Cohn, Sam Wang or anyone else for some reason) was using mathematical voodoo to make it falsely look like Obama was winning and then watch him be almost dead on in his projections. On Facebook, someone said, “After tonight, Nate Silver now has the right to end every sentence with the word ‘motherfuckers.’”

In reality, Silver called every swing state correctly, 9 for 9. And when all the votes are counted, he’ll be off on the popular vote by .3% or so. And just as Silver said, Gallup and Rasmussen were way off. Not a bad track record, especially after his equally accurate projections in 2008 and 2010. In fact, all of the major poll aggregators and analysts were damn close in their projections. I guess math actually works, eh?

Drew Chambers of Unskewed Polls went into almost total radio silence on election night. Nothing on Twitter, no updates to his site, nothing. To be fair, he’s probably busy working on unskewedelections.com, where he’ll explain that if you unskew the votes by reducing Democrats by 5% and boosting Republicans by 5%, Romney really won and is now the true president. Come out, come out wherever you are, Dean. You can’t hide forever. You’re going to have to admit that the “thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice” just showed how irrational and delusional you were all alone.

Here’s the punchline: The morning after the election, Jonah Goldberg published an article complaining about Silver’s “numbers racket.”

Now, I have no idea whether Silver’s model is the psephological Rosetta Stone some hope — or fear — it to be. And no one else does either.

The truth is that any statistician can build a model. They do it all the time. They make assumptions about the electorate, assign weights to polls and economic indicators, etc., and then they wait for the sausage to come out. No doubt some models are better than others, and some models are simply better for a while and then regress to the mean. But ultimately, the numbers are dependent on the values you place on them. As the computer programmers like to say, garbage in, garbage out.

I’m not saying Silver’s just lucky or shoveling garbage. He’s a serious numbers guy. But so are the folks at the University of Colorado’s political science department whose own model is based on economic indicators. Its Oct. 4 findings predicted Romney would win, as did many other models.

They couldn’t all be right.

Actually, we do know, Jonah. We know because he’s been right every time so far. And for you to publish this after he was proven right and all those right wingers who’ve been criticizing him were proven wrong is taking the idea of ducking into the punch to a whole new level.

37 comments

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  1. 1
    dingojack

    Since Jonah Goldberg seems piss-poor at psephology, perhaps he should be ostracised.
    Dingo

  2. 2
    marcus

    You fucking go Nate! And… He has a book! Which I’m sure along the way demonstrates why Goldberg is a shithead and why the U of C didn’t get it right. I just started it myself. It’s called “the signal and the noise, why so many predictions fail- but some don’t”. Find it at your local independent bookstore (please). Take that motherfuckers!

  3. 3
    Sastra

    You’re going to have to admit that the “thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice” just showed how irrational and delusional you were all along.

    Ok, just my personal preference here, but I do think that’s the kind of voice which says “motherfuckers” the best.

  4. 4
    eric

    I guess math actually works, eh?

    Yup, as the Daily Show (and probably lots of other wags) have put it: the election results are in, and statistics beat punditry in a landslide victory.

    Not being one for a lot of swearing, I think Silver could go a bit more understated than just calling his critics mfs. Just walk around with a shirt that says “Who’s your Daddy?” for a few days. :)

  5. 5
    Didaktylos

    It’s all because the voter suppression operations were a resounding failure …

  6. 6
    Bronze Dog

    My brother’s taking a statistics course this semester and he’s been on Fark, trying to teach some trolls what probability means. Even if probability favored Romney this one time, that wouldn’t prove Silver’s methodology wrong. It’d take multiple trials, and if the results didn’t conform to the general odds when viewed as a whole, then there’d be cause to say he’s wrong. F[rell]ing statisticals, how do they work?

    It seems American society is getting steadily more innumerate.

  7. 7
    sailor1031

    “’m not saying Silver’s just lucky or shoveling garbage. He’s a serious numbers guy. But so are the folks at the University of Colorado’s political science department whose own model is based on economic indicators.”

    How long will it be, do you think, before the ‘folks at the University of Colorado’ give up their obviously flawed models? Wanna bet they’re still pushing them in 2016?

  8. 8
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Garbage out.
    Garbage out.
    Garbage out.
    Garbage out.
    I’m not saying anything meaningful.
    Garbage out!

  9. 9
    tbp1

    Glad to see most of the comments over there rake Goldberg over the coals.

  10. 10
    dingojack

    F – nice to see you’re emulating the ‘brightest’ and the ‘best’ of the RW pundits, then.
    :D Dingo

  11. 11
    dave

    If youre not aware of it, the hashtag #natesilverfacts is pretty hillarious. Essentially Chuck Norris jokes for the geek-set.

  12. 12
    glodson

    Nate Silver, and all the other guys that used math to make highly accurate predictions based on sound principals, should do a victory lap around the Fox News studios. They deserve it.

  13. 13
    garnetstar

    Didaktylos @5 is right. Here’s Chambers agreeing.

    Although he calls it “my belief that a nearly equal percentage of Democrats and Republicans would turn out in the actual election this year”, what he means is that he was counting on “five or six or seven percent” of Democratic voters being disenfranchised.

  14. 14
    hunter

    1) Goldberg is a proven idiot.

    2) Dogpile on Silver from the right because he’s gay.

  15. 15
    Reginald Selkirk

    Of course maths are liberal – all that integration going on.

  16. 16
    Reginald Selkirk

    Top 25 Nate Silver Facts
    Some of these are pretty good.

    Nate Silver threw a grenade and killed 50 people, then it exploded.

  17. 17
    Area Man

    I’m not saying Silver’s just lucky or shoveling garbage. He’s a serious numbers guy. But so are the folks at the University of Colorado’s political science department whose own model is based on economic indicators. Its Oct. 4 findings predicted Romney would win, as did many other models.

    I’m not sure if Goldberg understands that bad models produce bad results, and good ones produce good results. It is not a legitimate critique of Silver to point out that someone else had a model that didn’t work well. This is reminiscent of climate change denialists (usually the same people here) who dismiss future predictions of temperature change merely on the basis that they’re generated by “computer models”. They are convinced that this alone is reason to ignore them without any attempt to show why any particular model is wrong.

    For what it’s worth, the UC guys were not relying (at least primarily) on polling data. They went looking for economic correlates over the last several elections, which creates the obvious possibility of over-fitting. If they’re serious academics, and I’m sure they are, they’ll be ditching that model. All the models based on poll aggregates (that didn’t try to unskew them) were highly accurate.

  18. 18
    tassilo

    Over on Real Climate, there is an interesting post (http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2012/11/trying-to-shoot-the-messenger/)comparing attacks on Nate Silver’s projections with attacks on climate science. They have been enduring a barrage of number illiterate attacks, from the same sources, for years. As they say in the post, Nate Silver was vindicated in a day, global warming will take a little longer.

    Btw, the CU Boulder folks seemed no more dogmatic about their model than Nate Silver was about his, and I’m fairly sure they don’t have a political ax to grind. They acknowledged from the start their model could be wrong. Model runs were calibrated with data from previous elections, but there was not ever a guarantee that it would accurately predict the outcome of this one.

  19. 19
    Michael Heath

    For a taste of secular conservative authoritarian thinking, it’s fun to peruse the comment posts at the Wall Street Journal. One could build a decent defense that perhaps it isn’t religious thinking that makes people incapable of coherency, but instead authoritarian thinking. [I know, these two are not mutually exclusive.]

    I bring this up here because the pre-election articles on the polls had those WSJ commenters not only criticizing liberals like Nate Silver, but also claiming that the Wall Street Journal and Fox News were rigging their polls. That both were also participating in a liberal conspiracy to help President Obama get reelected.

    At least religious conservatives get some bliss via their fantasies, but the crowd at the WSJ is just plain bitter and hateful.

  20. 20
    scienceavenger

    The UC model was a joke from the start. It had Romney winning Minnesota but losing Nevada. Not in a hundred years. I offerred every GOPer that forwarded me that crap a 10:1 bet against it happening. I got no takers.

  21. 21
    umlud

    What I like about Nate Silver’s 538 blog is that he is pretty open about discussing topics of polling bias and how to deal with it. I’m not certain, but it seems that his style of statistics is (or is similar to) Baysian statistics, and – as such – it really isn’t the same kettle of fish that Goldberg is talking (out of his ass) about.

    If Silver does use Baysian statistics (and it seems like he is and that he’s using it correctly), then comparing it to more standard methods of statistics is akin to comparing apples to cherries: both are fruit, both grow on trees, both are red (or have varietals that are red), both make tasty pies, and both are major cash crops in Washington. However, beyond those points, there is little (credible) comparison that one can make between the two. Seems to me that Goldberg (and so many so-called pundits) need to actually learn what statistical methods actually are, how different methods deal with problems of bias, how surveys done over time are assessed differently than a single survey, etc.

    The only major problem that I see with things like this is that, if people start to really pay attention to sites like the 538 blog, then that large-scale inspection of polls will then cause a skew in the polls, thus reducing the reliability of the polls (and possibly the assessment of the polls).

  22. 22
    laurentweppe

    The truth is that any statistician can build a model

    Yeah and any bricklayer can biuld a wall.
    The point is that you’re neither a bricklayer nor a statistician, so you refrain from pretending you have any expertise in walls or statistical models, Jonah.

  23. 23
    DaveL

    But so are the folks at the University of Colorado’s political science department whose own model is based on economic indicators. Its Oct. 4 findings predicted Romney would win, as did many other models.

    Are we supposed to be surprised that a model based on asking people whom they’re going to vote for, and adjusting those polls depending on how accurate they’ve been in the past, turned out to be more accurate than a model that measures things not directly related to voting?

  24. 24
    umlud

    Of course maths are liberal – all that integration going on.

    But it can also be conservative, I mean look at all that differentiation! And we know that everyone is susceptible to imaginary numbers… After all, knowing how to distribute who is rational or irrational is sometimes difficult, but I think that this is – at its root – a product of the divisions that have become constants. In some ways, this is now a simplified political world: the GOP are reaching a demographic limit, based on their axioms and proofs of being a “real American”. That set of people has reached its maximum, and – unless they can change their identity – their dimensionality is only going to shrink to non-significance.

    ;-)

  25. 25
    yoav

    In an unpredicted attack of journalism Fix Noise host Megyn Kelly asked Karl Rove if he wasn’t just using math, as a Republican, to “make himself feel better.

  26. 26
    Chiroptera

    umlud, #24: After all, knowing how to distribute who is rational or irrational is sometimes difficult….

    We’re doomed. However many rational people there are, the set of irrationals has a greater cardinality.

  27. 27
    bksea

    I have this vision that all the right wingers have a tattered copy of The Secret on their bookshelves. They think they can change the polls by wishing them to be different.

  28. 28
    cjcolucci

    laurentweppe makes an important point. To the extent that what Goldberg says is true — and taken in isolation (which would include forgetting that this is Jonah Fucking Goldberg), there would much to be said for it — there’s simply nothing for Goldberg to say. Serious numbers guys build lots of models. Some work better than others. What works now might not work later. Goldberg, however, can’t shed any light on the subject. So why is he wasting his time and ours?

  29. 29
    iknklast

    Didn’t you know, math’s always correct when you’re adding the ages of prophets to predict the age of the earth; it’s wrong when you’re predicting the ‘wrong’ person will win the election.

  30. 30
    baal

    “using mathematical voodoo” <– For people who don't actually understand Science or math (or reality as a concept for that matter); it can seem an awful lot like magic especially when you can state something with certainty when it looks like that item is in the 'could go either way' category. Every now and then I find myself saying, "you know, that is knowable" or "that isn't a knowable".

    TL;DR – Science is the best magic.

  31. 31
    umlud

    Chiroptera @24: I didn’t know that theorem. Sounds sound, though. :D

  32. 32
    gwangung

    Serious numbers guys build lots of models. Some work better than others. What works now might not work later.

    Yup. And if you know the models well and why they work the way they do, you could predict what factors cause them to be better or worse.

    Of course, that takes a little science and math……

  33. 33
    Ichthyic

    Gallup and Rasmussen were way off.

    I’m going to remember that.

    I’ve often relied on Gallup poll data.

    now I will always be highly suspicious of it.

  34. 34
    Nibi

    Reginald Selkirk

    Of course maths are liberal – all that integration going on.

    And, even worse, homomorphisms.

  35. 35
    alwayscurious

    But so are the folks at the University of Colorado’s political science department whose own model is based on economic indicators. Its Oct. 4 findings predicted Romney would win, as did many other models.

    People vote on more than just economic indicators!?! Is this truly news to anybody?

    The warning flags were out about Gallup two weeks before the election. Most of the articles I read weren’t very informative, but basically of the tone that Gallup was more likely wrong than prophetic. And as a result, would likely be changing their algorithm as soon as they figure out how it went wrong.

  36. 36
    blf

    And we mathematicans commute using a “secret” language, like
       ∀μ, μ ∉ ℜ, ℱυ∑ⲕ(μ)
    where ℜ is reality.

    (Apologies to those whose installed fonts aren’t sufficiently rich…)

  37. 37
    zippythepinhead

    What was most fascinating about Nate’s data is that he was able to put a probability of winning any particular state. With that data (and assuming it is correct) it is straightforward to create a probability distribution of electoral votes. That is a fundamentally powerful statistical method that most people won’t get who aren’t math inclined. It is that distribution that predicted Obama had a 97% chance of winning more than 270 EV. My own calculation on election day confirmed that and said that Obama had a 50% chance of winning more than 315 EV, which ultimately he did.

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