Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Michael Gerson Doesn't Like Arithmetic....

I won't blame Michael Gerson for the title to his latest column, as it was likely chosen by an editor, but wow... what a ridiculous attempt at a play on words. Gerson is hopping on the Republican bandwagon by attacking Nate Silver, a guy who announced well in advance of the polling of this race, "Here's the formula I'm going to apply to the polling data to try to predict a winner in the presidential race," because he has done exactly that - he has applied his formula exactly as promised, in a clinical, nonpartisan manner, but... darnitall, his numbers keep favoring the President.

Gerson starts out with a reasonable point - that the specificity of the numbers produced by Silver's formula may be misleading. Gerson complains that Silver's formula, as of the time of his writing, put President Obama's chance of reelection "at 86.3 percent. Not 86.1 percent. Not 87.8 percent. At 86.3 percent." But the specificity is a product of the formula, not a claim that the formula is perfect. I'm not sure what difference it would make to Gerson, or to anybody else, if Silver rounded his numbers to the nearest one or five. For that matter, if Silver used a ten point scale, rounding off his number and saying "right now Romney has a 1/10 chance of winning", I would expect that Gerson and friends would be complaining about the lack of specificity and insisting that he use the "real" numbers from his formula.

But here's the thing: Gerson has no complaint about the polls themselves - just the algorithmic attempt to explain what the polls mean. He's fine with the race being declared "a dead heat" or "48:46". If the polls were coming back 60:40 for Romney I expect he would be ecstatic. What he doesn't like is being told that, if the polls as accurate, even if the polls are coming back with the candidates separated by a number less than their margin of error, the polls have a cumulative significance. A persistent small lead in poll after poll really does suggest that one subject has a genuine, persistent lead.

Gerson complains that analysts like Silver have their "bases covered",
If the state polls are correct, the aggregator gets credit for his insight in trusting them. If the assumptions contained in those polls — on the partisan composition of the electorate or the behavior of independents — are wrong, it is the failure of pollsters, not of statisticians such as Silver.
Well... yes. When somebody produces data that is correct, an analysis based upon that data is more likely to be correct. When somebody produces data that is wrong, "garbage in, garbage out." But that simply brings us back to the earlier point, if Gerson believes that the polls may be garbage, why isn't he objecting to the polls themselves rather than grousing about how statisticians analyze poll data?

Toward the end of his column Gerson complains that "current fashion for polls and statistics" extends to political commentary and,
Instead of making political analysis more “objective,” it has driven the entire political class — pundits, reporters, campaigns, the public — toward an obsessive emphasis on data and technique. Quantification has also resulted in miniaturization. In politics, unlike physics, you can only measure what matters least.
If that's Gerson's concern, the first question that comes to mind is why Gerson isobsessing over statistical analysis of poll data, rather than criticizing the larger, chronic tendency of his peers to cover elections as if they are a horse race. The second, where can I find the new breed of pundits who actually attempt to apply data to their analysis? Is Gerson talking about David Brooks and his marshmallows? Or is he pointing at Paul Krugman as the exception who proves the rule?

Gerson snarks, "Strongly consider a profession in which one is right, by definition, 100 percent of the time", never mind that if Silver's predictions are wrong he and his formula will take a hit. Gerson can produce, as a matter of habit, thinly reasoned column after thinly reasoned column and, as long as enough people read them, the New York Times will keep paying him a six figure salary and he'll be in a position to pick up far more than that on the lecture circuit and through book deals. If Silver's formula were as flawed, he would be discredited in the realm of politics.

Gerson continues his complaint about... was it polling... complaining that,
An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community.
Who argued that spreadsheets, algorithms, statistics, polls, anything like that "add up to a political community"?
In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.
Yet Gerson knows that is untrue. He worked for an administration that was dreaming of creating a permanent Republican majority, even if just 51% of voters, and was no doubt specifically tasked with crafting speeches meant to satisfy that narrow majority based upon aggregated polling data. He has seen how politicians running for office use polls to shape their message and their sound bites, to target segments of the population they believe are likely to vote for them. Gerson is rooting for a candidate who won't put on a shirt without checking the polls, who changes his positions on key issues every time the polls tell him that likely Republican voters want to hear something different.

Gerson declares,
The most interesting and important thing about politics is not the measurement of opinion but the formation of opinion. Public opinion is the product — the outcome — of politics; it is not the substance of politics.
Really? In that case it would be interesting to have Gerson explain to us how the vast fortune spent on political campaign ads over the course of this election have reshaped public opinion. How the campaign speeches have done so. When opinions have changed it seems to have been forces outside of the political sphere that have led to the change - a hurricane blasting the East Coast, for example - not politics. What election is Gerson looking at?

Also, when political scientists attempt to determine which people hold certain beliefs, then to determine why those people hold their beliefs, they're engaged in the study of how opinions are formed. Gerson knows that his party has made an artform of crafting language to persuade people to support its positions, and to obscure the truth behind them, labeling and relabeling their programs. "Privatize? We would never suggest that. Vouchers? Never heard of 'em." There's a reason why some political scientists study the phrases used in political speeches and, having penned a large number of them, Gerson has to understand that, even if he feigns ignorance.
If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates, not in “scientific” assessments of public views.
Perhaps the takeaway from that is, "Perhaps that's why punditry, as presently practiced, has so little value in our democracy." Columnists may not be producing a "scientific" assessment of public views, but they're more than happy to label the nation's politics and leaders - "center-left", "center-right", etc. - and they're more than happy to declare what "the people" want and expect from their political leaders. Gerson believes that such statements are more valuable when they come from the gut, as opposed to from any attempt to methodically collect and analyze actual data?

And while I'm sure Gerson embraces the conceit that, through his column, he is "clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates", few columnists make such an effort. Most are happy to instead share their own opinions, or to advance the positions of groups that fund their speeches and buy their books, even if that means muddying the waters. Gerson played a lead role in the team that sold the Iraq War to the American public - not the entire public, but enough of the public such that the war could go on. Even if he might protest, "That was before I was a pundit," he's going to lecture others about clarifying issues of public policy and ethics? First, how about an apology?

Gerson next switches gears, and starts attacking political science and what he sees as its "mania for measurement". Let's note up front, Nate Silver is not a political scientist - to the extent that Gerson believes that any exercise in measurement and statistical analysis of a political question falls under the umbrella of "political science", he's mistaken.
Crack open most political science journals and you’ll find a profusion of numbers and formulas more suited to the study of physics. In my old field of speechwriting, political scientists sometimes do content analysis by counting the recurrence of certain words — as though leadership could be decoded by totaling the number of times Franklin Roosevelt said “feah” or George W. Bush said “freedom.”
You know, the sort of thing no pundit would ever do. What sort of pundit would devote a paragraph of an interview to a self-adulating politician's description of his insistence that God be named in a political platform based on the argument, "have you checked any polling lately" - and what sort of deeply religious columnist would not be offended by that? Oh... yeah.

Frankly, Gerson's comments suggest to me that he has read very little analysis by political scientists, and has even less of an understanding of what they do or how their work is used. He focuses on the word "political", and loses track of the fact that political science is much more about policy formation than it is about politics. Gerson speaks of political science as "a division of the humanities", "mainly the realm of ethics — the study of justice, human nature, moral philosophy and the common good".

A couple of years ago I sat through a series of presentations by political science graduate students, involving such efforts as an analysis of dental care training and treatment provided to impoverished preschoolers and its impact on their later dental and physical health - focused very much on the bottom line, the cost to a community that would implement such a program and the savings that would result. Sure, you could "go with your gut" on something like that, but when you have limited resources and don't want to waste money the statistics Gerson derides can be crucial to good policy formation, wise allocation of tax dollars and avoidance of waste.

Gerson's thoughts on political science seem a bit like his reaction to Nate Silver - "Deriving numbers and statistical probabilities from data? I don't get it." He again displays confusion about the precision of a statistic and its greater meaning, that political scientists are attempting to apply "the precision of mathematics in a field of study whose subject can yield no such certainty". Except as Gerson should know, you can find patterns in just about anything and can collect data to identify or clarify the significance of a pattern. The numbers produced by a statistical analysis may look precise, but you're going to be less concerned about the data and more concerned about the probabilities - how likely it is that the same result would occur by chance. And yes, even when you're using data and statistics, you actually can use political science as part of "the study of justice, human nature, moral philosophy and the common good".

By the end of the column, Gerson's argument appears to reduce to, "Statistics are cold and impersonal, and I would rather ignore them and talk about issues of ethics and values - the things that really matter." I guess he's calling for a return to his pet phrase, a concept that was never transformed into reality, "compassionate conservatism". I am not sure what role Gerson had in advancing Bush's use of empty catch phrases like "A hand up, not a handout", but Gerson's fundamental problem appears to be that he cannot distinguish politics from policy, rhetoric from reality. He gets misty-eyed when Republicans speak of "equality", but does not care that behind the rhetoric lie policies that will inevitably increase inequality.

Actually, perhaps that's why he hates the numbers and those who work with them. Perhaps he truly wants to believe that Paul Ryan's goal of undermining of public services and government programs that aid the poor and middle class, in favor of massive tax cuts for the rich, is in fact part of a larger goal of increasing equality, and when people inject reality into the mix his first urge is to run, screaming from the room.

If Paul Ryan quotes Lincoln, Gerson would ask us to listen to the pretty words, and to keep our eyes away from the reality he knows they are designed to obscure. And alas, whether he believes himself to be sheltering and nurturing a concept that will never reach maturity, if he's more cynically working to obscure the realities of his party's agenda and a Paul Ryan-type budget, or if he's focused on a narrow social conservative agenda and doesn't otherwise care about veracity, Gerson truly does seem to believe that to be his job as a pundit. Then again, maybe it's more simple than that: Maybe Gerson is comfortable in his assumption that the issues that are important to him - the ones that lead to his "the ends justify the means" commentary, his most mendacious claims and distortions of political reality - are equally important to others, and he's uncomfortable being confronted with data that suggests that he's wrong not only about the electorate but about his own party.

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