Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Not Magic Or Miracles (Strong Language Alert)

Fucking magnets, how do they work? And I don't want to talk to a scientist, ya'll motherfuckers lying and getting me pissed. - "Miracles", Insane Clown Posse 
I got thinking of this ridiculous bit from rap group Insane Clown Posse when I read Jonah Goldberg's foot-stomping tantrum that Nate Silver's math was right.
Now, I have no idea whether Silver’s model is the psephological Rosetta Stone some hope — or fear — it to be. And no one else does either.
The truth is that any statistician can build a model. They do it all the time. They make assumptions about the electorate, assign weights to polls and economic indicators, etc., and then they wait for the sausage to come out. No doubt some models are better than others, and some models are simply better for a while and then regress to the mean. But ultimately, the numbers are dependent on the values you place in them. As the computer programmers like to say, garbage in, garbage out.
I’m not saying Silver’s just lucky or shoveling garbage. He’s a serious numbers guy. But so are the folks at the University of Colorado’s political-science department, whose own model is based on economic indicators. Its October 4 findings predicted Romney would win, as did many other models.
They couldn’t all be right.
What interests me is the way people talk about math as if it were divinely prophetic. They seem to subscribe to a religion that simply apes the terminology of science. To listen to many of Silver’s defenders, questioning his methodology is akin to rejecting evolution or the laws of thermodynamics, as if only his model is sanctified by the god Reason.
The combination of stupidity and ignorance just in this snippet is breathtaking.  That Goldberg tries - and fails miserably - to sound insightful and intelligent only makes the whole thing worse.

Ironically, I got in to a bit of a kerfuffle in some comments elsewhere yesterday.  And it concerned exactly these issues.  It is one thing to recognize the usefulness of the scientific method, when applied properly and offered publicly for critique and testing.  It is another thing altogether, however, to act as if we who understand what science is and how it works are somehow more in tune with "reality" than others.

Now, Goldberg is most definitely wrong when he says that Silver's method is some abstruse thing that no one but he understands.  I've seen what Silver does, and his model makes an immense amount of sense.  Goldberg's claim that "they can't all be right" is true enough; that's why they're tested.  So, the model from the University of Colorado cited by Goldberg predicting a Romney victory?

That would be wrong.

How that little bit of reality embedded within the effluvium of his column escaped Jonah's gaze is beyond me.

Silver isn't doing alchemy.  He isn't even doing advanced statistical modeling; trust me, there are statistical models that are extremely complex.  Silver's just isn't one of them.  His model seems to be sound because . . . it continues to work well in the way it is supposed to work.

And that, friends and neighbors, is all science does.

Goldberg's soliloquy on the human spirit, through which he stumbles for an exit, is what most people would call a non sequitur.
But I like to think that people are different, more open to reason, and that the soul — particularly when multiplied into the complexity of a society — is not so easily number-crunched. Obviously this is a romantic view out of step with the times. Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, lamented long ago that the “age of chivalry is gone,” replaced by “that of sophisters, economists and calculators.”
Still, isn’t it possible that the passionate defense Silver arouses from some people on the left has just a bit more to do with the comfort he dispenses than with the sophistication of his analysis? And isn’t it also possible that some of the conservatives screaming bloody murder about how his model has to be rigged are paying homage to the same cult of the numbers?
To be honest, I'm not even sure how this is related to Silver's statistical model.  Or anything else in the world, for that matter.  I would like to believe that people could fly; as one scientist I know said, "Anything is possible, even Santa Claus."  Being possible, of course, doesn't mean either that it is actual or that it is open to scientific investigation.  All Nate Silver did was take a whole lot of polls, carefully weigh them so that internal bias wouldn't multiply, and make predictions.  Which is what scientists do.  That this seems beyond Jonah Goldberg's ability to accept, well, doesn't that tell us something about the man? 

Virtual Tin Cup

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