Taylorizing the Punditocracy

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.


  1. says

    Interesting viewpoint, but the notion this race isn’t based on a “gut feeling” but rather literally hundreds of polls that show the race is close not only nationally but in the Electoral College.

  2. says

    Sorry, I couldn’t edit so I’m reposting to correct.

    Interesting viewpoint, but the notion this race is close is not based on a “gut feeling.” Rather it is based on literally hundreds of polls that show a razor thin margin between the candidates not only nationally but in the Electoral College.

    • Carlito Brigante says

      The margins are not “razor thin” in Ohio, Wisconsin, or Iowa. And thin at most skeptical for Obama in Nevada and Colorado.

  3. says

    It is important to note, Paul, that Nate Silver’s statistical analyses is not a simple aggregate or averages of polls as RCP’s is. He looks at non-political data, such as economic data, and historical data and other factors that go into his methodology. Based on that, he makes a projection on how likely the scenario is to happen. Yes, Obama’s leads aren’t all that big, but neither were Bush’s in 2004 and he won that. In fact, some polls are showing eery similiarities to their 2004 numbers.

    How he recently explained it on a PBS program was “How likely is it for someone to be ahead by 2 points to win?”. Right now, a basketball team down by 4 in the last 3 minutes of the 4th quarter can pull it off and win the game. But the odds are stacked against him. Similarly, the odds are stacked against Romney as well. They aren’t impossible, but they’ll be hard to overcome.

    I do think we’ll see Nate’s model change to be based less on polling. We’ve had some seriously crazy polls from normally reliable polsters this election cycle. The NBC/WSJ poll that had Ohio at 10+ for Obama, or that current horrible poll that shows PA tied.

  4. says

    I can predict with confidence, however, that if Romney wins, Nate Silver will be treated more harshly than Dick “Romney Landslide” Morris will be if Obama wins.

  5. says

    Reminds me of Jeff Sagarin’s ratings and how the football commentators tend not to like them, or even the BCS. I can understand it. The AP shows Ohio State at #5, but Sagarin has them at #10, and the Big Ten and OSU writers don’t like it. I see those not liking Nate Silver generally to be R-friendly.

    But Silver isn’t calling it a 100% Obama slam dunk. He’s calling it at around 80% chance. To use yet another metaphor, it’s like when I go all-in pre-flop with Pocket Aces and some jerk calls with 9-10 off suit, and catches a runner-runner straight on the river. Most of the time I’m going to win that, but a schmuck can get lucky here and there.

  6. Bradley says

    I’ve been following Silver’s 538 blog and also Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” blog (http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/) — both seem to have been pretty accurate in the past. Sabato has different ways of tracking (he has numerous contacts from both parties on the ground), but has been pretty efficient in his guesses in the past, much like Silver. Both say Romney has a chance, but both show that Romney will need a lot of his side for things to change.

    I saw Larry Sabato on C-Span years ago and have followed his blog during elections since then. He says, almost admiringly, “Politics is a good thing…”

    • Mary says

      Do either of these factor in the possibility that some people may lie just to deceive the pollsters? I thought that this had happened a couple of cycles back, maybe in the 2004 election but I can’t remember for sure which one it was. It was a tactic being used by some in a particular political party and I remember there was a religious connection to it, as in being instructed that the good end (their side winning) justified the bad means (lying). I just haven’t heard or read of it since then and that seems strange to me that it would just go away when other forms of vitriol seem to have only gotten worse.

  7. Carlito Brigante says

    A little off topic, but here is Senate MINORITY leader Mitch McConnell’s comment on Obama’s reelection. So much for the loyal opposition.

    But I guess when you fail to accomplish your most important political goal, assuring that Obama is a one-term president, you would be inclined to roll out resentment, embitteredness and contempt for the electorate you rejected your party’s candidate.

    “The American people did two things: They gave President Obama a second chance to fix the problems that even he admits he failed to solve during his first four years in office, and they preserved Republican control of the House of Representatives,” McConnell said in a statement.

    “The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term, they have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control.

    “Now it’s time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely divided Senate, step up to the plate on the challenges of the moment, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office.

    “To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we’ll be there to meet him half way.”

    Read more: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2012/11/07/McConnell-stiff-arms-Obama-Senate-Dems/UPI-55861352214084/#ixzz2BXNtT91y

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