Nate Silver and objectivity

by Russ Roberts on October 31, 2012

in Politics

Nate Silver is generating a lot of excitement on the internet. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. He was a superb writer on baseball and he’s taken his knowledge of statistics and applied it to politics. The last time I looked, he was estimating a 75% of Obama being re-elected. That seems a little high but it could be right, whatever “right” means where Obama either wins or loses. The state polls suggest Obama is going to win. The national polls suggest Romney is going to win. Of course it’s possible that Romney wins the popular vote and loses the electoral college but that’s unlikely given the size of Romney’s lead in the national polls. We’ll know more on Tuesday.

Josh Jordan at the National Review questioned Silver’s methodology finding it surprising that he was weighting some older polls more heavily than more recent ones. At least that’s what I’ve gathered off the internet–National Review’s servers are down because of Sandy and old posts aren’t available.

What is more interesting to me is Paul Krugman’s reaction:

Brad DeLong points me to this National Review attack on Nate Silver, which I think of as illustrating an important aspect of what’s really happening in America.

For those new to this, Nate is a sports statistician turned political statistician, who has been maintaining a model that takes lots and lots of polling data — most of it at the state level, which is where the presidency gets decided — and converts it into election odds. Like others doing similar exercises — Drew Linzer, Sam Wang, and Pollster — Nate’s model continued to show an Obama edge even after Denver, and has shown that edge widening over the past couple of weeks.

This could be wrong, obviously. And we’ll find out on Election Day. But the methodology has been very clear, and all the election modelers have been faithful to their models, letting the numbers fall where they may.

Yet the right — and we’re not talking about the fringe here, we’re talking about mainstream commentators and publications — has been screaming “bias”! They know, just know, that Nate must be cooking the books. How do they know this? Well, his results look good for Obama, so it must be a cheat. Never mind the fact that Nate tells us all exactly how he does it, and that he hasn’t changed the formula at all.

This is, of course, reminiscent of the attack on the Bureau of Labor Statistics — not to mention the attacks on climate science and much more. On the right, apparently, there is no such thing as an objective calculation. Everything must have a political motive.

Maybe. He’s being a bit cynical about his opponents, but there’s something to what he says. Political writers do tend to see everything having a political motive. Then the unpolitical economist (whose blog is called Conscience of a Liberal) goes off the deep end:

This is really scary. It means that if these people triumph, science — or any kind of scholarship — will become impossible. Everything must pass a political test; if it isn’t what the right wants to hear, the messenger is subjected to a smear campaign.

A little over the top, even for Krugman. Science or scholarship will become impossible?

This is the flip side of partisanship. It’s bad enough that partisans think their guy is a saint who will heal the planet or create !2 million jobs or change the tone in Washington or eliminate the deficit. They also often believe that the other guy is a socialist or a Neanderthal–something that is supposed to terrify the home team.

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