Friday, November 2, 2012

Politics vs. science and the Nate Silver controversy

I’ll take a small departure from the narrow world of biostatistics and comment on a wider matter.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has really kicked the hornet’s nest. This is a nest that really needed stirring, but I do not envy him for being the focus of attention.

This all started, I think, when he released his book and basically called political pundits out for a business model of generating drama rather than making good predictions. This wouldn’t be a huge deal, except that he has developed a statistical model that combines data from national and state polls with demographic data to project outcomes of presidential and senatorial elections. This model, as of this writing, has President Obama at close to an 81% probability of re-election, given the current state of things. As it turns out, there are a lot of people that don’t like this, and they generally fall into two camps:

1. People who would rather see President Obama defeated in the election, and

2. Pundits who have a vested interest in a dramatic “horse-race” election

I’ll add a third:

3. Pundits who want to remain relevant (whether to keep their jobs or reputations).

Frankly, I don’t think that pundits will have to worry about #3. There’s an allergy to fact in this country, a large group of people who would rather ignore established fact and cling to a fantasy. (You can find a sampling of these people over at the intelligent design blogosphere, for instance.) I think the demand for compelling stories over dry facts will remain.

I’ve run into people of the first type, when I’ve published some armchair statistician analyses based on Twitter sentiment, for instance. The responses weren’t critiques of the method, but rather, “who cares, Republicans rule!” Even more dangerous, I’ve run into similar responses to negative clinical study results in cases where sponsors have a vested interest in positive outcomes. (There was at least one case I remember a sponsor moved forward with an expensive study to follow on, and some where I was asked to reanalyze a zillion times.)

Nate write The Signal and the Noise where he, among a lot of explanation, points out that there is a whole cottage industry of people getting paid to BS about politics. So I think that some in the second category are starting to face an existential crisis, and that makes them dangerous.

Ultimately, we have to understand where Nate is coming from to understand his prediction. His money is (literally – He made a bet[1] on Twitter with “Morning Joe” Scarborough of NBC) on Obama’s victory in the election, not necessarily because he wants Obama to win, but because he has confidence in his prediction. When he made the bet, he made the controversy more than just trading words, but he called Joe’s bluff (Joe had said that anyone not calling the race a tossup is an ideologue). We can now call him The Statistician Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – the punditry, including the public editor of the New York Times that hosts his blog, is collectively attacking him.

Unfortunately, the punditry has the upper hand, because people are more interested in the narrative than the science.

[1] The bet originally consisted of the loser donating $1000 to charity. Nate subsequently donated $2538 to the Red Cross before the election.