Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The election is over and numbers mean something

And the winner is ...
Today, for obvious reasons, we're taking a bit of a detour. I trust you'll indulge me in a bit of a personal entry today.

Well, the election is over and Obama has won. Though the popular vote was close, Obama won decisively, thanks to the anachronism known as th electoral college.

Four years ago I was working for the BBC and living in London. When Obama was elected I walked into my office and many people were congratulating me. The exultation over Obama's win was overpowering. I don't think it's much of a secret to reader's of the blog that I preferred Obama to Romney for this electio but I must confess that I don't think much is likely to change in the US. There will still be a right-wing and far-right-wing party. Money will still dominate politics. The structural problems which led to the financial collapse largely remain.

After many years abroad it's harder for me to get excited about US elections. It's not that I don't care, but the election fever which swept the US didn't sweep France. Thus, I wasn't constantly inundated with news, though I kept track. Unlike many in the US, though, I wasn't terribly worried about the outcome because from my point of view, there was one bright spot: Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog.

I suppose it's possible that you've been living in a cave (but how would you be reading this?), but Nate Silver's blog is dynamite. He burst onto the scene back in 2008 and used statistics to predict who was going to win the presidential election. Not only did he correctly predict 49 out of 50 state's Presidential election results, he also correctly predicted every Senate race that year. He's also written The Signal and the Noise, a book explaining how he makes these amazing predictions.

This year Nate Silver has done it again. He not only correctly predicted the presidential election (and has been fairly consistent in explaining why Obama was going to win), but it looks like he nailed the Senate races, too. What I find frustrating, though, is that he's not doing anything particularly remarkable. Many others have used the same methodology to make similar predictions: he's just managed to get noticed doing it. While I'm happy that people are paying more attention, it's frustrating that it's taking so long for people to wake up the fact that data works better than hunches.

If you're not interested in Nate Silver's book, I recommend reading Super Crunchers. Published back in 2007, this book breaks down exactly how many fields can use statistics to make accurate predictions about things that people assumed "experts" were needed for. It's a perfect follow up to Freakanomics. It's not math-heavy but, like Nate Silver's blog, the subject matter angers a lot of people by showing that math can trump intuition. In fact, many conservatives lashed out at Nate Silver, often claiming that he's partisan, or that that he doesn't understand how polling really works.

Given that he has, again, proven so successful, I wonder if the media might start cottoning on to the fact that numbers actually mean something. I doubt it, but it would be nice to see.


  1. Tonight was a triumph for the math nerds as well.

  2. I would like to thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for this victory.

  3. People don’t keep tuning back in to get the latest news on a foregone conclusion. And it is hard to make a man understand something when his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.

    Funny you’re still tagging things with that tag, btw. :-) I never did end up filtering on it because you had fallen out of the habit of these “nothing to post/cannot post today” filler entries by the time you started tagging them, and fell into into the natural blogging rhythm of just posting whenever. (Maybe, in spite of how annoying them may have been to some of readers (assuming I am not unique), they were actually necessary at the time to sustain interest, but have served their purpose now that you have built a body of content. It’s a hypothesis, at least…)

    1. People don’t keep tuning back in to get the latest news on a foregone conclusion.

      If the media had correctly reported a couple of months ago that Romney was losing badly, his campaign would have changed its behavior. Even if you argue that the Romney campaign already knew they were losing badly, those outside the campaign clearly did not and they would have demanded, and received, said change. The "foregone conclusion" could have a dramatic impact on politics.