They Fought the Math, and the Math Won

I wrote this about Nate Silver four years ago, shortly after Barack Obama was elected president for the first time. Four years have dimmed a lot of the optimism and starry-eyed hope on display within it, as I think it has for many people. Still, I stand by every word of that post, especially where it pertains to Silver.

Looking back on it, what I find most amazing is how you could apply nearly everything I said about him in 2008 to this year’s election. Four years ago, Silver made electoral predictions that were mocked and downplayed by professional pundits who didn’t like the outcome they pointed to. This year, with Silver’s profile much higher, the attacks were more pronounced, but the results were the same: When you fight math, you lose.

I supported Obama with reservations. I wish he’d close Gitmo, like he promised. I wish he’d stop sending drones out to kill people–both for basic human reasons and because it creates more terrorists than it eliminates. I wish he’d do more to end our reliance on fossil fuels, and to stop a pointless and destructive “war against drugs.”

However, none of these issues would have been improved by Obama’s only viable alternative. If anything, they would have worsened, and nearly all of the tangible good Obama has done (marriage rights, affordable health care) would have been reversed. For me, it came down to this: The party that opposed Obama spent much of the campaign season trying to rationalize rape, and their presidential candidate did absolutely nothing to distance himself from fellow Republicans who did so. As the father of a daughter, as a husband, and as a human being, I do not want that party making laws, let alone appointing Supreme Court justices.

Another reason why I couldn’t bear the thought of Mitt Romney becoming president was Nate Silver, the man who spelled out Mitt Romney’s demise months in advance. Or rather, how Silver was treated by people who perceived him as The Enemy.

I don’t think Silver is perfect any more than I think Obama is perfect. There are people who take issue with some of his methodologies (people much better at math than me). He’s not the only game in town, as there are now other analysts who do work in the same league as him. (Sam Wang, for instance.) Through no fault of his own (unless you want to blame him for being very good at his job), Silver has reached that unfortunate level of celebrity where large numbers of people invoke his name for the wrong reasons, or without quite understanding him. Hearing some people cite him under the flimsiest pretexts is almost like hearing dumb guys quote The Big Lebowski or Anchorman.

All this being said, as I wrote four years ago, I know I can trust Silver because he’s a nerd. A nerd’s primary agenda is Being Right. If a nerd gets something wrong, it’s due to a mistake, not bias. Silver’s methods are relatively simple and transparent. He did not predict an Obama victory because he wanted Obama to win, or because that’s what his audience wanted to hear. He did it because that’s what his numbers told him.

Someone like Nate Silver shouldn’t really have opponents. If he does, those opponents must be able to prove their math is bigger than his. But in the waning weeks of the campaign, the chattering class of the Right turned on Silver in a way that proved just how monstrous a world they ruled would be.

Confronted with a mountain of analysis pointing to a result that offended them, Fox News et al said Silver’s analysis was wrong because Unseen Insiders told them it was a close race. We were basically told to take the words of professional pundits at face value, since unlike Silver they could offer no tangible evidence to back their claims about why their guy would win. As many people have already pointed out, this scenario presented an odd repeat of the same Scouts vs. Nerds/Stats vs. Guts debate stirred up by Silver’s work for Baseball Prospectus, where he developed stats like PECOTA that predicted future player performance with astounding accuracy.

For extra gross measure, the Right launched personal attacks on Silver, concentrating on mocking his bookish appearance and saying he couldn’t be right because he was “effeminate.” It left serious criticism far behind and veered into an arena of bullying that wasn’t too far removed from this Onion article. Eventually, even more mainstream outlets turned on Silver, because they recognized his analysis both sounds the death knell for the guesstimates of their own “my gut tells me” pundits and lessens the tension (and therefore ratings) of election night coverage.

Romney’s supporters didn’t say Nate Silver’s math was wrong; they said math itself was wrong. It was just one manifestation of a party that has dropped any pretense of having an intellectual wing. The modern Republican party has devolved into an angry, violent mutant that reacts to any hint of science with shrieks of NERD!

This is what made election night so sweet: not only did Obama win, but Silver’s predictions were almost 100 percent correct. It was made even more delicious as Twitter friends kept RTing the likes of Ann Coulter, Dick Morris, and others who had spouted out insane predictions for a landslide Romney victory based on nothing but their own wishes, which were quickly drowned in an ocean of facts.

Watch this video of Rove trying to argue against the call of Ohio for Obama–a call not even Fox News was disputing by this point. Watch him spit out random numbers and percentages, telling us the Secretary of State is Columbus refreshing election returns, all while Fox News anchors desperately try to talk him off the ledge. You can almost see his world crumbling before your eyes, his faith in the power of his gut (and whatever dirty tricks he tried to pull behind the scenes in Ohio) forever shaken.

This couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy than Rove, who more than anyone else was responsible for eight years of Bush, and therefore the Iraq War and the economic cesspit in which we are currently mired. In the video above, he even has the brass balls to invoke the memory of Florida in 2000 to insist that Ohio shouldn’t be “called early.” Not enough bad things can happen to Rove to suit me, but him experiencing a total meltdown on live television is a start.

I used to have a theory that Obama would find it difficult to do anything in his first term, because too many people would be scared by the “angry black man” factor. Jackie Robinson had to first prove he could do the job to the world at large before Branch Rickey gave him leave to “play hard,” and I thought Obama would need to win a second term in order to afford himself the same luxury a white candidate would assume from day one.

Based on Obama’s actions and public temperament during his first term, I’m not sure I still believe that. And even if I did, it will be hard for him to do many things with the same divided Congress in place until at least 2014. But I will still be able to sleep better knowing that we won’t be ruled by the party that fights math harder than it fights rape.

3 thoughts on “They Fought the Math, and the Math Won”

  1. One reason the TV people downplay Nate Silver is that he messes up the broadcast. Election night, and the news shows leading up to it, need the suspense of the unknown to keep viewers. The need the poll numbers to be shaky and all over the place, they like it that way.Then Silver comes along and does what he does to those numbers, and he has a track record of being right…and it takes all the fun out of it.


    Seriously though, I’m picking up Silver’s book.  This guy is great, and I love your characterization of a nerd only caring about being right.

  3. Obama is only president because he didn’t rock the boat too much on issues the Democrats have ignored since the idealistic doldrum days of Mondale and Dukakis. For good or ill, those of us with a realistic grip on politics now live in a world where the Drug War, Terror War, etc. are facts of life irrespective of whether they’re working or not, and the key to everything is big money whatever side you are on.

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