Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Et Tu, Reason?

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

Oh, no, not you, Best Magazine on the Planet:

The growth of federal regulations over the past six decades has cut U.S. economic growth by an average of 2 percentage points per year, according to a new study in the Journal of Economic Growth. As a result, the average American household receives about $277,000 less annually than it would have gotten in the absence of six decades of accumulated regulations—a median household income of $330,000 instead of the $53,000 we get now.

You know, I hate it when people play games with numbers and I won’t put up with it from my side. I agree with Reason’s general point that we are over-regulated and badly regulated and that it is hurting our economy. Even the most conservative estimates indicate that bad regulation is sucking hundreds of billions out of the economy — and that’s accounting for the positive effects of regulation.

But the claim that we would be four times richer if it weren’t for regulation is garbage. As Bailey notes in the article, the growth in the US economy over the last half century has been about 3.2 percent. Without regulation, according to this study, it would have been 5.2, which is far higher than the US has ever had over any extended period of time, even before the progressive era. And because that wild over-estimate is exponential, it results in an economy that would be four times what we have now; four times what any large country would have now. The hypothetical US would be as wealthy, relative the real US, as the real US is to Serbia. Does anyone really think that without regulation we would be producing four times as much goods and services?

Even if we assume that we could produce an ideally regulated society, regulation is not the only limit on the economy. Other factors — birth rate, immigration, war, business cycles, education, technological progress, social unrest and the economic success of other countries — play a factor. A perfectly regulated society would most likely move from a position where its growth was limited by regulation to a position where its growth was limited by other factors (assuming this is not already the case)

The paper is very long and complicated so I can’t dissect where their economic model goes wrong. But I will point out that no country in history, including the United States, has ever had half a century of 5% economic growth. Even countries with far less regulation and far more economic freedom than we have do not show the kind of explosive growth they project. In the absence of any real-life example showing that regulatory restraint can produce this kind of growth, we can’t accept numbers that are so ridiculous.

Other studies, as Reason notes, estimate the impact of regulation as being something like 10-20% of our economy. That would require that regulation knock down our economic growth by 0.3% per year, which seems much more reasonable.

(H/T: Maggie McNeill, although she might not like where I went with this one.)

Saturday Linkorama

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013
  • This visualization of the Right of Spring is seriously seriously cool. Seeing the music like that, you start hearing the subtleties that elude you when you just hear it. This is one of the reasons I like to see classical music in performance. There is so much more going on than the ear can take in.
  • This map of linguistic divides in the United States, is something I could spend an entire post on. I match most of the pronunciations from Georgia except for “lawyer” and “pajamas”.
  • This story, about charities that just exist to raise money, should be getting national attention. It’s a disgrace.
  • I’ve used some of these.
  • Roman concrete was apparently better than the shit we’re using.
  • I think this is more or less true: the financial industry has stopped being about enabling economic progress and more about itself. When engineers can make more moving piles of money around than inventing things, we’ve got a problem.
  • Teenage boys killed the sex scene.
  • Mother Jones Again. Actually Texas State

    Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

    Mother Jones, not content with having running one of the more bogus studies on mass shootings (for which they boast about winning an award from Ithaca College), is crowing again about a new study out of Texas State. They claim that the study shows that mass shooting are rising, that available guns are the reason and that civilians never stop shootings.

    It’s too bad they didn’t read the paper too carefully. Because it supports none of those conclusions.

  • The Texas State study covers only 84 incidents. Their “trend” is that about half of these incident happened in the last two years of the study. That is, again, an awfully small number to be drawing conclusions from.
  • The data are based on Lexis/Nexus searches. That is not nearly as thorough as James Alan Fox‘s use of FBI crime stats and may measure media coverage more than actual events. They seem to have been reasonably thorough but they confirm their data from … other compilations.
  • Their analysis only covers the years 2000-2010. This conveniently leaves out 2011 (which had few incidents) and the entirety of the 80′s and 90′s, when crime rates were nearly twice what they are now. The word for this is “cherry picking”. Consider what their narrow year range means. If the next decade has fewer incidents, the “trend” becomes a spike. Had you done a similar study covering the years 1990-2000, using MJ’s graph, you would have concluded that mass shootings were rising then. But this would have been followed by five years with very few active shooter events. Look at Mother Jones’ graph again. You can see that mass shootings fell dramatically in the early 2000′s, then spiked up again. That looks like noise in a flat trend over a 30-year baseline. But when you analyze it the way the Blair study does, it looks like a trend. You know what this reminds me of? The bad version of global warming skepticism. Global warming “skeptics” will often show temperature graphs that start in 1998 (an unusually warm year) and go the present to claim that there is no global warming. But if you look at the data for the last century, the long-term trend becomes readily apparent. As James Alan Fox has show, the long-term trend is flat. What Mother Jones has done is jump on a study that really wasn’t intended to look at long-term trends and claim it confirms long-term trends.
  • Mother Jones’ says: “The unprecedented spike in these shootings came during the same four-year period, from 2009-12, that saw a wave of nearly 100 state laws making it easier to obtain, carry, and conceal firearms.” They ignore that the wave of gun law liberalization began in the 90′s, before the time span of this study.
  • MJ also notes that only three of the 84 attacks were stopped by the victims using guns. Ignored in their smugness is that a) that’s three times what Mother Jones earlier claimed over a much longer time baseline; b) the number of incidents stopped by the victims was actually 16. Only three used guns.; c) at least 1/3 of the incident happened in schools, were guns are forbidden.
  • So, yeah. They’re still playing with tiny numbers and tiny ranges of data to draw unsupportable conclusions. To be fair, the authors of the study are a bit more circumspect in their analysis, which is focused on training for law enforcement in dealing with active shooter situations. But Mother Jones never feels under any compulsion to question their conclusions.

    (H/T: Christopher Mason)

    Update: You might wonder why I’m on about this subject. The reason is that I think almost any analysis of mass shootings is deliberately misleading. Over the last twenty years, gun homicides have declined 40% (PDF) and gun violence by 70%. This is the real data. This is what we should be paying attention to. By diverting our attention to these horrific mass killings, Mother Jones and their ilk are focusing on about one one thousandth of the problem of gun violence because that’s the only way they can make it seem that we are in imminent danger.

    The thing is, Mother Jones does acknowledge the decline in violence in other contexts, such as claiming that the crackdown on lead has been responsible for the decline in violence. So when it suits them, they’ll freely acknowledge that violent crime has plunged. But when it comes to gun control, they pick a tiny sliver of gun violence to try to pretend that it’s not. And the tell, as I noted before, is that in their gun-control articles, they do not acknowledge the overall decline of violence.

    Using a fact when it suits your purposes and ignoring it when it doesn’t is pretty much the definition of hackery.

    Sunday Linkorama

    Sunday, April 28th, 2013
  • A fascinating look at how dollar bills move, courtesy of the Where’s George website. I find it fascinating the Pennsylvania is divided in half.
  • This is what I mean by Sports Media Twerp. They are never wrong and everybody else is just an idiot.
  • Really interesting blog on the least visited countries in the world. The writer is trying to visit every country at least once. Wish I had the resources for that.
  • I wish climate scientists would not overstate their conclusions. It makes it so much easier for people to pretend global warming is a hoax.
  • John McWhorter has a great article disputing the notion that texting is destroying the English language.
  • The contention that FDR was anti-semitic does not really surprise me. Years ago I read a book called While Six Million Died that detailed, point by point, how FDR did almost nothing to stop or prevent the Holocaust. It was only when members of his own Administration confronted him over foot-dragging on the issue of saving Romanian Jews that he did anything. He defeated Hitler, of course, which was why he became a hero to my grandparents’ generation. But the idea that he was immune from the anti-semitism that gripped much of the country and the world is absurd.
  • Fascinating and kind of frightening photo essay of high-density living. Think of all the stories you see in each picture.
  • Big Damn Linkorama

    Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

    It’s been a while and I’ve been accumulating links. You’ll have to forgive me if I ramble on a bit.

  • This article, about the potential for solar-powered roads, reminded me of Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll. But I am deeply skeptical that the kind of durable materials could be manufactured in the quantities needed. When people talk about alternative energy, they never seem to take into account the expense — financial and environmental — of manufacture and maintenance.
  • See, I told you Christopher Ryan was full of shit. He writes about our bleak future with sexbots taking over (or something). But Maggie McNeill — who knows a thing or two about sex — has frequently pointed out that people want intimacy for sex, not just pleasure. And a device capable of reproducing that would have rights of its own. Masturbation doesn’t cut down on the amount of sex people have. And I also haven’t noticed that the proliferation of dildos, vibrators and fleshlights has remotely cut down on the amount of sex going on (and reminder, dildos date back thousands of years). We have sex for intimacy as well as pleasure.
  • An impressive study reveals the age of the Iliad. Seems it was written about four or five centuries after the events.
  • This study disputes the idea that people’s political preferences change with age. You can clearly see that Democratic/Republic preferences are often based on who was in charge when the voter came of age. This doesn’t surprise me at all. As you can see in the graphs, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Ford, Bush I, Clinton, Obama and Ike were respected and made lifelong supporters. Truman, Johnson, Carter, Nixon, and Bush II were hated and made lifelong opponents. I knew teachers who would never vote Republican because of Nixon. And I know people who will never vote Democrat because of Carter. It will be interesting to see how history judges Obama. I suspect he will create more lifelong supporters than opponents.
  • The opposition to GMO’s grows ever more absurd. We now have a golden rice that could literally save millions per year. And the opposition to them is increasingly based on lies and distortions.
  • As I Predicted: EMR

    Friday, February 22nd, 2013

    I thought I’d put these three links into a separate post. Long ago, when electronic medical records were being cited as the way we could save money in our healthcare system, I was skeptical. I pointed out that these innovations might save lives and might make things easier on patients. But they were unlikely to save money. I based that on my dad’s experience with EMR, in which he found them to be very expensive, amazingly disorganized and somewhat bewildered by HIPPA requirements.

    Well, I was right. Here you can read about how EMR’s have encourage the use of boilerplate descriptions which leave critical information out of patient’s record. Here you can read about how it makes doctoring difficult. I’ve experience this personally, finding that doctors spend all their time screwing around with the EMR system rather than interacting with me (although this has improved in the last couple of years as doctors learn from their mistakes and save EMR maintenance until after the appointment). And here you can read about how the system are not saving money and don’t interact with each other.

    Some of these problems will eventually be solved. I expect that a uniform standard will eventually be created (probably by law). Improvements in computer transcription will probably restore dictation over boilerplate for making notes. And, as I noted, doctors are quickly improving their ability to use EMR without sabotaging their interaction with the patient. In the long run, I think this will improve healthcare.

    But easy-to-use systems that have a uniform standard, protect patient privacy and can correctly spell esophagogastroduodenoscopy (as I just did on the first try) are not cheap and are never going to be. This is not the solution to our healthcare woes. There is no silver bullet that is.

    Caloundra Linkorama

    Friday, February 22nd, 2013

    I just noticed I have about five Linkoramas lingering in my queue. So I’ll take out whole bunch here.

  • DARPA is looking into recycling satellites. This makes a huge amount of sense if it can be done. Space debris is a big problem. And the launch is one of the biggest expense of any mission. If you could put something up there cheap that could rove around and repair satellites, it would be worth a fortune.
  • Cracked has a nice article about how poverty isn’t the cliche we like to think it is.
  • An interview with James Alan Fox disputing Mother Jones on mass shootings.
  • This is an amazing story about how a family was cut off from civilization for 40 years. A modern-day Swiss Family Robinson.
  • I love this depiction of what Mars would look like with water. In actuality, it wouldn’t look quite like that, since erosion would wear down the extreme features.
  • I also love this depiction of what Cambrian creatures might have looked like.
  • When you make a little girl in a wheelchair cry that she doesn’t want to go to Disney World, you are slime.
  • Nine hilarious NYT corrections. I mean, even I knew the My Little Pony one.
  • Anatomy of a drug panic.
  • Anatomy of a female orgasm.
  • Mother Jones Hacks Again

    Monday, February 18th, 2013

    A few weeks ago Mother Jones, having not learned the lesson of their absurd article claiming mass shootings are on the rise, published a list of 10 Myths about guns and gun control from Dave Gilson. And I’m going to debunk their debunking again because the article represents what I believe is one of the worst sins in the field of Mathematical Malpractice: cherry-picking. As I went through this, it became obvious that MJ was not interested in the facts, really. What was motivating them was the argument. And so they picked any study — no matter how small, how biased or how old — to support their point. They frequently ignore obvious objections and biases. And they sometimes ignore larger more detailed studies in favor of the smaller ones if it will support their contention.

    We see this a lot in the punditocracy, unfortunately. As Bill James said, most people use studies the way a drunk uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination. In any sufficiently advanced but difficult field of study, you will find multiple studies examining an issue. Let’s say it’s a supposed connection between watching Glee and having a heart attack. If there is, in reality, no connection between the two, you might find eight studies that show no connection, one that shows an anti-correlation and one that shows a correlation. This is fine. This is science. There are always outlier studies even if all the researchers are completely ethical and honest. The outliers fall away when your interest is the question and you look at all the evidence. But the outliers dominate the discussion from those who have an agenda.

    This happens a lot in the gun debate. On both sides, really. But Mother Jones’ article is a particularly putrid example of this because that’s basically all it does: collect the cherry-picked nonsensical studies that support their anti-gun agenda. It’s quite remarkable actually; almost a clinic in how not to do research.

    But here’s the one thing that really tips you off. There is one myth that Mother Jones does not debunk. It’s a myth that’s really independent of what you think of gun ownership … unless you’ve already staked part of your reputation and agenda on the myth that gun violence is increasing. In fact, all forms of violent crime have been falling for twenty years. This is, in my mind, the single most important fact in debates over crime and violence and the single most important myth to debunk.

    MJ does not address this myth. They don’t even talk about it. That is a huge tell.

    (more…)

    Looking Ahead to 2013

    Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

    Any year you can walk away from is a good one right? I ended 2012 with my family and career intact, so I don’t think I can complain too much. Abby had a great year with her first real birthday party and a good start to kindergarten. I landed a couple of grants and got a couple of big projects off my plate, including the image gallery for the mission.

    On the other hand, I had my gallbladder out and had a sudden awful onset of bad migraines, something I still have not quite gotten control of. My mother-in-law died. My stepmother got cancer. We spent a fortune on fertility treatments and got, for all our pains, one miscarriage and a bad MS relapse. So … yeah, not our best year.

    In sports, my Braves bowed out in ignominious fashion and the hated New York Giants stomped over the Falcons, Packers and Patriots. On the other hand, the Falcons had another good regular season, the Braves have a lot of young talent and Chipper Jones went out in grand fashion.

    Politics? Oh, God. This was one of the most frustrating disillusioning years I can remember. I looked at both parties and eventually slammed my head into the desk and voted for Gary Johnson. We had a huge amount of sound and fury. More digital ink was spilled than ever before. I blogged my guts out over at Right Thinking. And the result? Obama is still President, Congress is still split, Congress is still stupid, the deficit is still huge and the economy is still sluggish.

    But, for some strange reason, I have a good feeling about 2013. 2011 was a the year of false hope — personally, professionally and politically. 2012 was a tough grinding exhausting year. But I feel like things have put in motion that will make 2013 suck a lot less. I can’t put my finger on anything specific. That probably means I’m wrong.

    Oh, well. Without further ado, my bold predictions for 2013:

  • Alabama over Notre Dame; New England over Green Bay; Miami in the NBA, Cincinnati over the Angels
  • Movies look like a mixed bag. Bad remakes and sequels galore (Evil Dead, GI Joe 2, Hangover 3, Die Hard 5, etc.). Beautiful Creatures and Pacific Rim look hilariously bad. And I’m not optimistic about Oz, Man of Steel or The Great Gatsby even though I want to be. I’m worried Hobbit 2 will suffer from Middle Chapter Syndrome (even more than Hobbit 1 does). But maybe something will surprise us.
  • We’re going to have a debt ceiling crisis that will hurt the economy and result in almost no spending cuts of note. Nevertheless, the economy will lumber on. And, for the first time in years, the deficit will notably shrink.
  • The Supreme Court will have another interesting year, likely striking down Prop 8 but on very narrow grounds.
  • Japan and China will rattle sabers but no fighting will break out. We will probably eventually intervene in Syria. The EU will continue to lumber toward a unified state.
  • So, yeah. Even looking at that, I’m not predicting a great year. But 2012 was so lousy, 2013 is almost bound to be better.

    We must always remember that the arc of history is long and, over the last decade, has pointed toward progress. On a global level, things are improving. Steadily, haltingly, frustratingly. But improving. And maybe 2013 will be the year things start improving around here — slowly, haltingly, frustratingly. In the end, the future is what we create. And I intend to bend my shoulder a little bit more this year and push a little harder.

    Post-Xmas Linkorama

    Sunday, December 30th, 2012
  • Godspeed.
  • Heh heh. It turns out that some of those tests that say newborns have pot in their systems may be bullshit. Don’t you just love the War on Drugs?
  • You know, I actually think this guy gets it right. The whole “we’re miserable during the holidays” things always did cross me as a load of dingo’s kidneys. We see the stress of family and travel; ignore the absent stress of work.
  • As much as I respect the idea of building an ideal language, the idea is going precisely nowhere as Zamenhoff found out. Language is not about utilitarian efficiency. It’s about culture, history, nuance and tradition.
  • One thing I wondered while taking Sporcle’s blurred faces quiz is if the results would show a racial component: i.e., would white people be more likely to recognize the blurred features of other white people. This wouldn’t be about racism but about the way our brains process facial features.
  • Mathematical Malpractice: Spree Killings Again

    Monday, December 17th, 2012

    This analysis, which claims that the US has more school spree killings than 36 nations combined, is getting a lot of play. It shouldn’t. It is extremely bad mathematical malpractice.

    The basic reason it is mathematical malpractice is the same reason the Mother Jones study was: it is difficult to analyze extremely rare events. When you narrow your investigation to events that happen maybe once a decade and are compiled haphazardly, you are simply going to be dominated by small number statistics and selection bias. You can therefore use those numbers to say, basically, anything you want.

    Let’s break down just how bad the numbers are being twisted here.

    1) The sample ends in 2009. That excludes the recent spate of knife attacks in Chinese schools that have left 21 dead. If you did this analysis a week ago, you would have had to drop China from the right column.

    2) The sample excludes acts of terror or war. But if Islamists shoot up a school because they don’t want girls to read, are those kids any less dead? If a drone strike misses its targets and kills a classroom, are those kids less dead? Why must we exclude the Beslan attack that left 186 kids dead?

    3) The sample excludes single homicides, which amount to 302 deaths in the United States over the time involved and God knows how many in other countries. So you are literally excluding 90% of the problem and focusing just on a tiny subset of killings.

    4) Comparing us to 36 other countries is ridiculous when some of those countries are places like Bosnia-Herzegovina (population 4 million). We have more population, period, then 30 of the countries on that list combined. Also included in that list of countries are England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are, technically speaking, not countries.

    5) The problem of small number statistics can be best illustrated by playing with the data a bit. If I include the knife attacks and move China into the left column, suddenly China has more violent deaths than 30 other countries. If I move Germany onto the left side, suddenly they have more spree killings than a bunch of other countries. If I define the sample in the 1990′s, suddenly Australia dominates the statistics. You simple can not draw conclusions from samples that are that sensitive to single events.

    6) Combining points 4 and 5, if you look at spree killing rates rather than the deliberate mathematical malpractice of comparing absolute numbers, the situation is very different. In 2009, the Winnenden shooting killed 15. Scaled up to the population of the United States, that would be the equivalent of 60 people dead, more than the worst year the United States has ever had. In 1996, 35 people were kill in Port Arthur, Australia. Scaled up to the US population, that would almost equal 500 dead. It is an event that is seared into the memories of Australians. My point is not that these countries are worse than we are. My point is that these are rare and horrible events and you can manipulate the numbers to prove anything you want.

    7) The biggest thing missing here is a sense of time. Is the rate of school killings going up or down? The answer, of course, is down. Check out chart one at Ezra Klein’s blog that shows that the rate of assault death has fallen by over half since 1970. Check out the NCES page I link above which shows a significant decline in on-campus homicides, from 40/year in the 90′s to 30/year in the 00′s. That decline is a hundred more kids running in the sunshine. The NCES data, based on a complete sample of over 600 incidents, is useful. This …. isn’t.

    I’m not trying to downplay the horror that unfolded on Friday. However, I don’t think any debate can proceed unless we have a good grasp of the problem we are trying to solve. Far too many children are murdered in school in this country — that was as true on Thursday as it is today. But to be useful, the debate needs to be on honest terms. Committing mathematical malpractrice by deceptively comparing the United States to 36 other countries as though there something to be learned from that is not an honest debate and is likely to produce a panicky and ill-considered response.

    Texas Linkorama

    Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
  • The idea of building gondolas in Austin strikes me as a really dumb. Gondols are slow and would take up lots of space for the number of passengers they transport. Texans aren’t big on mass transit to begin with (the light rail system is likely to be a flop). And what do you need a gondola for in a city that is really flat? This crosses me as a solution in search of a problem. And if it doesn’t have high ridership, it’s bad for the environment. And expensive.
  • Down with homework!
  • I always suspected that the high I got off parenting was an evolutionary thing. I find these things intriguing and fascinating. Much of what we feel in life: compassion, empathy, love, tenderness is the result of millions of years of evolution making us into creatures that look for the species rather than ourselves.
  • A really good post on the Jefferson slave thing. Also, highly recommended on the subject: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Actually, TNC is just recommended, full stop.
  • One day, parenting authorities will get it through thick skulls like that fun physical activities are good for children even when they involve a low amount of risk.
  • Ah, peak oil. These days, the biggest energy concern is that we won’t run out of fossil fuels and that global warming will be worse than feared.
  • A fascinating story from NPR about how our image of Jesus has changed with social norms.
  • While it strikes me that global helium supplies are a legitimate concern, the idea that our technical needs in 50 years will be the same as they are now crosses me as silly. Think about the chemicals that were important 50 years ago. Are we in the grips of a global lead shortage?
  • Saturday Linkorama

    Saturday, November 3rd, 2012
  • A great letter on the situation at Penn State, from the former Paterno Chair.
  • This article, sent to me by several, argues that China will be a benevolent world power. I found it ludicrous. not only do I not think China will become a dominant world power (there are still massive areas of abject poverty and they are aging too fast); I find the historical analysis from this sinophile to be absurdly optimistic about what they would do with power.
  • Color photos of Nazi-occupied Poland.
  • Heart-rending notes pinned to abandoned babies.
  • This article, about Chris Christie and Bruce Springsteen, came out this summer. But I found it amusing and kind of touching.
  • This story, about the explosion of solitary confinement in this country, is a must-read.
  • I knew that music has sucked since the 1980′s (#1). #5 is one we explore in Music Theory class.
  • Nate Silver, Polls and the RCP 2000 Fiasco

    Monday, October 29th, 2012

    I can’t recall an election cycle when so much attention was paid to polls. We do, of course, have more polling than ever. And the election is likely to be very close, so everyone is riveted on the polls. But it’s not just the attention to the polls: it’s the loud debate over them. I can’t recall seeing so many articles analyzing the polls, adjusting the polls, arguing the polls and selectively quoting polls. This has been especially strong from the Republican side, which has claimed that 1) the polls are skewed; 2) Nate Silver is a gay Obama supporter and can’t be trusted; 3) the polls are skewed; 4) Rasmussen is the only reliable pollster; 5) boy, are those polls skewed.

    I don’t think this is a unique function of Republican hysteria or reality denial, incidentally. It is a result of a few models and analyses favoring Obama right now. If they favored Romney, I’m sure we’d be hearing conspiracy theories from the Left.

    (The reporting on polls is enough to drive you mad. The bias and misunderstanding of how polls and statistics work would be stunning if I didn’t think it was deliberate. To illustrate how this goes, imagine that Romney and Obama are tied for the purple state of New Ubekibekistanstan. On one day, five polls come out that read like so:

    Poll Palace: Tied
    We R Polls: Tied
    Polls R Us: Romney +1
    Republican Poll Man: Romney +2
    Liberal Poll Dudes: Obama +3

    That’s a tie. But guess which ones the liberal blogs will talk about? Guess which ones the conservative ones will? This is how alternative realities are created.

    Then there’s the issues of “margin of error”. If a poll comes out showing Romney is leading New GOPland by three points with a three point margin of error, the liberal blogs will say it is essentially tied. But it’s not. 3+-3 means that it’s about 70% likely that Romney leads and it’s as statistically likely that Romney leads by 6 as it is tied.

    Then you compound the two. Imagine New GOPland has three polls released:

    Polls R Us: Romney +2 +- 3
    We R Polls: Romney +5 +- 2
    Poll Palace: Romney +8 +- 3

    Assuming there are no biases, Romney actually has a solid lead: five points, give or take two. But the news media will say it’s tied.)

    I should note that a big reason for the attention to polls is the null difference between the two candidates. If they really had major policy differences, we’d be talking about those. Romney supporters would be talking about how awesome his economic plan is and Obama supporters would be talking about how awesome the economy is. But because they are essentially the same man, we’re talking about polls.

    And if we’re talking polls, we’re really talking about Nate Silver. Silver is one of several people who understand statistics and tries to incorporate all of the available data into an electoral projection. As of right now, Silver’s model projects Obama as a likely winner, although it is very close. Close enough that one week could shift it either way.

    This has prompted a massive response from Romney supporters. Some of the criticism is legitimate. A lot of it is bullshit.

    But his critics being full of crap doesn’t make Silver right. Silver came to fame with a dead-on projection of 2008. But 2008 was not a close election. It was, all things considered, a landslide for Obama. Only three states — North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana — were within 1% and Silver missed on Indiana (to be fair, Silver gives probabilities not certainties and getting two out of three coin flips right is just fine). 2012 is going to much closer. And I dare say this will be the real test of Silver’s abilities. Is he going to be proven dead on again? Or will his model be spectacularly wrong?

    This year is reminding me an awful lot of Election 2000. It’s not just because of the closeness and the likelihood of an electoral college-popular vote split; it’s because that was the first time an attempt to model the electoral outcome was done. And, as the Wayback machine reminds us, it failed spectacularly. Real Clear Politics predicted Bush would win by 10 points in the popular vote and with an electoral landslide of 446-92. That … didn’t happen.

    I remember the events very clearly. My advisor tipped me to the RCP site as evidence that the media were ignoring Bush’s pending win. But I also remember being highly skeptical. because it seemed to me they were going overboard to try to make Bush win, constantly putting states in “definite Bush” but very few in “definite Gore”.

    (Of course, that may have been my natural pessimism: I was a Bush supporter and RCP’s projection seemed too good to be true. If I were supporting Obama this year, I’m sure I would have convinced myself that Silver is wrong in his analysis.)

    Here’s a breakdown of how RCP went wrong:

    States Bush Would Win: Alaska, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Indiana, Arizona, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina. They also had Nevada as a probably win. Bush did win all of these and most of them were not close. Ohio, now a swing state, went to Bush by 170,000 votes. That was not really the problem. The problem was:

    States Gore Would Win: DC, New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island with Connecticut as a probable win. These were the only states they had as definite Gore. California, Maryland, Washington — these were not seen as definite Gore states. And it was this bias that I was subconsciously picking up: not that they overestimated Bush’ performance, but they under-estimated Gore’s, refusing to accept that people would vote for him. They seriously had Gore polling at 42% nationally. Given the popularity of Clinton and the state of the economy, that was absurd.

    Leans Bush: They correctly called Missouri, New Hampshire, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia. They also had New Mexico and Oregon, which went to Gore but were cose. But Washington? Michigan? Pennsylvania? Maine? Gore won them all by 5 or 6 points.

    Leans Gore: Maryland and Vermont. Again, we see a reluctance to put things in Gore’s column. Gore won both by double digits. The idea that Maryland “leaned” was laughable.

    Slight Bush: Delaware, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, California All were easy wins for Gore. Only Minnesota was within shouting distance.

    Slight Gore: New Jersey Another huge win for Gore.

    We can see that it wasn’t just that RCP was wrong; they were wrong everywhere, systematically and massively underestimating Gore’s support.

    So what happened? And does this mean we should point and laugh at projections for this year?

    Well, first of all, RCP way over-estimated Ralph Nader’s influence. This may sound strange to Democrats still bitter about 2000, but RCP estimated Nader at 5.7%, over twice as well as he actually performed. And almost all of his supposed voters went to Gore. This not only skewed the popular vote, it massively skewed the vote in blue states like California.

    Second, Bush eventually underperformed the polls by three points. Ted Frank makes the case that this was because of the November Surprise of Bush’s drunk driving arrest. While that’s possible — I thought so at the time — I’m less convinced now. When you get into the last days of the election, most people have decided. I really doubt this shifted the national polls by three points in three days, which is a *very* large and *very* rapid shift so late in the game.

    In the end, I think it was all of the above: they overestimated Nader’s support, the polls shifted late and RCP had a bit of a bias. But I also think RCP was simply ahead of its time. In 2000, we simply did not have the relentless national and state level polls we have now. And we did not have the kind of information that can tease out the subtle biases and nuances that Nate Silver can.

    Ah, Nate Silver. We keep circling back to him. So what do I think? Is Silver going to be sitting pretty on November 7 or will he have egg on his face?

    I don’t know.

    I think he’s doing the best job he can, given the difficulty of the data. But when the election is this close, you’re straining the ability of even the most careful analyst to predict the future. I think it’s possible that he will miss. But it’s not because he’s biased or stupid. It’s simply because close elections are difficult to forecast. Even the smallest error — a 1% national offset in the popular vote — could have big implications for the final result. I simply find it hard to believe that any model can predict an election likely to be within the noise.

    I will note that if Silver does miss badly, this does not make his critics right. We should never confused the process with the result. If Silver misses but some guy throwing darts an electoral college map gets it right, this does not mean dart-throwing is superior. It means that one guy got lucky and the other missed something.

    My prediction? I don’t know. This feels like an electoral-popular split since Romney’s red-state support is stronger than Obama’s blue-state support. That may be my own bias playing up: I would love to watch the pundits argue 180 degrees from where they were in 2000 and I would love to see the President, whoever he is, weakened to the point where Congress takes the lead on solving our budget woes.

    But right now, no result would surprise me. There’s nine days left. There’s a massive hurricane bearing down (natural disasters can hurt incumbents and I expect the GOP to say Obama’s response is incompetent no matter what). Job numbers have yet to come out. Some football teams have yet to play.

    To be honest: I just want it to be over, one way or the other. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of one side or the other quoting whichever poll most favors them. I’m tired of the bullshit gotchyas. I’m tired of being bashed from one side as an Obama bootlicker and the other as a secret Romney supporter. I’m tired of everything having a political implication.

    Hopefully, in a little over a week, we can start getting back to policy and ideas and things that really matter.