Retroactive Line of the Day (“Data? We Don’t Need no Stinking Data” Edition)

I just came across Peggy Noonan's pre-election column. It is quite illustrative.

“We begin with the three words everyone writing about the election must say: Nobody knows anything. Everyone’s guessing. ” –Peggy Noonan in here Monday column.

Now, of course, it is easy to make fun of this after the election is settled, since there is no argument whatsoever in her favor now.  However, it would have been pretty easy to make fun of this as soon as it was published because, in fact, not everyone was guessing.  People guessing:  Dick Morris, George Will, Karl Rove, Dean Chambers, Michael Barone, et al.   People not guessing:  Sam Wang, Nat Silver, et al. (or, more accurately, the hosts of pollsters who gathered the data used by Wang, Silver, et al.).

There were actual data to look at on Monday (and for quite some time prior to Monday).  Now, the data collection could have been massively flawed.  Or, the analysis of said data could have been wrong.  Or, an improbable set of events could have taken place even with the data collection and analysis having been done correctly.  However, to assert that it was all guessing is either broadcast true ignorance or severe partisan-based blindness.

She goes on into the land of anecdotes and gut feelings:

I spent Sunday morning in Washington with journalists and political hands, one of whom said she feels it’s Obama, the rest of whom said they don’t know. I think it’s Romney. I think he’s stealing in “like a thief with good tools,” in Walker Percy’s old words. While everyone is looking at the polls and the storm, Romney’s slipping into the presidency. He’s quietly rising, and he’s been rising for a while.

The last sentence is demonstrably not true and is a Noonanesque version of saying that Romney had the big mo’.  No. He. Didn’t. because the data did not show a slow, steady rise.  It showed an increase after the first debate that first stabilized and then receded a bit.  And, more importantly, it was primarily a rise of significance in national numbers while the electoral college fundamentals did not change all that much.  Even during Romney’s post-debate surge, Obama maintained an edge, and a decent one, in the odds that he would win the electoral college.  This is no momentum, not properly defined.

She went on:

But to the election. Who knows what to make of the weighting of the polls and the assumptions as to who will vote? Who knows the depth and breadth of each party’s turnout efforts? Among the wisest words spoken this cycle were by John Dickerson of CBS News and Slate, who said, in a conversation the night before the last presidential debate, that he thought maybe the American people were quietly cooking something up, something we don’t know about.

But here’s the deal:  while polling is not infallible and analyses and interpretations can be wrong, we also have a multi-decade track record that shows us that if the polls had been as wrong as Noonan and friends thought they were, then polling itself would have been in need of either massive reform or simply shuttering.  And Noonan further falls for the main bias in all of this:  media outlets need all elections to be close in their narrative, else why would people watch?

When one abandons sounds analysis one gets things like:  “All the vibrations are right.” Or:

There is no denying the Republicans have the passion now, the enthusiasm. The Democrats do not. Independents are breaking for Romney. And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.

As the cliché goes:  the plural of anecdotes is not data.

And speaking of data, perhaps the most hilarious, or perhaps saddest (but certainly the most emblematic) of paragraphs in the whole piece:

Is it possible this whole thing is playing out before our eyes and we’re not really noticing because we’re too busy looking at data on paper instead of what’s in front of us? Maybe that’s the real distortion of the polls this year: They left us discounting the world around us.

Let that one sink in for a moment, as it fully betrays a total misapprehension of what data were, and how social science works.

I know I am harping on all of this, as I did before the election for a while, but I really think this is all rather profoundly important:  we all need to be serious about how we gather and process information.  It matters not just for understanding electoral outcomes or in digesting the daily news, but it matters in terms of the policy debates we are about to face.  Issues such as the impact of tax and entitlement reform or how to deal with the defense budget (indeed, into a rather lengthy list).

If news outlets and analysts who have proven themselves to be driven by their hunches, guts, and/or partisan political preferences do not engage in a sufficient mea culpas and rethink their analytical approaches, then they ought to be ignored.

Success and failure should matter.

The biggest bias I have in this entire argument, lest the reader think this is about winners and losers or gloating, is in the favor of sound analysis.

And yes:  disagreements are fine, but that have to based on something more than preference.

The Land of Wish is grand when we are children playing in the backyard with friends and siblings.  However, it can be a very dangerous place for people who make real decisions.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. grumpy realist says:

    Bravo. This is why I detest the recent morphing of the Republican Party into a collection of anti-intellectual wish-fulfillment post-modernist bozos. For a party that squawks so much about conservation and classic knowledge, it’s sardonically amusing that they’ve turned into a party that has such disrespect for reality. You can’t just wish away bad polls (no, we’re actually winning!), biologic unpleasantness (oh, women who are “legitimately raped” can shut down conception!), or bad economics (no, trust us, if Mitt Romney gets elected it will magically improve everything!).

    Republicans used to believe in facts, science and technology, and a high tariff. What happened?

  2. gVOR08 says:

    It’s impossible to know how much of this was willful self delusion and how much was mercenary calculation of what their audiences wanted to hear. Every conservative I ever met regards himself as a hard headed realist. But there seems litttle demand for hard truth on the conservative side of the media audience. These people know their audience. They have no fear that factual inaccuracy will be held against them.

  3. But look, if you insist people look at data and evidence, then the entire GOP collapses. The whole party is built around denial of basic empirical evidence on issues ranging from crime to economics to climate change.

  4. bookdragon says:

    Excellent piece. My only quibble is that the picture to go with it should have been this:

    xkcd: Math

  5. Ben says:

    “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”

    This election has highlighted something that a lot of us have known for years, whether it’s in regards to evolution, to climate change, or to polling analysis/social science, or to virtually any other type of science.

    There is a significantly large segment of our country that know a whole lot of things that just ain’t so. And they shutter themselves off from any data that shows that it ain’t so. They are willfully, purposefully ignorant. And they denigrate people who abandon that ignorance by educating themselves as “elitists” or “snobs” or refer to upper education as liberal indoctrination.

    They WANT Americans to stay willfully blind, simple and ignorant. And they refer to those willfully ignorant people as the “Real America”.

  6. mantis says:

    The snake oil salesman says penicillin doesn’t work? I’m shocked.

    Data is a threat to Noonan’s livelihood and that of her fellow villagers. They traffic in gut feelings, word on the street, conversations with cab drivers, and other meaningless bullshit, selling it as expert insight. They are desperate as they realize more and more people are ignoring them in favor of real information.

    FSM bless the Internet, killer of overpaid bullshit artists*!

    * and champion of unpaid bullshit artists. 😉

  7. Mr. Replica says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Republicans used to believe in facts, science and technology, and a high tariff. What happened?

    The religious cranks took over the republican party. (Not every republican is a religious crank, but a lot of them are.) Where faith trumps everything else.
    We have high ranking republican officials that govern using their faith in the bible and little to nothing else. Their faith trumps actual evidence on every single topic. Take climate change as an example, their god said that he would never flood the earth again and therefore CC not real or something to worry about.

    As Barry Goldwater said in 1994:

    Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.

    It’s happened. And we are all dealing with the consequences.

  8. J-Dub says:

    A bit off topic, but when did Dick Morris get so fat? My god, I don’t watch Fox but I flipped to it to see their heads exploding and caught a glimpse of him.

  9. Fiona says:

    Great post, Steve. Data matters. Gut feelings–not so much.

  10. J-Dub says:

    @Mr. Replica: I was just thinking that as well. As an atheist, I’m not sure if I left the Republican party or if they kicked me out. Either way, I’m a Democrat now and thankfully so.

  11. J-Dub says:

    @Mr. Replica: Why would they stop climate change when they are looking forward to End of Days and their ascension into heaven?

  12. mantis says:

    The question is why do news organizations pay people who are clearly not working for the company, but rather on behalf of a political campaign? Rubin wasn’t working for the Washington Post over the past year, she was obviously working for the Romney campaign.

    Similarly, Fox News let Karl Rove dispute their own team’s call on Ohio on election night when he was just taking orders from the Romney campaign. The campaign told him Fox News was wrong to make the call, and he pretended like he had a legitimate argument against the decision rather than just the marching orders of a losing campaign in a state of desperate denial.

    Paying these people to blatantly do the work of political campaigns rather than anything remotely resembling or supporting journalism does nothing but discredit the news organizations for which they work. One wonders why the media thinks it is worth it.

  13. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, Noonan won’t ever be confused with a licensed and experienced professional. Hell, Noonan won’t ever be mistaken for being all that sentient.

    Speaking of data, and in addition to the obvious demographic issues relative to the election, there are some fascinating elements to the basic raw ballot totals.

    Obama lost around 6 million votes from ’08, and still won. Think about that. Obviously he kicked McCain’s ass in ’08, so he started out with quite a cushion. But the other point is that Romney’s vaunted turnout machine ipso facto was a horrific failure.

    Subject of course to the final, final count, it looks as though despite intervening population and registration gains that fewer people will have voted to reelect Obama than the number of people who voted (gulp) to reelect George W. Bush. Postulate all the layers of irony, especially in view of how each man respectively will be treated in the (liberal) history books.

  14. mantis says:

    @mantis:

    Oops. Posted this on the wrong thread. Feel free to delete my last comment (and this one).

  15. john personna says:

    Basically, the kids who invented “big data” were in the Obama camp, and brought it to him. The GOPers might understand it a bit, and might have tried to buy some, but it isn’t really the same as letting the kids lead.

    From the tech blogs: What is big data?

    Big data is data that exceeds the processing capacity of conventional database systems. The data is too big, moves too fast, or doesn’t fit the strictures of your database architectures. To gain value from this data, you must choose an alternative way to process it.

    The hot IT buzzword of 2012, big data has become viable as cost-effective approaches have emerged to tame the volume, velocity and variability of massive data. Within this data lie valuable patterns and information, previously hidden because of the amount of work required to extract them. To leading corporations, such as Walmart or Google, this power has been in reach for some time, but at fantastic cost. Today’s commodity hardware, cloud architectures and open source software bring big data processing into the reach of the less well-resourced. Big data processing is eminently feasible for even the small garage startups, who can cheaply rent server time in the cloud.

    Basically the Obama campaign took “the hot IT buzzword of 2012” and got it in play for the 2012 election.

  16. Mr. Replica says:

    @J-Dub:

    And that is precisely why they are so dangerous.
    No government should have elected officials that feel that nothing outside of their god’s word is unimportant.

  17. danimal says:

    I’ve made a realization abour Republican economics. If, as reports claim, the very top levels of Republican strategists and politicians really believed that Romney was going to win, based on anecdotal evidence and gut feelings, then my assumption the Republican leaders are horribly cynical in their approach to tax and budget issues may be wrong. They may truly believe in the confidence fairy, the Laffer curve and Rosy Scenario. They may not understand that tax cuts in a high tax-rate environment are more stimulative than tax cuts in a low-tax environment. Maybe they don’t understand basic Keynesian concepts, rather than dismissing them cynically based on political convenience. Maybe, as the liberal argument has often been framed, they are stupid rather than evil.

    That doesn’t, obviously, excuse them from their responsibility to govern wisely. But perhaps liberals need to reframe their arguments away from the assumption the GOP leadership are behaving cynically (evil) and start from the assumption that GOP leaders are simply acting on gut feelings and folk wisdom, and they need to be addressed as if they are attending a high school economics class.

  18. stonetools says:

    I’m hoping, against hope, that the networks will put these old fashioned ” gut feelings” pundits out to pasture and put the numbers guys-the Nate Silvers and even the Chuck Todds- up front and center. They may be less entertaining or well connected, but they do have the virtue of actually being more likely to be right.

  19. Rafer Janders says:

    There is no denying the Republicans have the passion now, the enthusiasm. The Democrats do not. Independents are breaking for Romney. And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.

    As goes tony Northwest Washington, D.C., so does not go the nation, apparently.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    It is hardly surprising that Noonan and her ilk made predictions based on their feelings rather than any real facts…after all, these are the same people who are part of a party and a movement that denies global warming and evolution, among many other facts, and believes that tax cuts pay for themselves, among many other delusions…

    Subject of course to the final, final count, it looks as though despite intervening population and registration gains that fewer people will have voted to reelect Obama than the number of people who voted (gulp) to reelect George W. Bush. Postulate all the layers of irony, especially in view of how each man respectively will be treated in the (liberal) history books.

    Bush ran as a War President in 2004…no layers of irony need to be postualted…and no matter what the current President’s legacy, Bush will be remembered as one of the worst presidents in American history…reality has a well-known liberal bias…

  21. de stijl says:

    Peggy Noonan – the country’s best paid concern troll.

    She’s the Joe Lieberman of the pundit class.

  22. anjin-San says:

    Has anyone seen Drew?

  23. michael reynolds says:

    @anjin-San:

    No way. Drew promised Jan that Mr. Romney would win. Neither of them has re-appeared. They may be lost to us.

    Pity, because I was hoping Drew could explain how Romney used his mighty businessman skills to get his ass kicked by a community organizer.

  24. Davebo says:

    The Land of Wish is grand when we are children playing in the backyard with friends and siblings. However, it can be a very dangerous place for people who make real decisions.

    Fortunately only Mr. Murdoch seems willing to entrust any decision making power to Ms. Noonan.

    It’s not exactly the first time she’s been spectacularly wrong and it appears that once again neither she nor whatever credibility she may have retained will pay a price for failure.

  25. Liberty60 says:

    It isn’t just the anti-science attitude of the GOP; its also the anti-science attitude of the Village.

    Noon, Morris, Will, and the rest all traffic in insider knowledge, the “we’ve seen behind the curtain” sort of stuff that rubes eat up. Its not just someone’s gut, its MY gut, the trusted gut of the courtier who has access to the most intimte knowledge of the King’s bowel movement.

    To paraphrase, they are stupid people’s idea of what smart people sound like, right down to the arcane quotes (often out of context anyway).

  26. Liberty60 says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Give them a break- they are probably busy packing for Australia.

  27. grumpy realist says:

    @Liberty60: If they’re heading for Oz because they think it’s going to be the free-marketer’s paradise, they’ve got a big surprise coming.

    Oz has national health care. And unions. Lots of them. And they seem pretty happy with the situation.

    (Oh, and they definitely admit the existence of global climate change)

  28. To give credit where credit is due: Jan has made some appearances in other threads.

    The others? No so much.

    Smooth Jazz’s absence in particular has been the most noteworthy, tho’ perhaps the least surprising.

  29. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Does the fact that the election is over mean that we are now spared your posts from “zombieland” for a couple of years? Please say “yes.”

  30. al-Ameda says:

    @Liberty60:

    Give them a break- they are probably busy packing for Australia.

    More like, North Korea.

  31. J-Dub says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: They are too busy hoisting their flags upside down.

  32. skeeball says:

    @al-Ameda:

    More like, North Korea.

    I always figured Mogadishu was the perfect free market paradise

  33. al-Ameda says:

    @skeeball:

    I always figured Mogadishu was the perfect free market paradise

    Safest place on Earth too – no gun regulations.