The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

My Beer vs. Nate Silver’s Two Beers

Posted on | October 20, 2012 | 20 Comments

Politics is a lot like pro football — it’s always more interesting if you’ve got money riding on the outcome. I don’t know if Hugh Hewitt is much of a football fan, but if he’s a gambler and you’re an Obama supporter, Hugh’s talk of the “ongoing collapse of President Obama’s campaign” identifies Hewitt as an easy mark. (Make him give you a point-spread.)

On the other hand, if Hugh wanted to clean up by making sucker bets with Obamabots, Nate Silver looks like a gold-plated chump. Nate’s Incredible Genius Forecasting Model™ was giving better than 2-to-1 odds for Obama as of Friday, so that Hewitt could bet $100 against Silver’s $200, if either of them was willing to put his money where his mouth is.

Some friends and I have been having an e-mail conversation about Nate Silver, and one of my friends — with a graduate degree in political philosophy — name-checked Richard Rorty in the discussion. (Show-off!) This required a response from the Hayekian Public Intellectual™, and here’s what I wrote:

Rather than invoking Rorty, I think that the basic problem is Hayekian. Like economic “planners,” Silver succumbs to the illusion of expertise and is seduced by the apparent exactitude of data, so that the Forecasting Model becomes a sort of Five-Year Plan. Silver’s method fails to compensate for situations (not really that rare in politics) where unexpected events falsify the predictive value of polling. Remember that we are talking about the opinions of fallible human beings en masse, as opposed to the behavior of a select group of professional athletes, which is why Sabremetrics cannot be too much help in predicting how the polls will shift in response to events that could not have been anticipated:

  1.  The multilayered fuck-up in Benghazi.
  2. An utterly lopsided victory by Romney in the first debate.

If you’ll go look at the RCP national average, you will notice that Obama’s lead was already starting to slip a few days before the first debate. I interpret that as the first glimmerings of a Benghazi backlash, and Romney’s Godzilla-stomps-Tokyo act in the first debate (which exceeded the expectations of even Mitt’s most enthusiastic supporters) accelerated that trend. We don’t really know how far that trend may go, but the fact that Ryan made a campaign stop in Pittsburgh yesterday is kind of a hint that Team Mitt thinks it might go pretty damned far. I’m willing to say, “I don’t know,” and concede the possibility that Obama might yet find a way to pull out a win.
Nate, however, has the burden of expertise obtained through his statistical fluency, and he can’t just throw out an anecdotal gut hunch: “Hey, this Benghazi mess might turn into a sucking chest wound for Obama if he’s not careful,” or: “Watch out for that Romney in debate — he’s a crafty weasel.” Or even: “Hey, y’know, maybe swing voters in Iowa are a bunch of closet racists who have just been waiting for a plausible excuse not to like Obama any more.”
Finally, I will once more repeat: Polls are a lagging indicator. When a game-changing moment happens, it may take a week or two for the polls to fully reflect the extent of the shift. And the 90% refusal factor means that the margin of error could either (a) hide the magnitude of the shift, or (b) exaggerate the shift.
It’s Hayekian, as I say, because there is no reliable way for the “expert” to discern which data inputs are most accurate and which are anomalous outliers.
My gut-hunch is that Silver’s 70% confidence in Obama’s re-election is about 180 degrees opposite of the true state of the race. Silver is a statistician who trusts his data, however, and he has no reason to trust my gut-hunch. So all we can do is wait and see. But if Nate wants to give me 2-to-1 odds, I’d happily bet a beer against his two beers.
– RSM
P.S.: I still owe John Fund a beer because Christine O’Donnell lost, that no-good witch!

Just kidding about that “witch” thing, Christine. Nobody ever listens to my advice, so no hard feelings, OK?

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Comments

  • Adobe_Walls

    The 90% refusal includes about 40% who don’t answer the phone leaving 50 plus who won’t talk to pollsters and about 9% who will. Isn’t that 9% a unique subset of the population? If only 9% talk to the pollster what percentage of them are likely voters? Yet an even uniquer subset of the population? Isn’t it possible that 9% of the population really enjoy or even have a pathological need to lie to pollsters?

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  • http://twitter.com/thatMrGguy Mike G.

    I’d ask for at least 3-1.

  • JeffS

    Whenever people start arguing the validity of a statistical analysis, I remind myself of the old adage, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

    This is one such case. Nate Silver appears to be assuming a linear model (“linear regression”, if you want to be fussy about the jargon) of some sort to predict dynamic human interaction and decision making. Or at least a non-linear regression that contains variables that can be measured to some degree of acceptable accuracy.

    Stacy, you are effectively saying that dynamic human interaction and decision making is probably non-linear, perhaps with variables that are difficult (if not impossible) to capture accurately as some sort of metric. Hence your “gut hunch” (a/k/a/ intuition), validated by looking at trends, rather than straight predictions from a questionable statistical analysis.

    Intuition can be a far more accurate means of assessing outcomes, especially if the person in question has a reasonable grasp of the dynamics in question. This, I suspect, is how professional gamblers make their living.

    While we really won’t know until the votes are counted (assuming
    there is no massive voter fraud), the evidence leans towards Nate would
    have been better off sticking with sports. I’ll take intuition over a clever computer model any day.

    If Nate takes you up on that bet, put me down for $50.

  • http://theothermccain.com smitty

    Rorty’s thought was a Postmodern diaper-load from the same crap-heap that brought you BHO’s Nobel Peace Prize.
    Anybody who is quoting that tool outs themselves as a troll at best, but more likely an abject fool.

  • Alan Markus

    As I said somewhere else yesterday, re: Nate Silver. From what I have read about him, sounds like he was born 20 years too late. A bit older, and he would have been one of the “quants” on Wall Street.

  • Guesty McGuesterson

    I think if you read what Nate Silver writes about his number-crunching, you’ll find he is constantly giving warnings and caveats about the limitations of polling data and its predictive value.

    He is very good at pulling that data together, summarizing it, and translating it into probable electoral votes, but of I’m sure he’d be the first to acknowledge that unforeseen events can easily change the situation completely.

  • Capt Pete

    Stacy – good analysis. Yes, I gave $ to Christine at your suggestion. I will be back in Central FL door-knocking next weekend. I think Romney is getting the job done. Lookin’ forward to Nov 7 (that’s the day for Dems to vote right?)

  • flicka47

    While I’m not so sure about the reliabilty/accuracy of polls it does seem someone is worried… Never been polled before this election, yet I have been polled 4 times since the 1st of Sept. including Rasmussen, PPP, and the LATimes…either that or they’re all sharing data pools…

  • Steve Skubinna

    Timely, since I just recently re-read Norman Augustine’s “Augustine’s Laws.” One chapter is devoted to the quest for precision, especially in areas where precision is impossible (specifically, major contracting projects where costs and spending is projected years in advance). One tactic he mentions is, if a process insists on producing a suspiciously round number, simply convert to metric or standard, as appropriate. He says this is responsible for statements of such breathtaking precision such as “The aircraft passed within 37.3701 inches of the control tower.”

  • http://boogieforward.us/ K-Bob

    “Nate, however, has the burden of expertise obtained through his statistical fluency…”

    There’s lies, damned lies, and damning with faint praise regarding statistical fluency. Ouch!

  • http://boogieforward.us/ K-Bob

    Careful ,that kind of thinking would lead to believing that 9% of the people who comment on websites are of a similar mind.

    ALGORE built the Internet specifically to eliminate that problem.

  • Quartermaster

    Did you have Anamika in mind, perhaps?

  • Anon Y. Mous

    If you want to take advantage of the Obamanauts, intrade has $10 share for Romney going for $3.91. That is, a $3.91 wager on Romney becoming president will bring back $10 when he wins.

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  • http://twitter.com/ilovegrover Thane_Eichenauer

    To name a party is to hope they show up. Why oh why?

  • elijahzabmom

    I thought it was determined that his methods are flawed because in 08 Obama’s campaign gave him inside polling data?

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