Joho the Blog[2b2k] What do we learn from our failure to believe the polls? - Joho the Blog

[2b2k] What do we learn from our failure to believe the polls?

There’s lots being written about why the Republicans were so wrong in their expectations about this week’s election. They had the same data as the rest of us, yet they apparently deeply believed they were going to win. I think it’s a fascinating question. But I want to put it to different use.

The left-wing subtext about the Republican leadership’s failure to interpret the data is that it’s comeuppance for their failure to believe in science or facts. But that almost surely is a misreading. The Republicans thought they had factual grounds for disbelieving the polls. The polls, they thought, were bad data that over-counted Democrats. The Republicans thus applied an unskewing algorithm in order to correct them. Thus, the Republicans weren’t pooh-poohing the importance of facts. They were being good scientists, cleaning up the data. Now, of course their assumptions about the skewing of the data were wrong, and there simply has to be an element of wish-fulfillment (and thus reality denial) in their belief that the polls were skewed. But, their arguments were based on what they thought was a fact about a problem with the data. They were being data-based. They just did a crappy job of it.

So what do we conclude? First, I think it’s important to recognize that it wasn’t just the Republicans who looked the data in the face and drew entirely wrong conclusions. Over and over the mainstream media told us that this race was close, that it was a toss-up. But it wasn’t. Yes, the popular vote was close, although not as close as we’d been led to believe. But the outcome of the race wasn’t a toss-up, wasn’t 50-50, wasn’t close. Obama won the race decisively and not very long after the last mainland polls closed…just as the data said he would. Not only was Nate Silver right, his record, his methodology, and the transparency of his methodology were good reasons for thinking he would be right. Yet, the mainstream media looked at the data and came to the wrong conclusion. It seems likely that they did so because they didn’t want to look like they were shilling for Obama and because they wanted to keep us attached to the TV for the sake of their ratings and ad revenues.

I think the media’s failure to draw the right and true conclusions from the data is a better example of a non-factual dodge around inconvenient truths than is the Republicans’ swerve.

Put the two failures together, and I think this is an example of the the inability of facts and data to drive us to agreement. Our temptation might be to look at both of these as fixable aberrations. I think a more sober assessment, however, should lead us to conclude that some significant portion of us is always going to find a way to be misled by facts and data. As a matter of empirical fact, data does not drive agreement, or at least doesn’t drive it sufficiently strongly that by itself it settles issues. For one reason or another, some responsible adults are going to get it wrong.

This doesn’t mean we should give up. It certainly doesn’t lead to a relativist conclusion. It instead leads to an acceptance of the fact that we are never going to agree, even when the data is good, plentiful, and right in front of our eyes. And, yeah, that’s more than a little scary.

7 Responses to “[2b2k] What do we learn from our failure to believe the polls?”

  1. Being totally untrusting of anything that comes from the GOP nowadays I see a more sinister option for the positive forecasts of a huge GOP win; it was deliberate misinformation and was an attempt to pervert the vote from the undecided.

    America is largly a country that has firm ideas on winners and losers and no one wants to back a loser. This has been seen in sports that when a winning team has a long bad streak they lose supporters to the winning team so they can talk to their buddies in the bar about how well ‘their’ team is doing. In other words it makes them personally feel like a winner.

    Same in politics, people who shall we say have a less enquiring mind, may be persuaded by biased media to back a winner if they are ‘told’ in advance who that winner is likely to be Call it the placebo effect; you can change a political outcome if misinformation is communicated often enough, which was proven in 1930’s Germany.

    Perhaps some sreous research into the right wing use of polls is needed?

  2. For more on how polls skew results see here

  3. […] the behaviour of the media during the US election show us we’ll never agree, despite the data“? Are we living in a “post-data […]

  4. I’m not so sure a ‘believe it or not’ fits all scenario is the only call here. A hope against hope on a sinking rat ship would be a noted disposition of a few…Okay – so the rats are now in the water and swimming for their lives – but the mothership is toast…

    This trickle down transparency perpetuated and gobbled up by the democrat establishment and served up and covered up by the main media shill’s whose all the way eager apologist spin was the clear winner and strategy hands down…The truth hurts and with no pain intended we will see no gain’s amended by these neoliberal elites for a long long time…Bringing the old-man down is the plan…That’s how you remake the new-man…Truth be known people are really hurting and it is the new neocolonial praxis plan for pushing the new neoliberal agenda that we see unfolding as we speak sleep or wake…Although that ship hasn’t totally sailed as of yet it’s being prepped and primed for the voyage… It’s like fixing up the old-neighborhood the new-paint job will be key…
    If we don’t know fact from fiction the real change that’s needed to steer the ship off the rocks in the first place is not gonna happen…I for one am more than annoyed…Are you kidding me? What’s really happening America? Whether I’m in the water swimming or going down with the ship neither option is a good one, and I can see nothing here or there to celebrate poll or no poll – “the fools from the fooled” – in this victory.
    The skinny 2% doesn’t convince me, and it certainly doesn’t represent me…If you can cook the books you can cook the polls and cook the election maybe even in the same dirty transcontinental nontransparent pot…”Why do the extra dirty pots spoons and dishes if your running late for the party?”

    Yes, in just under a single term we find the country just a sliver away from a ‘banana republic’…We’re becoming a ‘banana (peel) republic’ folks because the monkey business as usual is getting kookier by the day and the meat in them skins has come up missing – Honesty Truth Transparency Integrity at least the once storied and now fabled American version’s have all gone way way South – (maybe now that the hurricanes’ have gone way way North) – the compass readings over the Bermuda Triangle are pegged on empty…

    Following the “money’s money” has become the oxymoron of the new day in America…

    At least the term “bale-out” can be applied once again to a basement full of water or a vessel taking on water….

    Yours truly!

    Love, Jack

  5. I think an emerging story on the GOP loss lies in the failure of their Get Out the Vote system, called ORCA.

    It seems the campaign bought a ‘solution’ or a pitch for a solution and then did not test it before deploying on Election Day — only to find it failed and 1 many thousands (30K+) of GOP volunteers were left confused and unable to bring out as much of the vote as had been expected – probably not enough to win the election but perhaps had ORCA delivered all that it had promised and had it been field tested, earnest volunteers might have felt that had better ‘field weapons’. Which in turn might have energised even more volunteers. So it may be the GOP ‘data cleaning’ logic had merit as you say, but their capacity to deliver the criterion variable (the turnout) failed them. A failure then of management, rather than insight.

    By contrast, the Obama team had a well field tested and responsive GOTV system. Makes you wonder about Rommey’s capacity to really understand let alone manage, emergent systems and grass-roots mobilisation.



  6. Diebold?

  7. Worldwide, there is no sharp distinction between “bananas” and “plantains”. Especially in the Americas and Europe, “banana” usually refers to soft, sweet, dessert bananas, particularly those of the Cavendish group, which are the main exports from banana-growing countries. By contrast, Musa cultivars with firmer, starchier fruit are called “plantains”. In other regions, such as Southeast Asia, many more kinds of banana are grown and eaten, so the simple two-fold distinction is not useful and is not made in local languages..

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