Obviously, I’m thrilled about the election results. Obama’s clear victory meant that most of the electorate looked beyond the various attacks and saw that Obama would probably be better for our country. Definitely makes me happy.
But that’s not why I’m writing this post.
As elated as I am about President Obama’s resounding victory over the GOP’s increasingly archaic worldview, I’m just as happy that the election vindicated Nate Silver.
If you’re not familiar with Nate Silver, he’s a statistician and the author of the Fivethirtyeight blog. He holds a degree in economics from The University of Chicago, and during the 2008 elections, pretty much as a hobby, he used statistical algorithms and applied sabermetrics to predict the outcome of elections.
And his predictions were amazingly accurate. Frighteningly so. After the dust settled, Nate Silver turned into something of a star, with some pundits and politicians declaring him an Oracle and others writing his predictions off as dumb luck.
Skip ahead to 2012, and Silver had a lot to prove.
After the first debate, when most pundits had Romney way out in front, Silver claimed that Romney actually only received a very slight bump in his chances at securing the presidency. A few days later, Silver claimed that Romney had lost the slight advantage he’d gained, and since that time, his mathematical models showed Obama winning reelection. Those chances kept increasing as time went on, and on Election Day, Silver claimed that Obama’s chances at reelection were ~92%.
How have pundits reacted to Silver’s second round of statistical analysis methodology?
Conservatives have especially derided Silver. They’ve attacked his analyses, calling them a “numbers racket,” and they’ve attacked him personally, telling people that he shouldn’t be believed because he has an “effeminate” way about him. (I’m not making this one up. Read the link and prepare to be disgusted.)
Why has the GOP attacked Silver so aggressively?
Three reasons, I think.
Firstly, he threatens to destroy punditry as we know it. Pundits are masters of spin. They don’t lie, per se, but they cherry pick data and manipulate the truth. Statistical analysis cuts through the bullshit of spinning and makes it irrelevant. So in essence, Nate Silver threatens the very livelihood of clowns like Karl Rove and James Carville.
Secondly, and more importantly in my mind, Nate Silver’s analyses prove that science trumps magical thinking and truthiness. We are a pattern-seeking species, and we can’t stop ourselves from finding meaning in random patterns and confirming our own biases. So if you’re conservative, you’re more likely to consume conservative media that confirms your beliefs, and you’re likely to look for conservative-based patterns to do so. If you’re a liberal, you’re likely to do the same.
But here’s the deal: Science doesn’t give a damn about your political leaning. Science just is. And science really doesn’t give a damn about faith, and I think that’s why so many people find Nate Silver’s analyses uncomfortable. He shows people that their gut-feeling might be meaningless, and he puts a number to faith’s efficacy.
Republicans had faith in Romney. They just knew he would pull it out. But Nate Silver had been saying for weeks that Romney had less than a 30% chance at winning the presidency. He even went so far as to challenge Joe Scarborough to a $1,000 bet on that fact.
It seems to me that whenever science destroys faith it’s a net gain for humanity. Sure, our dreams are sometimes crushed, but we don’t need to rely on faith, and we don’t need to trust our gut. Our guts lie to us, and faith encourages us believe in the unrealistic and improbable. We need to have a clear vision of what’s possible, improbable, and impossible. Only then can we tackle the future with clarity.
Of course, we can always have hope. Hope’s different than faith. Faith means a belief in something without evidence. But hope? Hope recognizes statistical probability while allowing us to stay positive.
Thirdly, Nate Silver threatens the entire GOP platform. If numbers don’t lie about presidential elections, what about the numbers proving climate change? Maybe they aren’t lying either. What about biological data that demonstrates that homosexuality appears in nature in the same statistical instance as in our species? Was the GOP wrong about that, too? What about the numerical data that shows supply-side economics simply can’t and won’t work? Say it ain’t so. What about the data that suggests criminalizing abortions will lead to a drastic increase in crime?
If I was part of the republican establishment, I’d wanna make damn sure that my constituents didn’t listen to Nate Silver. No telling what they’d learn by tuning out Foxnews and looking at evidentiary research. Just look at how the pundits on Fox freaked out when science proceeded to tear down their clubhouse.
And that’s why Nate Silver irritates and scares the hell out of the GOP. He destroys blind faith and calls into question the truthiness of the GOP platform, and he does so with a mountain of evidence to support his positions.