Political Attacks On Impartiality

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Political Attacks On Impartiality
Nate Silver — whom everyone in¬terested in the American presiden¬tial election should be reading — re¬cently wrote on his FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times about being bemused by Intrade’s analy¬sis, which is showing a much higher chance of a Mitt Romney victory than his does.

You should probably also know that Mr. Silver is, predictably, being accused of deliberately skewing the numbers — no doubt as part of a grand conspiracy also involving the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Area 51.

If you’re new to this, there are two basic approaches to election analysis at this point. One is in the style of the campaign reporter, full of impressionist writing about who won the news cycle and who has “momentum” — whatever that means. The other is poll-based. And that mostly means state-level polls at this point: there are more of them, and we have an electoral-college system, not a popular-vote system.

The impressionistic style has been all about Mr. Romney on the rise, a narrative that is to a large part being fed by the Romney cam¬paign itself. But the state-level poll¬ing doesn’t show it.

In fact, the state polls pretty much say that President Obama would win if the election were held right now, taking Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa, and quite possibly Virginia. Florida is a dead heat, too. Nor is there any sign of movement in Mr. Romney’s direction after his big post-first-debate bump.

So why is Intrade trending toward Mr. Romney? One possibility is that Mr. Romney’s supporters are trying to manipulate the results — as Mr. Silver points out, other markets and betting forums are much less Rom¬ney-friendly. Another is that Intrade traders actually buy the spin cycle.

Whatever is really going on, we’re now getting close to a showdown between styles of political analysis. By inclination, I, of course, trust the nerds. But we’ll soon see.

The War on Objectivity

The economist Brad DeLong pointed me to a recent attack on Mr. Silver in the National Review, titled “Nate Silver’s Flawed Model,” which I think illustrates an impor¬tant aspect of what’s really happen¬ing in the United States.

For those new to this, Mr. Silver is a sports statistician turned political statistician who has been maintain¬ing a model that takes lots and lots of polling data — most of it at the state level, which is where the presidency gets decided — and converts it into election odds. Like others doing similar exercises, Mr. Silver’s model continued to show an Obama edge even after the first debate in Denver, and has shown that edge widening over the past couple of weeks.

This could be wrong, obviously. And we’ll find out on Election Day. But the methodology has been very clear, and all the election modelers have been faithful to their models, letting the numbers fall where they may.

Yet the right — and we’re not talking about the fringe here, we’re talking about mainstream commen¬tators and publications — has been screaming “bias!” They know, just know, that Mr. Silver must be cook¬ing the books. How do they know this? Well, his results look good for Mr. Obama, so it must be a cheat. Never mind the fact that Mr. Silver tells us all exactly how he does it, and that he hasn’t changed the for¬mula at all.

This is, of course, reminiscent of the attack on the Bureau of Labor Statistics — not to mention the at¬tacks on climate science and much more. On the right, apparently, there is no such thing as an objective calculation. Everything must have a political motive.

This is really scary. It means that if these people triumph, science — or any kind of scholarship — will become impossible. Everything must pass a political test; if it isn’t what the right wants to hear, the messenger is subjected to a smear campaign.

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