Prediction Methodology - Not Too Swift

November 6, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

One of the first things I try to get students to understand is the difference between systematic evidence and anecdotal and impressionistic evidence.  Or no evidence, which usually takes the form of “We don’t need studies to know that . . . .” or “Common sense tells us . . . .”

So in one corner we have Nate Silver (known in some circles as Nate the Great at Five Three Eight), systematically weighing the data from polls and other sources.  He sees Obama as the likely winner.

And then there’s Peggy Noonan at The Wall Street Journal.
Is it possible this whole thing is playing out before our eyes and we’re not really noticing because we’re too busy looking at data on paper instead of what’s in front of us?
In front of her eyes is victory for Romney.  Here are some more excerpts that show the evidence she uses as the basis for her prediction.
Among the wisest words spoken this cycle were by John Dickerson of CBS News and Slate, who said, in a conversation the night before the last presidential debate, that he thought maybe the American people were quietly cooking something up, something we don’t know about.

I think they are and I think it’s this: a Romney win.

There is no denying the Republicans have the passion now, the enthusiasm.
it feels like a lot of Republicans have gone from anti-Obama to pro-Romney.
And there is Obama, out there seeming tired and wan, showing up through sheer self discipline.

All the vibrations are right. A person who is helping him who is not a longtime Romneyite told me, yesterday: “I joined because I was anti Obama—I’m a patriot, I’ll join up But now I am pro-Romney.”

And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.
I imagine going to the World Series.  The guy at the hot dog stand says he thinks the Tigers are about to make a move.  I see Detroit players’ faces, full of passion and enthusiasm; the Giants look tired and wan. The Tigers are getting hits.  They even had a home run.  Their pitchers are tall and strong.  And then there’s the thing about caps – all those Detroit caps with the old English D.  I see them everywhere.

It all points to a big win by the Tigers. Clearly, the Giants are toast.

And then some nerd – “a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice, a poster child for the New Castrati”* – taps me on the arm and points to the scoreboard which posts the number of runs that each team has actually scored and the number of games that they have won.

Yes, Romney could win.  But remember Damon Runyon’s riff on Ecclesiastes: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's how the smart money bets.”

And they’re betting Obama.  At In-trade, a $100 bet would bring Ms. Noonan $300, and somewhat more if she bet in the UK.  My own hunch is that betting a bundle on Romney right now is not too swift.

UPDATE:  Another Republican speechwriter-turned-columnist, Michael Gerson, is yapping at Nate Silver.  John Sides at The Monkey Cage offers an excellent critique of Gerson and a defense of data- based social science.  (It is kind of depressing – Gerson and Noonan and the rest are intelligent people, and yet they force you to defend the radical idea of using systematic evidence.  But then again, their party is the standard-bearer for people who think that global warming is a myth and that earth is only 7000 years old.)

 * Yes, this is what someone at the right-wing actually wrote about Nate Silver.  I am not making this up.

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