Sunday, November 11, 2012

Un coup de dès jamais n'abolira le hasard

About a week ago I wrote a post adding to my ongoing series on puerility, observing how the cultural phenomenon of the FiveThirtyEight blog and the conflicts surrounding it exemplified a discourse in which discrete, mutually exclusive outcomes are the only imaginable ones. Then, while I drove to Maryland for a workshop, stopping in Philadelphia on the way back, about eighty people commented on my post to let me know that they were persuaded (in error) that I was somehow defaming Nate Silver personally and statistics as a field, and that it was up to them to defend both.

This seems to me to suggest two things.

First, that the same logic that gives us "Obama or Romney?" as the paramount question one can ask about an election also gives us "for or against?" as the paramount question one could ask about the FiveThirtyEight blog. This is in no way an interesting question to me, but for many people it was the only question, and therefore my post could only be read as answering it. This reduction to discrete, mutually exclusive, and usually binary outcomes legible in the terms of a game is of course what I was identifying as a form of puerility in the first place. Obama or Romney? Statistics or "gut"? Nate Silver or Politico? Quants or scouts? These questions clearly generate a great deal of pleasure, as evidenced by the enthusiasm with which they are debated, but there are other questions, involving words like "why" and "how," that are worth discussing.

Second, that childhood is so overwhelmingly treated as a debased category that to invoke it is considered an insult.* In addition to its literal meaning of "boyish" (Latin puer), "puerile," in common usage, carries a pejorative connotation, of course, but that's its least descriptive and least useful aspect, which is why I set it aside. Puerility, in the sense of the performance of child masculinity, is one of the most powerful political forces in the present moment; that's why there is a "Nate Silver phenomenon" in the first place. It should go without saying that anyone can engage in this performance, but it is also worth noting (so I noted it) that Silver's public persona (white, male, youthful, virtuosic) makes him a particularly good candidate, out of the many people and organizations aggregating polls, to emerge as the celebrity of popular political statistics.

On election night it was interesting (though not surprising) to observe how, once the presidential race was called, Silver began to be celebrated on Twitter (elsewhere too, I'm sure, but Twitter is time-stamped) as if he were the magical wizard that, prior to the election, Silver himself so patiently tried to explain that he was not. A lot of the tweets were really funny (funniest), but many of them oddly called the Obama victory "a win for statistics" or even "a win for reality," as if to suggest that the validity of either were contingent on who won the election.** Some even explicitly trod into "Nate Silver IS a wizard!" territory:

Such celebrations seemed to concede (erroneously) that Scarborough et al. had a point in the first place— that a Romney win would have falsified Silver's model, and that Silver's model were based on occult wizardry rather than weighted averages of widely available polling data. As Siva Vaidhyanathan put it:

And surely many of the people declaring Silver the real winner of the election knew this, and had even, prior to the election, said it. This put no damper on the explosion of Silver jokes, however; the pleasure of play trumped the basic premises of the very thing being celebrated. The cultural meaning of statistics was precisely puerile at this moment, openly signifying "winning team" more than it signified the actual principles of statistics.

Another form of data analysis was also declared a winner after the election, it is worth noting—the data-mining that enabled the Obama camp's microtargeted get-out-the-vote effort. This was swept into the same category as Silver's poll averages and made a cause for celebration. But as Zeynep Tufekçi, who had earlier argued that work like Silver's had the potential to limit the puerile logic of the horse race, observed, data-mining is ethically neutral at best, and is as eagerly pursued by Target as by the Democratic Party:

Or as Alexis Madrigal put it, "Data Doesn't Belong to the Democrats". "The left's celebrating the analytical method right now as if it belonged to them," Madrigal writes. "But it doesn't. [...T]his election was not a triumph of data over no data, of rigor over hunch. The 2012 election was a triumph of Democratic data over Republican data." What Madrigal predicts next is a data analysis war, as Republicans struggle to catch up with and exceed the facility already achieved by Democrats.

This is indeed probably what will happen in 2016, and it is about winning. In such a discursive environment, we can easily have another election in which drone strikes are not up for debate at all. But who wins—the question that FiveThirtyEight and the political parties' data-mining efforts each, in their different ways, attempt to answer***—only ultimately matters in the context of policy questions. Are we able to ask them?


*This is complicated, to say the least.

**This is in contrast with the predictions in individual states, which, taken together, are rather more meaningful for evaluating the model.

***I.e., Silver tries to answer by prediction based on polling data, while the data-miners try to answer by trying to secure a particular outcome.


Halmonster said...

Team Romney did attempt to leverage Data with their ORCA system. Regardless of the politics, the team that failed to run their own org, also failed to achieve their objective, in large part because of their own incompetence. The election "worked" in part because of the process not because of the contest of ideas.

Natalia said...

Yes, Hal, that's what Alexis Madrigal said. But does not the irrelevance of a contest of ideas to whether the election "works" seem like a problem?

Teal said...

I don't totally disagree with your interpretation, but also don't forget that another part of the context of those "Defender" twitter response comes from reacting to how right-wing pundits had been arguing for months back that various polls that were interpreted as Obama winning were Democrat biased. Hence, comes along that claimed to take away the bias of these polling data. It found Romney would win. Given this context, the twitter messages from the Defenders can be read a little differently. Data-mining isn't neutral, apparently!

Anonymous said...

I hate to criticize your mischaracterization of statistics again, but it's too tempting when you characterize an analysis of the *probability* of a binary outcome as an all-or-nothing game. In fact the statistics allow us to look at the granular contributions of substantive issues like race and drone strikes to a *continuous* election variable ranging from [0,1].

Your defense of the use of "puerility" is amazing. Maybe we should stop using "immaturity" as an insult, because childhood is visceral and honest, say. But if you want to de-construct, and re-construct the meaning of puerility to alter the commonplace "immature" derogation, then you ought to not do that in an essay where you're . . . using it to deride and criticize (maybe not statistics, and maybe not Nate Silver, but to deride the political culture nonetheless). Your argument is inconsistent. Maybe you're trying to use the word cautiously and call into question its meaning even while you use it. That doesn't come off as honest argument -- it comes off as hypocritical and spineless. Make a point. If you're going to turn a debate about the substance of your point into an equivocating debate over the definitions of words, you're going to lose a lot of people's patience: "Babe -- why did you forget to pick up Suzie from school?" "It's not so much that I forgot to pick her up, I think you're misunderstanding my definition of my responsibilities as a parent, and the definition of "picking her up" broadly." "That's not the point!!"

Your issue here is not with Nate Silver or statistics but the process of electoral debate. I suggest you define your unit of analysis better. That is a rigor your discipline ostensibly shares with statistics.

Teal said...

While I wouldn't go so far as "Anonymous", s/he has a point that your main concern is with how public debates over the presidential election can sometimes skew too heavily over numbers and winning. You want more conversation over ethics, and questions of how (process), and why. Those are good points, and points that you do make. However, it's overdrawing your case to say the presidential elections are so dominated by numbers. There have been debates about issues too.

Your characterisation of statistics as puerile has a point. One could read it that way, and there might be an element of childhood masculinity playing out in the emotive evocations of various sides. But, to take that element as characterising how presidential elections are solely or mainly talked about is going a bit far--overreaching.

Anonymous said...

How about discussing an alternative hypothesis: electoral debate and statistical analysis have turned overly simplistic, defining politics in terms of ideological cliques -- like immature teenage girls hazing one another and having cat fights.

Your point that there's something inherently masculine about number crunching would be lost on a majority of men who see number crunching as effeminate and nerdy.

So what is it about the increasing dominion of underdeveloped effeminacy in political culture and academic analysis that has created the Silver situation?

And why should we assume fighting is something characteristic of men? Because men are more violent . . . in a society whose violent crime rates and death by homicide rates have been on the decline for hundreds of years? Do you Natalie see a contradiction in a society who criticizes men for their inexpressiveness and emotional hesitation, and then blames (otherwise tight-lipped) masculinity for political antics that better resemble a softball team's locker room?

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, we're binary thinkers for wanting to inject some empirical data into the discussions, incapable of recognizing substantive policy issues even if these are patiently mansplained to us--repeatedly. It is possible to read Gintis' Game Theory Evolving and Cox's Principles of Statistical Inference as well as the Z Communications sustainers blog, the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy and David Weinberger's Too Big to Know. What, exactly, informs your privileged take on the audience you underestimate?

Anonymous said...

This article is substantially more well-argued than the last one. (In fairness, probably because the author wasn't expecting that thousands of people would be reading her previous essay.)

Anonymous said...

I understand why the tenor and aggressiveness of some of the responses to your initial post induced a degree of frustration, and even defensiveness. Still, I think you're doing a disservice to many of the comments--and reading them ungenerously--to simply dismiss them as failing to understand or respond to your point. Many of the commenters explicitly acknowledged that much of the current political coverage fails to address the "why" and "how" questions, as you term them in this post, and that Nate Silver does not purport to--and cannot--answer these questions. Yet, they raised substantive objections to your post regarding 1) your gendered analysis of the kind of role Nate Silver is playing; 2) your (mis)characterization of conservative objections to Nate Silver and the positions of his defenders; 3) your characterization of statistics as "puerile" (even in a non-pejorative sense); and 4) the utility of asking the question "who will win?" even if one acknowledges that this is not the only or most important question.

Though there are numerous other points I objected to in your post, allow me to use the following as representative of an instance in which you mischaracterized the debate taking place around 538. You quote Ezra Klein as writing:

"If you had to distill the work of a political pundit down to a single question, you’d have to pick the perennial “who will win the election?” [...] Now Silver—and Silver’s imitators and political scientists—are taking that question away from us. It would be shocking if the profession didn’t try and defend itself."

And you respond: "Perhaps so. But what if that weren't, after all, the question?" You fail to see that Klein agrees wit this, that though he uses the word "us" he does not think that the role of pundits just should be to ask who will win. Unfortunately, as you and he agree, that is what the profession has limited itself to. As a result, it is threatened by the rise of Nate Silver. And though you characterize Klein as Silver's "fellow statistical Wunderkind," the vast majority of the work Klein engages in is of the substantive type that you call for (even if you don't, as I would assume, like his politics). Nate Silver thus helps secure the status of substantive pundits such as Klein. Further, the clearing of space for substantive discussion was a point raised multiple times in responses to your post. And though you could point to the fact that so much of the pre-election discussion swirled around Nate Silver to question whether he does clear space for substance, a clear response would be that he only ended up occupying so much airtime because of the vicious attacks on him by the pundits he was embarrassing. This required a response not because it was the most important question raised by the election but because it was symbolic of the need to be able to agree on basic modes of inquiry to establish the facts on which to base a substantive, value-laden conversation.

In sum, I think your exasperated reaction to your critics (represented most baldly in your snarkiness on twitter) has led you to miss the substance of their objections.

Teal said...

Regarding your characterization of pre election debates being so much around polls and 538: I don't fully agree. I wonder if this is your impression because of what you choose to follow? 538 and polls only was a small blimp in my radar. I read up and watched lots more reports on issues: tax cuts, voter lines, disenfranchisement

Jobu said...

As someone who studied literature as an undergraduate and statistics in graduate school, I am wondering if you have ever discussed the pure aesthetics of the language of math/stat with a professional? If not, I recommend it.

Alexis Marlons said...

I think the materials in this post is much clearer and informative. Good post.

Anonymous said...

This post shows that you're still missing the point. Not all, but many of your critics understood perfectly well that you intended "puerile" in a descriptive rather than a pejorative sense. What we objected to was that, despite your total lack of expertise, you casually assumed that your description of the purpose and nature of statistics was correct, when it was not. Since then, you have been snidely dismissive of people who point out that you don't have any idea what you're talking about. This post is a continuation of your refusal to engage with the legitimate criticisms of your original post.

Anonymous said...

What I find completely intellectually dishonest and deplorable is the insistence that those of us who have bothered to develop our mathematical abilities cannot also have participated in the Occupy movement, could never have read "Days of Destruction Days of Revolt," could never understand the narrowness of the focus on the horse race, and could never aspire to the author's fatuously privileged perspective. The self-satisfied attitude can fairly be called disgusting. I am inspired to go back into the street, to use mathematics to understand oppressive institutions instead of perpetuating them.