revenge of the nerds

I had jotted down a few points of what I'd hoped to be a short post on the bizarre backlash against Nate Silver, but Ezra Klein has already made every single point I'd wanted to make. So, over to you, Ezra:
If Mitt Romney wins on election day, it doesn’t mean Silver’s model was wrong. After all, the model has been fluctuating between giving Romney a 25 percent and 40 percent chance of winning the election. That’s a pretty good chance! If you told me I had a 35 percent chance of winning a million dollars tomorrow, I’d be excited. And if I won the money, I wouldn’t turn around and tell you your information was wrong. I’d still have no evidence I’d ever had anything more than a 35 percent chance.
I wouldn't get on a plane if you told me it had a 25% chance of crashing, either. Would you?

Also, this:
The answer to this is simple enough: If Silver’s model is systematically biased, there’s a market opportunity for anyone who wants to build a better model. That person would stand to gain hugely if they outpredicted punditry’s reigning forecaster (not to mention all the betting markets and all the other forecasters). The math behind what Silver is doing isn’t that complicated and the polls are easily available.
If you sincerely believe that numbers guys are actually just in the can for Obama, get thyself over to Intrade and put your money where your mouth is. If you buy shares in Romney right now at ~$3.66, you can nearly triple your money by this time next week if he wins.

Funny how nobody seems to be doing enough of that to move the prediction markets further away from Silver et al.

Finally, a little self-awareness from Mr. Klein:
Come to think of it, a lot of the odder critiques of Silver have been coming out of Politico. But that makes a kind of sense. Silver’s work poses a threat to more traditional — and, in particular, to more excitable — forms of political punditry and horse-race journalism.

If you had to distill the work of a political pundit down to a single question, you’d have to pick the perennial “who will win the election?” During election years, that’s the question at the base of most careers in punditry, almost all cable news appearances, and most A1 news articles. Traditionally, we’ve answered that question by drawing on some combination of experience, intuition, reporting and polls. Now Silver — and Silver’s  imitators and political scientists — are taking that question away from us. It would be shocking if the profession didn’t try and defend itself.


Mr. D said...

I think "backlash" is overstating the case. I think Silver's problem isn't with his model as much as it is with the general unreliability of polling data generally these days. It's possible that, to use an example from today, that Ohio's electorate is D +8, but that seems wildly implausible. If it turns out that I'm wrong, I'll be the first to admit as much.

The larger issue to me, and the reason I think Obama is actually in trouble, is the behavior of the campaigns. The Obama campaign has been flailing, to borrow RW's fave term, ever since the first debate. Romney's campaign is moving into states that were supposedly locked up for Obama a long time ago (PA, MN, even OR). Perhaps Romney is delusional, but I kinda doubt it.

I've been watching political campaigns since I was a kid in 1972. I've seen how losing campaigns comport themselves, and Obama's team is comporting itself in a manner that is reminiscent of Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1992. The result will likely be closer than those two elections turned out to be, but I'd be very surprised if Obama pulls it out. The enthusiasm is all on the Republican side right now.

Mr. D said...

In other words, I'm skeptical that "Silver — and Silver’s imitators and political scientists — are taking that question away from us."

Brian said...

Well, the way I see it, Silver's (apparently radical) approach to predicting who people are going to vote for is...looking at every possible data set asking people who they are going to vote for.

He nailed it last time around. If he does it again, a lot of people who run their mouths for a living--and who base their predictions on things like their memories and impressions of campaigns past, intangibles like "enthusiasm", etc.--are going to have to contend with the fact that their intuitions just don't seem to matter very much. And there will be strong empirical evidence of that.

Of course, Silver has actually already documented the fact that pundits aren't very good at what they do, which I imagine drives an awful lot of resentment from those quarters.

Mr. D said...

Guess we'll find out on Tuesday, good sir.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

I don't have a particular beef with Silver himself; he can do what he thinks best. But the adulation that I've seen showered on him is just a little strange. I've seen people citing him as if what he says settles the matter. Not as if he's a good pollster, but as if he is "THE" authority, the immovable object and the irresistible force all wrapped up in one. It seems less about empiricism and more about appeal to authority. That's my take at least.