Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Nate Silver Was Right (and it worries me)

I'm a number cruncher.  I'm a fan of Nate Silver and Sam Wang and all the other nerdgeeks who correctly called the presidential election.  I applaud their systematic approach to data, their methodological rigor, and their opportunity to put in place a bunch of pundits who basically make shit up and call it analysis.

That said, this worries me.

This worries me because of the reductive nature of these aggregators.  This worries me because public opinion is not best defined as what public opinion polls measure.  This worries me because, as, the Obama camp demonstrated, politics has truly drilled down to micro marketing.

I have lots of time to elaborate on these concerns, once I (yes, you guessed it) crunch some numbers. 

Let me throw one out there in a hurry, though, and that's the nature of public opinion.  I've written about this in the past (here and here, about Twitter, for example) and how the circular definition above fails to capture what is truly meant by the fluid nature of public opinion.  This gets PhDweeby.  I'll write more later, but before I sign off for lunch lemme say my main fear isn't about the accuracy of aggregators.  They demonstrate the predictive power of big data.  My fear is more a case of how the aggregators influence how we perceive public opinion.   

Our opinions are more than numbers.  And this comes from a guy who basically takes opinions and translates them into numbers for analysis. 

I leave you with my favorite definition of public opinion:

Public Opinion is no more than this,
what people think other people think

That's another post for another day, but the words were uttered by none other than Prince Lucifer in his self-titled play.  They say a lot about what public opinion really is -- not just a snapshot of an attitude crystallized into an opinion by a standardized questionnaire, but something more fascinating and fluid and in many ways, all about communication.

As I said, more later.

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