In the last few days before the election, the story I found most fascinating wasn’t who was going to win, it was how close the race was and how we could tell. On the one side, you had traditional reporters analyzing the politics and news and people’s reactions. On the other, you had people like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight doing poll analysis.
Nate Silver collects polling data and uses statistics to try to predict elections. In the days leading up to the election his analysis suggested that Ohio had a 99% chance to elect Obama and Obama had a nearly 75% chance to win the election. Pundits like Dylan Byers of Politico laughed at him. They said it was absurd to suggest that Obama was so far ahead in what was clearly a too close to call race. The Romney campaign was sure not only that it was a dead heat, but that they would eventually win.
These competing views came to a head during the election coverage itself on Fox as Karl Rove cautioned that Ohio had been called prematurely despite the decision desk standing by their analysis. The Ohio results played out exactly as the decision desk had predicted. In the end, it appears that Nate Silver was actually being conservative. The election was much less close than he predicted, with Obama taking well over 300 electoral votes. The analysts claiming that we were in a dead heat, that the election was too close to call, were clearly wrong.
And I think the most significant thing to take away is that this isn’t an isolated incident. This dynamic is repeated all through American politics lately. Is the economic recovery a failure because it wasn’t v-shaped like the last few, or is it respectable because we’re doing better than the rest of the developed world? Is global climate change a liberal conspiracy or are we seeing increasing evidence of human impact on the world around us? Will cutting tax rates cause a huge economic boom and improve the deficit, or do we need to increase taxes if we want to pay for the deficit? Can ivory tower liberals with math and science really know as much as they claim, or are things like the economy and climate just too complicated for people to ever really understand.
In all these issues, I side with those who say that careful analysis or details and history are the way to understanding. Broad applications of logic and common sense are a good starting point, but they should not be used to reject a deeper understanding. Gut feelings are useful in a pinch, or when deeper understanding isn’t available, but they should not be used in place of research and facts. And those of us who don’t have that kind of expertise need to be willing to look to those who do for guidance, not look down on them for saying things that don’t support our understanding of the world.