It was the late seventies, back when you didn’t teach-to-the-test and actually tried to get the kids to learn a few things, and if possible, even understand them – but even then teaching high-school English was a dismal business, even at that fancy prep school with the sharp kids who would soon be off to Harvard and Yale and Princeton, or Slippery Rock University as the case might be. Not all the children of the highly successful are going to end up in the One Percent that runs everything in America and gets all the goodies – they’ll just occupy space there, with a more than comfortable income, perpetually puzzled. None of them back then, however, being teenagers after all, liked having to read Dickens or Shakespeare or some odd translation of Homer, and then be told to write a short essay about what they thought was being said there, and poetry was even worse – but the idea was to get them to see how language works. Language is powerful, and tricky, and often playful – poets have been known to slam odd words together just to see what happens. Sometimes wonderful things happen, things you wouldn’t expect. That can open new worlds of thought.
The kids were skeptical about that, but luckily, every high school has its total nerds, and that rich prep school also actually had something new, a large computer about the size of a VW bus. Yeah, your cell phone now can do ten thousand times more than that thing ever could, in a millisecond not four hours, but that mysterious grey box provided a good way to test that simply-playing-with-language hypothesis about the nature of poetry. It was worth a try, so the senior class’ chief nerd wrote a program that would generate Shakespearean sonnets in precise iambic pentameter, that scanned perfectly, drawing on deep lists or nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs, dropping them in in proper grammatical sequence, each selected based on the number of syllables required for each of the fourteen lines. It was a programming tour de force, and the reams of poetry that clattered off the line-printer were perfect. They were also pretty much nonsense – save of a startling turn of phrase that would make you think deep thoughts, one in ten thousand times.
Oops. It seems we need human poets, because selection and rejection matter more than raw data. Computers can’t do everything, no matter what you shove into them, and no matter how carefully and cleverly you shove it in. The kid who wrote that massive program, by the way, went on to a brilliant law career. He grew up, and he probably regrets that this is an absolutely true story.
It was also part of the times:
While playing for the Baltimore Orioles in the early 1970s, Davey Johnson used an IBM System/360 at team owner Jerry Hofberger’s brewery to write a FORTRAN baseball computer simulation, and using the results unsuccessfully proposed to manager Earl Weaver that he should bat second in the lineup. He wrote IBM BASIC programs to help him manage the Tidewater Tides, and after becoming manager of the New York Mets in 1984 arranged for a team employee to write a dBASE II application to store opposing teams’ statistics.
Something was in the air, and this computer-based statistical analysis eventually changed baseball, even if Davey Johnson never got to bat second. The intangibles were gone, and the comic and rather futile resistance to that was chronicled in a popular Brad Pitt movie a few years ago. That would be Moneyball – the true story of how the 2002 Oakland Athletics, woefully short on talent and strapped for cash, used computer-based statistical analysis to find great baseball players others had overlooked, and then pick them up on the cheap and win a whole lot more games than anyone expected. It was magic. Baseball scouts, the old guard, weren’t happy, but computer-based statistical analysis was better than they ever were. Some things can’t be quantified? No, everything can be quantified. Get over it.
The eventual king of baseball statistical analysis, the man with utterly reliable formulae for every possible aspect of the game, the game’s nerd-savior, turned out to be Nate Silver – but we all know him because he applied the same methodology to politics, first with his own blog predicting who would win elections, which was eventually hosted by the New York Times.
They couldn’t resist. He was always right and all the highly-paid pundits were always wrong. They wrote about the intangibles – the mood of the country and leadership qualities and character and whatnot. Silver looked at all the polling data, everywhere, week by week, aggregated it, and bounced it off voter registration rolls and all available records on voter turnout under all conditions, and made those highly-paid pundits look like fools. In the November 2008 presidential election he correctly predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states – he missed with Indiana, which went for Barack Obama by one percentage point – but he correctly predicted the winner of all thirty-five Senate races that year. In 2012, with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, he correctly predicted the winner of all fifty states and the District of Columbia, so he had fixed any minor problems with his methodology. Dick Morris and Karl Rove could say what they wanted on Fox News – that was nonsense – and Romney really should have had a concession speech in his pocket, just in case the intangibles didn’t work out. That year Silver did miss with the Senate races in North Dakota and Montana, where Democrats actually won, but 31 out of 33 ain’t bad. Everything can be quantified.
Maybe so, in baseball perhaps, and perhaps in politics, but no computer yet is randomly generating moving and deep sonnets. Something is always missing. There are intangibles, and in the New York Times, Timothy Egan puts it this way:
Here’s how John Lennon wrote “Nowhere Man,” as he recalled it in an interview that ran just before he was murdered in 1980: After working five hours trying to craft a song, he had nothing to show for it. “Then, ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”
Here’s how Steve Jobs came up with the groundbreaking font selection when Apple designed the Mac: He had taken a class in the lost art of calligraphy and found it “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture.” Ten years later, it paid off when Apple ushered in a typeface renaissance.
And here’s how Oscar Wilde defined his profession: “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”
We’ve bottled lust. We’ve refined political analysis so that nearly every election can be accurately forecast. And we’ve compressed the sum of education for an average American seventeen-year-old into the bloodless numbers of standardized test scores. What still eludes the captors of knowledge is creativity, even though colleges are trying to teach it, corporations are trying to own it, and Apple has a “creativity app.”
That’s what’s missing, and Egan has his gripes:
The push for Common Core standards in the schools came from colleges and employers who complained that high schools were turning out too many graduates unprepared for the modern world. That legitimate criticism prompted a massive overhaul affecting every part of the country. Now, the pushback, in part, is coming from people who feel that music, art and other unmeasured values got left behind — that the Common Core stifles creativity. Educators teach for the test, but not for the messy brains of the kids in the back rows.
In re-launching his data-driven FiveThirtyEight website this week, Nate Silver took a swipe at old-school commentators. He recalled the famously off prediction of Peggy Noonan, who criticized people “too busy looking at data on paper” to pick up on the “vibrations” of a Mitt Romney victory in 2012. “It’s time for us to start making the news nerdier,” Silver wrote in his manifesto.
Egan hates that, but now Silver is editor-in-chief of ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight blog – returning to his roots in the sports world – and only a special correspondent for ABC News. Political predictions will be occasional – a sideline, if he gets to it. Still, Egan has a bone to pick with the guy:
Data journalism has certainly done much to clean up the guesswork in a profession still struggling to find its way in the digital age. On election eve, it’s far better to look at the aggregate of all scientific polls than to listen to a pundit’s hunch. But numbers, as Silver himself acknowledged, are not everything in the information game. Satire, journalism’s underappreciated sibling, belongs to the creative realm. And there are no quants on the planet who could write Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” or a decent episode of “The Daily Show.”
Yeah, Jon Stewart knew Obama was going to trounce Romney, and had great fun at Romney’s expense, but then Stewart knew Obama would win because he read Nate Silver in the New York Times. Karl Rove is creative, in his own nasty way, and obviously didn’t read Silver. Ya gotta deal the actual data, the cold hard facts of the matter – and Swift, by the way, knew what was really going on with Queen Ann and then Robert Walpole and the Irish question. Creativity doesn’t require a vacuum.
It’s just that Silver, like all people who are right all the time, is such a pain in the ass, and also at the New York Times, Paul Krugman offers this:
It’s not the reliance on data; numbers can be good, and can even be revelatory. But data never tell a story on their own. They need to be viewed through the lens of some kind of model, and it’s very important to do your best to get a good model. And that usually means turning to experts in whatever field you’re addressing.
Yep, and with his Nobel Prize in Economics, Krugman is one of those. And baseball teams should listen to their crusty old scouts, out there in Iowa, who played the game way back when, when men were men and all that. But Krugman is a bit more circumspect than that:
Silver seems to have taken the wrong lesson from his election-forecasting success. In that case, he pitted his statistical approach against campaign-narrative pundits, who turned out to know approximately nothing. What he seems to have concluded is that there are no experts anywhere, that a smart data analyst can and should ignore all that.
But not all fields are like that – in fact, even political analysis isn’t like that, if you talk to political scientists instead of political reporters. So, for example, before glancing at some correlation and asserting causation, you really should talk to the researchers.
That’s Krugman’s general rule:
Climate science has been developed by many careful researchers who are every bit as good at data analysis as Silver, and know the physics too, so ignoring them and hiring a known irresponsible skeptic to cover the field is a very good way to discredit your enterprise. Economists work hard on the data; on the whole you’re going to do better by tracking their research than by trying to roll your own, and you should be very wary if your analysis runs counter to what a lot of professionals say.
Basically, it looks as if Silver is working from the premise that the supposed experts in every field are just like the political analysts at Politico, and that there is no real expertise he needs to take on board. If he doesn’t change that premise, his enterprise is going to run aground very fast.
Maybe so, but Silver seems to be the nerd of all nerds, so he may be one step ahead – gathering all possible data, even data from economists like Krugman. But here we go again. Silver has a new prediction:
When FiveThirtyEight last issued a U.S. Senate forecast – way back in July – we concluded the race for Senate control was a toss-up. That was a little ahead of the conventional wisdom at the time, which characterized the Democrats as vulnerable but more likely than not to retain the chamber.
Our new forecast goes a half-step further: We think the Republicans are now slight favorites to win at least six seats and capture the chamber. The Democrats’ position has deteriorated somewhat since last summer, with President Obama’s approval ratings down to 42 or 43 percent from an average of about 45 percent before. Furthermore, as compared with 2010 or 2012, the GOP has done a better job of recruiting credible candidates, with some exceptions.
As always, we encourage you to read this analysis with some caution. Republicans have great opportunities in a number of states, but only in West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana and Arkansas do we rate the races as clearly leaning their way. Republicans will also have to win at least two toss-up races, perhaps in Alaska, North Carolina or Michigan, or to convert states such as New Hampshire into that category. And they’ll have to avoid taking losses of their own in Georgia and Kentucky, where the fundamentals favor them but recent polls show extremely competitive races.
Silver is hedging. Democrats are panicking, but at The Wire, Adam Chandler adds this:
So right now, Silver pegs the odds of the GOP taking control of both chambers at 60 percent. But political fortunes can shift overnight and seven months (plus change) is an eternity. In the thousands of words written about this new forecast, six very important ones are left out: November is still several months away.
Even if you live and die by the data, and mock Republicans for ignoring it, data changes over time, and in the Christian Science Monitor, Mark Sappenfield offers a Heisenberg-like theory about how the observer can change the nature of what’s observed:
One of the great challenges facing Democrats this November is the threat of getting outspent, big time. That is why Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) has taken every conceivable opportunity (and a couple fairly inconceivable ones) to attack the Koch brothers, the conservative political donors who even at this early stage of the election are spending millions on advertisements to unseat the most vulnerable Senate Democrats.
Fortunately for Senator Reid, no one opens Democratic pocketbooks like Nate Silver, it seems.
Democratic operatives have found that the most effective way to get a potential donor to open an e-mail is to put Silver’s name in the subject line, according to a report by National Journal’s Scott Bland. As in: “Nate Silver’s terrifying math.”
The last time Silver released a Senate forecast (July), he called Senate control a “toss-up.” His new analysis, released Sunday, could be the forecast that launches a thousand Democratic e-mails.
That could change everything, with Silver inadvertently changing everything, and there’s this too:
Perhaps the biggest problem facing Democrats this fall is getting their own voters to the polls. In midterm elections, when the political buzz is lower, many voters stay at home – and those voters often trend Democratic.
“During presidential elections, young people vote, women are more likely to vote, blacks, Hispanics more likely to vote,” Obama said Thursday at a fundraiser in Miami for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “But in midterms, we get clobbered – either because we don’t think it’s important, or we’ve become so discouraged about what’s happening in Washington that we think it’s not worth our while.”
Motivating those voters to think voting is worth their while this November will be Job No. 1 for the Democratic campaign operatives. And on Sunday, Silver might have given them a little more ammunition.
Werner Karl Heisenberg did come up with that uncertainty principle – that in particle physics experiments, the very act of observing alters the position of the particle being observed, and makes it impossible, even in theory, to accurately predict its behavior. Maybe politics is like that too. But what if there’s no particle there in the first place? What have the Democrats offered anyone, specifically, other than “hope” – whatever that means?
Thomas Frank discussed the sad history of that:
What Democrats mean by the word is not quite so world-transforming. To them it is more of a personal attribute. The way Bill Clinton talked about “hope” in 1992 it was a fairly simple deal: He had it, the other guy didn’t. America under George Bush Senior was suffering a sort of hope drought, and if he, Bill Clinton, were to become president, hope would be restored to the parched fields of the Republic. The election, he said in a campaign video, was basically a hope referendum; it “presents America with a very stark choice: a choice between hope and fear.” In a video called “The Man from Hope” (Clinton was born in Hope, Ark.), which was shown at the Democratic convention, the candidate recited a hope list: He hoped he could improve himself every day, he hoped the nation would achieve togetherness, and finally he confided his hope that every American would come to love the children of America. Perhaps recognizing how vacuous all this must have sounded, Clinton proceeded to the inevitable corollary of all Democratic hope-talk: that these run-of-the-mill wishes were in fact a little bit bold. “I still believe these things are possible,” he intoned. “I still believe in the promise of America. And I still believe in a place called Hope.”
That was a bit irritating, but it got stranger:
Compared to Bill Clinton, Obama is a poet. In his hands the old platitude sings. He can spin the null concept of hope into oratory to rival Pericles.
Obama’s definition of the cherished cliché is slightly different, however. In his 2006 memoir, “The Audacity of Hope,” he identified “hope” as a sort of absence of cynicism, a belief that government can do good in the world. He often elaborated on this uninteresting view in his electrifying campaign speeches. In one memorable 2008 appearance before a throng of the faithful in Rhode Island, he defined hope as “That sense that we can make America better.” “Nothing worthwhile in this country’s ever happened,” he continued, “except somebody, somewhere was willing to hope.”
But the maneuvers for which Obama are deservedly famous are the leaps and spins he executed in hope’s backfield. He not only genuflected before the beloved banality, he pretended it took “audacity” to do so, even going so far as to imagine himself beleaguered by cynics for daring to hope. He liked to introduce his famous description of himself as a “hope-monger,” for example, by claiming the phrase was a slight directed at him by Beltway media types, which he would now wear as a badge of honor. Yes, he would stand up for hope regardless of how the highbrows sneered at it.
This might as well be nonsense sonnets randomly generated by a computer, where the words are only teasing at meaning:
To describe politics in terms of “hope” fundamentally misrepresents the situation we are in, and by misrepresenting, gets the Democrats off the hook time and again. It is hope that allows them to sell us out over and over.
I say this because our relationship with elected officials, here in the 21st century, shouldn’t really be a matter of hope. When a young person with lousy life chances thinks of his future as a kind of lottery, that is the appropriate terrain for hope. Tell the young to read “Think and Grow Rich,” and to buy a scratch ticket while they’re at it. Why not?
But with politics it’s different: We form groups, we strategize, we donate, we plan how to best advance our collective interests. This is not the lottery. When we elect public servants, the deal ought to be a little more of a sure thing.
And there’s this:
“Hope” also sets an extremely low standard for judging Democratic politicians. Hope is, by their definition, something they bring with them, or a place they come from, or a poster they are (literally!) the illustration for; ensuring that this fanciful substance flows our way doesn’t require them actually to, you know, enact anything we’re hoping for. On the contrary, they can do things (like Clinton’s deregulations or Obama’s spying program) that actually harm their constituents, and then tell us, as Barack Obama tweeted after the 2012 election, “The definition of hope is you still believe, even when it’s hard.”
This is the opposite of accountability. It means, just keep waiting, and just keep voting. If you think good thoughts long enough, maybe someday you’ll get those million bucks, or that single-payer healthcare system.
Yeah – dream on. Nate Silver’s statistical models don’t account for folks who distrust the party of the rich and the Jihad-for-Jesus people, and their matching exasperation with being jerked around by nonsense words from their own side. Not everything can be quantified. We’ve just believed that since the seventies, with the cool new computers. Silver might be right almost all the time, but maybe that doesn’t really matter – unless you own a baseball team. Let’s hope he doesn’t turn to randomly generated sonnets next.