One of the most interesting things (to me) about this election has been the nastiness directed at Nate Silver by more traditional pundits. It is hard not to see the parallels with the Moneyball dynamic in baseball. To the extent I understand that dynamic anyway — I’m not well versed in baseball history. I’ve heard some stuff and I watched the movie. From the Wikipedia synopsis:
The central premise of Moneyball is that the collected wisdom of baseball insiders (including players, managers, coaches, scouts, and the front office) over the past century is subjective and often flawed. Statistics such as stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average, typically used to gauge players, are relics of a 19th century view of the game and the statistics that were available at the time. The book argues that the Oakland A’s’ front office took advantage of more analytical gauges of player performance to field a team that could compete successfully against richer competitors in Major League Baseball (MLB).
Rigorous statistical analysis had demonstrated that on-base percentage and slugging percentage are better indicators of offensive success, and the A’s became convinced that these qualities were cheaper to obtain on the open market than more historically valued qualities such as speed and contact. These observations often flew in the face of conventional baseball wisdom and the beliefs of many baseball scouts and executives.
So, you have Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com fame. Probably not coincidentally, Silver has a baseball statistics background which he applied to the 2008 and 2010 national elections with a great deal of success. Now, in 2012, he has a statistical model which suggests that Mitt Romney’s chances of winning the Presidential election are not that great. (This is not to say they don’t exist; but if this election were a coin, it would come up Obama about 80 times out of 100. Since you’re flipping it only once, it’s possible that the Romney side could turn up on election day.)
But I’m not primarily concerned about Romney or Obama or even Silver at the moment. The interesting thing has been the reaction of a lot of the traditional pundits to the statistical models. They have reacted badly. The statistical approach takes away a lot of their power. It is more difficult. It is less romantic. It tethers the current state of the race more tightly to reality (to the extent we can observe the reality) and less tightly to pundit’s preferred reality. If the pundit wants to spin a narrative, he or she is less able to rely on “ineffable” qualities that are in no way falsifiable.
To bolster (somehow) his contention that Silver was wrong, Dean Chambers accused Silver of being “thin and effeminate.” Conservative anchor of liberal MSNBC’s morning programming, Joe Scarborough brayed that Silver was “a joke” because “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a toss-up right now is such an ideologue,”
The “toss-up” is good for business in the pundit world. It sells advertising. It draws attention. It gives the biased observer an opportunity to create reality more favorable to that bias under the guise of merely observing. They don’t understand the statistics because, as Mr. Sinclair observed, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
For cable news pundits, just as with old time baseball scouts, making calls based on your gut is a lot easier and more profitable than grinding through a bunch of boring old numbers. I can see why the pundits would resist. But this is probably just a continuation of the Taylorization that’s been turning artisans into disposable cogs for capital for over a century. Welcome to the world of the commoners.