Nate Silver, the audacity of maths and the innumeracy of political commentary

So maths works. Who knew? For weeks, the statisticians Nate Silver and Sam Wang have been predicting an Obama victory, on the strength of proper statistical models that include all relevant state polls. This morning, they’ve been utterly vindicated.

Assuming Florida indeed breaks for Obama, as returns indicate right now, Silver will have called all 50 states correctly. Wang will have 49 out of 50. Both have effectively gone 100 per cent — they each pinned Florida as a coin toss, but one took heads and the other tails.

As the US election drew nearer, Silver, in particular, has had to contend with some frankly awful political punditry that betrayed dreadful statistical innumeracy. Right up until yesterday, most of the mainstream media was still declaring the race too close to call. It wasn’t. Mitt Romney still had a chance of winning, particularly if the Silver/Wang assumption that all the polls were not systematically underestimating his support was incorrect. But Obama was overwhelmingly likely to win.

I think the hostility of many media pundits to Silver and Wang, and the way so much of the media essentially ignored their predictions and stuck with the “too close to call” narrative, says something interesting and important about political commentary. It’s a theme that plays a significant part in the Geek Manifesto’s chapter on the media. And it’s that the media is systematically unwilling to grant mathematics, statistics and science a significant role in politics.

Hardly anyone in frontline politics, or in the upper echelons of the media, has a background in mathematics or the natural sciences. Editors and newspaper columnists, on both sides of the Atlantic, tend to be graduates in politics and the humanities. They think instinctively that political commentary should mostly be done on feel. Hard numbers and evidence don’t generally come into it. A more scientific approach to political questions is somewhat alien.*

You can see this in the way Silver was derided by many pundits who simply didn’t understand the predictions he was making. And you can see it, too, in the choices that TV and newspaper editors make about their political commentators. Scientists are hardly ever asked for their perspective on political events: while cultural figures such as Will Self and Bonnie Greer are regular guests on Question Time, scientists, mathematicians and statisticians hardly ever feature.

In the past two years, Melanie Phillips has been on Question Time more often than all scientists put together. As far as I can make out, not a single scientist has appeared on the BBC’s flagship political discussion show this year. That says something.

The success of Silver and Wang shows that geeks have something rather important to contribute to political analysis, which is rather more valuable than much punditry. I hope editors take note.

*I’m generalising of course. There are political pundits who get this. My old Times colleague Danny Finkelstein, for example, is great on statistics and what they do and don’t mean.

About markgfh

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Geek Manifesto contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain's foremost science journalists and commentators. Mark's first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009 by Quercus
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8 Responses to Nate Silver, the audacity of maths and the innumeracy of political commentary

  1. smarthomeman says:

    The trouble is, doing the maths takes more work than spouting about your gut feel. That means it costs more. And the media are there not to get things right, but to make money.

    This won’t be fixed until the new digital economy beds in, and maybe not even then. All up to what the customers want!

  2. ninopane says:

    Given the success of proper statiistical analysis in this instance perphaps we should push for a similar approach where our politicians seek to bend the numbers to meet their idealogical objectives e.g.Gove and the DfE’s “interpretation” of the PISA tables. Clearly this offers us as the electorate another approach to holding our politicians to account.

  3. Good comments, Mark. Some of the comments made about Silver by bloggers and political editors on the Right have been appalling.

    A chat-room discussion I’ve been involved with has had one poster who has painstakingly gone through analysis of polls, statisticians and the media and was confident of an Obama win for some time (despite a bit of a worry post-1st debate).

    I also wonder if the reason that the media have been playing the “too close to call” line is that it maintains interest in the story? Yes, there is a lot of ignorance in the statistics and perhaps some suspicion of polling due to historical errors, but if they went with the story that the election was in Obama’s bag two weeks ago, it would probably have generated a lot less interest.

    Saying that, you’d think in a country where sports are analysed to the minutest statistical detail, that analysts like Silver and Wang would get a lot more credit!

    • smarthomeman says:

      Both sides have a vested interest in keeping the statistics “too close to call”: the losers want to avoid creating a landslide effect, the winners want to avoid their voters becoming complacent. Nothing to do with reality, or at least only with political/psychological reality.

  4. Spot on Mark. We ignore statistics and the correct interpretation of statistics at our peril. Thanks for an enlightening read.

  5. Pingback: Links 11/8/12 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  6. It is all about the money. Our news is owned by corporations who only see profit. Lying about it being close is just business as usual.

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