Friday, November 2, 2012

The Passion of Nate Silver (Sort Of)

Needless to say, I am fascinated by the recent Silver Wars, which erupted, oddly, in the midst of a gigantic hurricane bearing down on the east coast. (No major damage up in my neck of the woods, although an uprooted tree on the green did reveal a skeleton. h/t Miriam.)

The "Nate Silver phenomenon" is a perfect example of Second Gilded Age puerility, a form of political commentary that is concerned not with meaning or ethics but rather with phenomenality, especially as translated into abstract forms, chief among them numbers. When I use "puerility" in this way, I don't mean it pejoratively but literally: this is a form of boyishness, as boyishness has been constructed in U.S. history. It's concerned first and foremost with abstract play—even a certain virtuosity with play—and it is entirely bound up its own game. And it is a game that may be a little ruthless, a game that implicitly must be played by a white, boyish figure, a Tom Sawyer who insists on playing even when a slave's freedom is at stake.* Silver's Wunderkind image creates kind of persona from whom we are prepared to receive statistical models; it is entirely appropriate that his statistical forecasting began not in politics but in sports.

Nate Silver's models can tell us how likely it is that Obama will "win" (the game). They can't, and absolutely do not aim to, explain, say, the role of race in the election. And they cannot give definitive predictions either, only probabilities: that's the point. Statistics always pulls back from the claims it makes; if it did not do so, it would not be statistics. Statistics is an inherently puerile discipline, not because it is dominated by men but because its principles concord so strongly with the way we have constructed boyhood—an unrelenting commitment to the play of abstract forms above all else: above wishes, above belief, above ethics, its only ethics being a commitment to the rules of the game. It presumes being unable to really know "the answer," except as defined and bounded by the game.

The Silver backlash has a huge problem with this. In the Politico piece that seems to crystallize the backlash, Dylan Byers quotes the NYT columnist David Brooks:
"I should treat polls as a fuzzy snapshot of a moment in time. I should not read them, and think I understand the future," he wrote. "If there’s one thing we know, it’s that even experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior."**
The key here is the word "understand." Brooks thinks that Silver thinks he "understands" the future. But understanding has nothing to do with it; there are simulations, and they indicate the probability of potential outcomes. It's not understanding; it's pointing.

The backlash to the Silver backlash is even more interesting. Silver's most ardent defenders are wholly immersed in the logic of puerility: new-media, moderate-left, youthful, exclusively male***—most notably Silver's fellow statistical Wunderkind, Ezra Klein. Their chosen tactics, moreover, have at times taken forms that we might associate with the other sense of "puerile." An article in Deadspin, Gawker Media's sports site, for instance, delights in the flamboyant immaturity of name-calling: "Nate Silver’s Braying Idiot Detractors Show That Being Ignorant About Politics Is Like Being Ignorant About Sports."

The Defenders accuse the Backlashers of two things—ignorance of statistics and a reflexive personal hatred of Silver founded on defensiveness—and suggest that the two are, in essence, identical. The latter, it is interesting to note, is a highly psychologized accounting. In TechCrunch, Gregory Ferenstein writes,
Why does Silver, who is really just an apartisan puzzle-solver, inspire so much loathing? Because his results reveal a psychologically disturbing fact: we live in an uncontrollable, unpredictable world.
As far as Ferenstein is concerned, the reason Silver is being criticized is that he reveals a truth that some people can't handle. That truth is, essentially, that statistics is a valid method of producing knowledge about reality; in other words, decrying Nate Silver reveals an ignorance that is the same as a psychological weakness. Klein's take is less cosmic but equally psychological:
Klein packs a slight dig at the Backlashers' masculinity in that phrase, "makes them feel innumerate." "Innumerate" is code for "inadequate," but a particular kind of inadequate; it's a castration complex built on an ignorance of statistics. Silver, as a methodologist and as a person, is "threatening" to traditional journalists (Ferenstein). The Defenders impute wrong feelings to the Backlashers, wrong feelings that are indistinguishable from wrong knowledge.

What is so interesting to me about the Defense—which is, if anything, more impassioned than the Backlash—is that it finds in the Backlashers a profound moral failing. Ferenstein's TechCrunch piece literally includes a picture of Galileo, calling up a larger-than-life myth of the forces of dogma unfairly pursuing a scientific crusader whose, as the Indigo Girls would have it, "crime was looking up the truth." Yup; Nate Silver, Galileo; I totally see it.


But the real failure of the Backlashers is a little more complex: not a moral failure, but rather a failure to be okay with the moral absence at the heart of statistical methods. The Silver backlash wants an answer, a position; it wants Silver to stop playing around. In other words, it reads statistics itself as waffling and double-tonguery. It's not wrong in that sense. It just fails to appreciate that that is more or less the entire point of statistics: to measure what is irreducibly uncertain.

There's certainly a basic failure to grok statistics that underwrites the comments by Joe Scarborough, David Brooks, et al. (the Backlash). And undoubtedly they are craven, miserable, petty people, as Ferenstein, Klein, and others suggest, although I have my doubts about proving the latter by way of the former.

But it's also important to break out of the puerility sandbox for a minute. We do not have to suppose, as Robert Schlesinger does in U.S. News, that the only alternative to "quants" is "gut feeling traditionalists" and "conventional wisdom"—that is, non-knowledge. There are good reasons to be wary of the statistical mode, if not reasons dreamed of by David Brooks, and they do not necessarily involve siding with the Ancients in a battle against the Moderns. Klein writes that
If you had to distill the work of a political pundit down to a single question, you’d have to pick the perennial “who will win the election?” [...] Now Silver—and Silver’s imitators and political scientists—are taking that question away from us. It would be shocking if the profession didn’t try and defend itself.
Perhaps so. But what if that weren't, after all, the question?

A Nieman Lab defense of Silver by Jonathan Stray celebrates that "FiveThirtyEight has set a new standard for horse race coverage" of elections. That this can be represented as an unqualified good speaks to the power of puerility in the present epistemological culture. But we oughtn't consider better horse race coverage the ultimate aim of knowledge; somehow we have inadvertently landed ourselves back in the world of sports. An election is not, in the end, a game. Coverage should not be reducible to who will win? Here are some other questions: How will the next administration govern? How will the election affect my reproductive health? When will women see equal representation in Congress? How will the U.S. extricate itself from permanent war, or will it even try? These are questions with real ethical resonance. FiveThirtyEight knows better than to try to answer with statistics.**** But we should still ask them, and try to answer them too.*****




Coda

The first woman I have seen to comment on the Silver Wars is Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times's public editor, and it was to reprimand Silver for playing around—literally. Silver offered to make a bet with Backlasher Joe Scarborough about the outcome of the election. Aunt Polly Sullivan writes that "[i]n a phone conversation, Mr. Silver described the wager offer as 'half playful and half serious.'" Which is, of course, the essence of the appeal of FiveThirtyEight.

-----

*I am of course alluding to the ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
**It's bad enough to have to link a Politico piece, but I'm not linking Brooks.
***I have not yet seen a Silver defense by a woman, although I suppose they must exist. I have seen many, prominently placed, by men, however.
****Silver's NYT colleagues, Dubner and Levitt, do not know better, unfortunately.
*****I am all too aware that a perfectly plausible gloss of this post would be: "don't hate the player; hate the game."

95 comments:

Anonymous said...

There are some thoughtful and thought-provoking observations here, Natalie, but also a striking lack of generosity.

Instead of imputing peurility to the statisticians, it's worth reading what they have to say about their own work. Take Princeton's Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton who also runs its state-poll aggregation project. Here's what he wrote today:When I started doing the Meta-Analysis of State Polls in 2004, I thought it would be a useful tool to get rid of media noise about individual polls. If we had a sharper picture of the race from day to day, a "polling thermometer," would tell a simpler story of the race that looks like this.

This story in hand could provide a common set of facts. Space would be opened up for discussion of what really mattered in the campaign - or even discussion of policies. To my disappointment, this has not happened. Maybe it just takes time. Or perhaps polling nerds need to get a few more races right. Let's see if we move the ball forward for Team Geek on Tuesday.

That's strikingly different from the account that you offer, and as best I can tell, in accordance with your vision for how campaigns ought to be covered. It's also, on its face, a perfectly plausible vision. Wang thought that if he could demonstrate the essential stability of the race and limit horserace coverage to the very occasional real shifts in public support, he could reorient the coverage away from the horserace and toward the issues. I find that laudable. And many of Silver's supporters, the ones you term Defenders, make precisely this point. They claim that the inveterate hostility to Silver stems largely from the threat he poses to the sprawling economy of political punditry that devotes so much attention to ephemeral controversies and meaningless ups-and-downs of political races. That if the public embraces poll aggregation, then it can stop paying such constant attention to the horserace, and that's precisely why it's under attack.

Again, it's a plausible vision. As a prospective argument, I find it convincing. But I think you're correct to note that this isn't what actually seems to be happening. Instead of paying less attention to polling, as Silver and Wang explicitly urge, their audiences seem to be paying more attention. As Silver and Wang demonstrate that few controversies or brouhahas actually alter the dynamics of the race, their audiences respond by wondering whether each particular ephemeral controversy will number among the select few that actually matter. Instead of pushing the horserace to the background, it remains in the foreground.

I don't think this is Silver's fault. It's not as if Dylan Byers is less culpable than Nate Silver in these matters; quite the contrary. What we've got, to use your language, is a fight between two sets of puerile observers. You've got to measure this against the baseline. Political coverage before 538 was equally puerile - almost entirely focused on the horserace, and not the issues. To the extent that Silver is giving his audience a more accurate picture of the horserace, that's actually progress - if people are going to follow it, they might as well get it right.

The real questions here are much deeper. Why do we treat politics as a sport? Why does coverage focus on process more than policy, outcomes more than objectives? Those are real and valuable questions, irrespective of who wins this fight. But by the same token, they operate independently of the questions at hand. I don't think that the Defenders, as you label them, would actually disagree. In fact, as Sam Wang points out, it's what they've actually been trying to do all along.

Halmonster said...

Natalia,

The value to me that 538 provides is in debunking and devaluing the clearly bogus polls put out by people attempting cynically to sway those undecideds who are "joiners" and just want to have voted for the winning team. By holding some polling firms up for ridicule on the quality of their results, we should eventually arrive at more fairness and less lying in our politics. I hope.

Hal

Natalia said...

@Anonymous (ZT?): As you say, the real question is, "Why do we treat politics as a sport?" This is correct. You call me ungenerous for, if I read you rightly, calling statistical culture puerile. But in fact, the word "puerile" is my attempt to elucidate the treating of politics as a game. Statistical culture is bound up in the performance of youthful masculinity. I'm glad to have the reference to Sam Wang's post, and I have no doubt that he and Silver and many others don't in the end want to feed horse race coverage (although I think we agree that so far, they inadvertently do). But the end of the quotation you supply rather supports my "puerility" designation (again—as I mention at the top of the post, it's meant as descriptive, not pejorative). Wang writes, "perhaps polling nerds need to get a few more races right. Let's see if we can move the ball forward for Team Geek on Tuesday." Games within games: we seem to be unable to escape the sports metaphors. This is cultural. Part of what I'm suggesting in this post is that some of the excesses of the Defense (Galileo refs, "Idiot Braying Detractors") can be explained by the performance of boyishness. In a much different way than Wang (or Silver) is doing, Deadspin and Ferenstein are trying to score points for Team Geek. If we want statistics to get us toward policy discussion, then we have to disarticulate it from puerility, and I'm arguing that that would take deep cultural work.

@Hal: No aspect of this post is about whether Nate Silver is right. I remember how you were last election at Inder's! Everyone was freaking out except for you. "Nate Silver has models," you said, and it was true. What this post is really trying to do explain the hordes of young white new-media dudes rallying to Silver's defense against... Joe Scarborough. I mean, really?

Ben Schmidt said...

Both sides are sort of different conceptions of manhood, no? Critic of Silver tend to come from the horse-race side rather than those who want to talk about the issues because he doesn't really forestall that. Certainly Silver's sexuality has played at least a bit part in driving the vitriol. Plus, I don't think he needs to be white. Silver vs. Scarborough is pretty much Tom Haverford vs. Ron Swanson; it suspect be better for the story if he was biracial or something. Then he'd be as threatening to established norms as disco.

David Roher said...

I wish you felt my piece merited more than a dissection of its headline, because it addresses two major points in your post: the perception of masculinity in this debate, and the effect of the "horse race" mentality applied to politics.

It necessarily addresses this issue from a sports background, as it traces Silver's own history as a baseball statistician. From both analysis of the coverage and my own life experience, I've found that sports statisticians are treated by the traditional establishment in the same way that they treat female sports fans: they automatically assume a lack of knowledge, skill, or passion for the game itself. The stats guys (and yes, to my chagrin, they are overwhelmingly white and male) are frequent targets of misogynistic and homophobic insults. For this reason, I don't think your connection between statistics and puerility holds up within the puerile sports world itself. However, your dismissal of the idea "the only alternative to 'quants' is 'gut feeling traditionalists' and 'conventional wisdom')" applies seamlessly, as sports coverage often portrays a battle of "stats vs. scouts" that doesn't actually exist.

I also think the connection between sports and politics is a little more complicated than you claim: it isn't just that people see politics as they see sports. It's also the rigid, fallacious narratives that the media apply to both, which my puerile site, Deadspin, spends a great deal of time boyishly attacking. I agree with you that so far, Silver and Wang have inadvertently contributed to the "horse race" aspect, but I see them as having started a dialectic that will eventually result in its destruction. I'm planning a much less puerile follow-up post that I hope will help bring statistics outside of the "who's winning" mentality and leverage its potential to solve the structural problems of the political system.

I'm very interested in gender studies, and I rarely see it collide with my interest in sports statistics, so thank you for bringing it into this discussion.

Anonymous said...

"The Backlash" are more akin to the Offense, and offer more insight into the male psyche with respect to aggression and dominance that you touched on briefly with Klein's snide remark, albeit tame and math-based.

For the Defense, number-crunching/statistical modeling and hyperactive political commentary comes more naturally than it does for those playing Offense, or the aggressors in this scenario. This is undoubtedly intimidating and leads to feelings of inferiority, and you get major apoplectic fits such as Scarborough's. Thus the real backlash comes from the Defenders, who are merely holding their ground.

I think this is important because in this realm of new-media, white "puerile" elite blogger-writers, the Defense has a major advantage. They actually own this space to a large extent, in a way that Scarborough, Brooks, and most older and even younger conservatives can not. This is the one space where they get to bully and torture their aggressors with impunity.

I personally applaud this "puerile" gamesmanship and find it naive that you think our policy discussion will be more open once we move past quantifying outcomes of events. Politics is inherently a game that is dominated by affluent white males, who use their influence and power in the media to intimidate people like the Defenders. I know this is "puerile", but until these agents are belittled into accepting new models of thinking about elections and politics in general, the state of our discourse will not get much better.

I'm speaking more to realism than wishful thinking- like others have said, hopefully people will wade through the vast sea of 538s in 2016 and say "what do you know, O'Malley-Palin is incredibly close, I should go door to door to explain how Palin wants to repeal Roe v. Wade" and see them as clarifying tools as opposed to a cause celebre. Until we get that kind of mainstream acceptance, you should be rooting for Team Geek, hard.

brad said...

Statistical culture is about counting things in order to see whether the anecdotal examples that come first to mind are in fact representative of the world out there, or are a very partial and biased narrow view of a complex and large reality.

Statistical culture is gendered only by those who decide that they will make it so--people like Dylan Byers of the "Politico", who mocks Silver's followers as "coffee-drinking NPR types of Seattle, San Francisco and Madison, Wis.", i.e., as unmanly; people like Dean Chambers of the "Examiner", who mocks Silver by calling him "a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the “Mr. New Castrati” voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program'; and people like Natalia Cecire, who mocks Nate Silver as a "perfect example of Second Gilded Age puerility".

Rush Limbaugh, Dean Chambers, Dylan Byers, and Natalia Cecire are playing the same game in their various claims that 538 is either "effeminate" or "puerile".

In the wise words of the Fish in Dr. Seuss's "The Cat in the Hat": this is not a good game.

Brad DeLong

Tom Miller said...

Natalie misses the forest for the trees.

1) The horse race matters. Yes, more often it is focused on too much, but one shouldn't overreact. The flow of campaign donations, the willingness of volunteers to donate their precious time, and the morale and work ethic of the campaign staff are all tied up in whether their candidate is likely to win. Knowing (or at least knowing the probability distribution of) who is likely to win is important.

2) This is part of a broader epistimelogical/political conflict over the role of fact checking and quantitative analysis in politics, the media, and life in general. Anyone who thinks that isn't important hasn't been paying attention for the last 30 years.

Chris Brew said...

The wonderful Bea Campbell ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrix_Campbell ), who I met properly just once, over a meal with mutual friends, smelt out that I was some kind of stats/computer nerd (and male, btw), so spent most of our meeting inventing and then using the term 'boysual' instead of 'manual' and wondering whether anybody ever needed to read these shiny little documents. Much funnier than 'puerile'.

As for Silver, as for boys in general, as for sports fans, I have one word for you: neoteny.

Anonymous said...

I'm embarrassed to say I was originally baffled by much of this post. In this pineapple of a post, Dr. Cecire uses a prickly term of the art, "peurility," as well as she continues her earlier thoughts on statistics. Unfortunately, I think Dr. Cecire (1) overestimated the investment of her audience in her research project, and (2) underestimated the reach of this post.

For those readers who have arrived at this post through political blogs, I recommend that you familiarize yourselves with Dr. Cecire's specific use of the term "puerile" as "experimentalism's playful and destructive younger brother, an anti-epistemological mode with a strong family resemblance to experimentalism's deep investment in epistemology." Furthermore, I highly recommend that you read her earlier posts on digital humanities and epistemology, especially "A Supposedly Fun Thing" and "Google Books Ngrams." These posts will help contextualize "The Passion of Nate Silver" in Dr. Cecire's project, or at least they might help readers already familiar with Benjamin et al.

Dr. Cecire: now that you recognize the broader-than-normal appeal of this post (a post that has even attracted the heteronormative hoots of those knuckle-dragging noncognitivists, economists!), I recommend that you include a note at the beginning that either links to your earlier posts, or explains "puerility" as a term of the art. Without such a definition, most of this article reads as an ad hominem against, well, men.

Anonymous said...

The claim that "puerile" is not being used in a perforative sense is belied by this entire post, which amounts to an attempt to not only diminish and call into question the genuineness of Silver's project but also to somehow imply that what he is doing is, at root, unserious and amoral. The unintended irony of the piece is that while Cecire is attempting to deconstruct Silver's creation of the world in which some kind of privileged white male ethos is dominant is that she can only do so through a similar exercise--the construction of a rhetorical game in which she, as representative of the high priestly caste of academicians who have purified themselves in the water of post-modernism, subaltern studies, and revisionist philosophy of science, can, with a certain faux sophistication, purport to tease apart the biases and artificiality of a branch of knowledge while insulating herself from any criticism both by the implicit insinuation that any pushback would merely be an assertion of the racist and misogynistic epistemology that she is criticizing and by the ephemeral abstraction of her rhetorical constructs that don't admit to the kind of rigor and precision that would be required for them to be disputed. In passing, she gives a bizarre definition of statistics that (as pointed out by commenter brad) has little to do with the actual discipline (though her definition certainly sounds sophisticated and paradoxical, the hallmark of an effective rhetorical construction in academe).

Also: "The Silver backlash wants an answer, a position; it wants Silver to stop playing around. In other words, it reads statistics itself as waffling and double-tonguery." That is just not an accurate paraphrase of the critics of Silver. If anything, they want more uncertainty--they want Silver to admit it's a tossup, that we can't know until election day. The are affronted by his claim that, while we can't know what will happen, we can know that we are not entirely in the dark, that a systematic evaluation of the data at hand can produce something more than each data point taken separately (and then some--e.g. Jennifer Rubin--seem to be affronted by the fact that we can do this *merely* by averaging the data, when what she seems to want is what Ciceri seems to think Silver claims to do--use a specialized and exclusive form of knowledge that somehow goes beyond the simple application of the Central Limit Theorem).

Finally, as another commenter has pointed out, the essence of Silver's project is to demonstrate how boring, pointless, and inaccurate the horse race coverage is and how much time it wastes doing poorly what Silver can do more accurately in a few minutes with a simple model. If he is at all successful in his unmasking of political journalism and pundits, he will--by obviating the thousands of hours of pointless horse race coverage--do much to make space for the kind of debate Ciceri calls for while also providing the public a valuable lesson in both the power (and limits) of the statistical mode of reasoning.

Mutaman said...

There are two kinds of people in the world:

1 Those who believe that an opinion isn't worth much unless the person making it has some personal monetary stake in getting it right (almost all male, but very mixed racially)

2. Those who refer to the first group as "puerile". (Most women and a lot of overfed, balding, reactionary, white males-ie Karl Rove).

Anonymous said...

Do you have any idea how badly you have embarrassed yourself with these foolish comments?

Joanne said...

I hope this is not representative of the state of academic rigor in English. Please provide evidence that you've ever, ever opened a book on statistics, Natalia.

Joanne said...

I hope this is not representative of the state of academic rigor in English. Please provide evidence that you've ever, ever opened a book on statistics, Natalia.

Joanne said...

I hope this is not representative of the state of academic rigor in English. Please provide evidence that you've ever, ever opened a book on statistics, Natalia.

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight - your problem, essentially, is that (some) people don't always employ statistics solely for the purpose of scoring political points. Is that correct? Do you realize now why people widely despise "research" in postmodernist theory?

Anonymous said...

"FiveThirtyEight knows better than to try to answer with statistics."

This is the really hilarious part. Apparently, the author does not think that statistics - the use of data, the analysis of observed phenomena - has any role to play in analyzing any issue of economic or social significance.

Or perhaps the really "unfortunate" aspect of statistical analysis is that they are, for the most part, difficult to bend with the subjective bias of the researchers. Such statistical analyses, in the eyes of government officials at least, are gradually replacing the widely ridiculed, pathetic attempts at social analyses by fraudsters in English and other humanities departments. This, my friends, is why you have the phenomenon of self-labelled progressive scholars engaging in the most dishonest, demeaning, ignorant anti-scientific rants. They are the true reactionaries of history.

Anonymous said...

After reading that excerpt one word is associated with Natalia Cecire in my mind "puerile". Heh indeed.

Yep statistics are of interest only the puerile boys while serious people present profound insights by typing the same damn word over and over again. I'd say that she thinks that if she types it again and again then she proves her claim, but, of course "again and again" is a quantitative concept and therefore in her view puerile.

Paul Manna said...

Before writing more about this topic I'd encourage you to talk to some people who use statistical methods in their day to day work. You would discover that your definition of the field would be unrecognizable to people who use these methods for a living. You say, "Statistics is an inherently puerile discipline, not because it is dominated by men but because its principles concord so strongly with the way we have constructed boyhood—an unrelenting commitment to the play of abstract forms above all else..." I've taught applied statistical methods for 10 years now. I would say that my students find the field interesting not because of some attraction to abstract forms, but rather because it helps them to ask and answer questions they have about the world. Researchers use statistics, for example, to see if there is evidence to support the release of new drugs to fight cancer. They use statistics to help them understand whether public programs actually help the people they are designed to help. They are used to reveal evidence of racial or gender discrimination in the workplace. These are the sorts of issues my students are interested in pursuing, and statistical methods are a great set of tools---not the only tools, I always emphasize---to help examine issues of such high public, and indeed moral, importance. My students do not have an unrelenting commitment to play and abstract forms. Rather, their commitment is in trying to understand the world better so they can help make it a better place for all people.

Anonymous said...

I like how implicit in this post is an even more extreme version than anything said by Larry Summers that math is a male thing.

Anonymous said...

I agreed wholeheartedly with Paul's comment. I should note however, with respect to evidence of racial and gender discrimination in the workplace, that statistics has shown both evidence for the existence of racial and gender discrimination, but also that common claims of the extent of gender discrimination might be significantly exaggerated. Statistics can both support and contradict prior opinions that the academic community previously had. And that is exactly why we need to use statistics - if you care at all about the truth, and not just your pre-conceived beliefs.

Anonymous said...

When do we hand the author over to the wolves for daring to claim that potential to do well in science is in any way correlated with male upbringing, preferences, or intrinsic ability?

Or is it an acceptable claim as long as she is a critic of science? (And a female?)

Anonymous said...

Please don't breed children

Patrick said...

We all agree that more media time should be spent on discussions of policy and substance, rather than the horse race. Contrary to the arguments in this post and several of the comments, I believe that Nate Silver furthers this goal, in exactly the way suggested by Sam Wang's quote in the first comment above.

As a voter, I used to spend a significant amount of time reading articles about various poll results, trying to get an idea of what was going on in the election. Since the advent of much more rigorous sources of information, such as FiveThirtyEight.com, I spend no time reading these types of articles. If I want to know where the race stands, I can find out in a few seconds by visiting a single, reliable website. This frees up much more time to look into more important and substantive issues.

Anonymous said...

Economists irate with your post: http://www.econjobrumors.com/topic/english-phd-playing-with-numbers-exemplifies-second-gilded-age-puerility

@gabestein said...

I agree with you that the real case Silver is making is that there shouldn't actually be horse-race punditry. And I agree with you that this argument is essentially being made in a juvenile way.

I think it's dangerous to cast two entire fields (statistics and punditry) as "puerile," however, and I think it's incorrect to read Silver as a game-player while acknowledging that he is not foolish enough to use statistics to describe anything outside the Game.

In fact, the argument he and a great many of his Defenders are making is that by taking the epistemology of horse-race politics away from pundits, he is exposing the falsehoods of the pundit class and creating space to have substantive discussion about policy qua policy rather than policy, a playing card of the game.

Anonymous said...

Of all the gender issues you could be concerning yourself about you choose Nate Silver's statistical analysis - ugh!

Rowan Caister said...

Great post. I'd been trying to get a handle on the story.. this makes sense.

Anonymous said...

This piece is incomprehensible. Silver and other pollsters don't have enough sample size to talk about race (remember, they are just analyzing other people's polls, not conducting their own.) But they, and all other observers of this election, know that the reason that Romney is even close is much higher support among white voters. (Sorry if that's a "puerile" masculine comment.) It is true that the press loves the horserace stories, but Silver and other poll analysts are saying there ISN'T a horse race, or if there is, Obama leads consistently. The pollsters are being attacked by journalists and spinners who want to deny the relevance of statistics in favor of "gut feelings" or insider scoops from losing candidates. What exactly is the "deep cultural work" that you want to see that will help things along?

Anonymous said...

What is this piece trying to say? It is incomprehensible. Current polls don't usually have enough sample size to do a racial/ethnic (or gender) breakdown, but Silver and the other poll analysts aren't conducting those polls--they are just analyzing polls done by others. Sure, horse race coverage is a plague of journalism, but the people attacking Silver and others are classic horse race journalists, who rely on "gut feelings" or "insider information" from spinners at losing campaigns. Silver and the other poll analysts are saying that there ISN'T as close a horse race as the pundits are saying--Obama is ahead, not by a lot, but steadily ahead, and polls don't change that much. What exactly is the "deep cultural work" the author wants us to do? What is wrong with analyzing statistics that are so used and misused in the media and popular discourse?

Anonymous said...

sorry for the repetition

Anonymous said...

The sad thing is that there's an interesting point at the core of the post, but by insisting on a false equivalence between silver and his detractors, lobbing a weirdly sexualized ad hom at an entire field, and failing to adequately distinguish between i. the accuracy of a prediction of an event, ii. the significance of a prediction of an event, and iii. the significance of the event itself, the author makes a mess of her argument.

I'm not sure whether I'm more sad that she's trying to convince people that mathematical analysis is puerile and regressions are just the oppressive penises that oppressive statisticians force onto resistant curves, or that she is reinforcing the hegemonic narrative that people who study Heidegger and Foucault just aren't smart enough to hack the hard sciences that they critique.

Anonymous said...

"Of all the gender issues you could be concerning yourself about you choose Nate Silver's statistical analysis - ugh!"

This. We have a Republican party that wants to take away all kinds of women's rights and is clearly inferior in every question you raised at the end of your post -- yet you're complaining that some guy who uses math like a boy is trying to predict whether this oppressive Republican party will win? Really?

Well if you wanted to get attention, mission accomplished I guess.

Anonymous said...

"If we want statistics to get us toward policy discussion, then we have to disarticulate it from puerility, and I'm arguing that that would take deep cultural work."

What an utter pile of nonsense.

ericdarylmeyer said...

Dear Anonymi,

The fact that *you* didn't understand the piece does not make it incomprehensible. A better reaction to the thought, "Huh... I don't understand what's being said here" would be to read more carefully, and/or assume that the author is making a contribution to an ongoing conversation that you are only just now entering. You would do well to make an effort to catch up on that conversation rather than lighting a turd-bag at the door and running away.

polymath said...

I'm pleased to discover your blog. I concur with another commenter who said your observations were thought-provoking. I wish scientists and modelers looked more thoroughly into the issues you describe (over time), though I'm not hopeful.

But I think you've missed something very important about what it means to understand the world. You treat statistics as if they're a way to avoid contact with reality: that they're only valid within a game, that they're abstract, that they're not definitive, and that they point rather than explain.

In fact statistics are the opposite. Those who claim definitive understanding of the world are in fact the ones who are puerile -- it isn't play or abstraction that characterize immaturity of either gender. False certainty characterizes immaturity (particularly masculine immaturity if we need to gender it).

Statistics are the way you test a model. So statistics themselves don't explain anything, but the model does, and statistics tell us whether the model is believable. Now it's puerile to claim that modeling is the only valid way to understand the world, or that testability/falsifiability is the only valid framework for a model, or that statistics are the only way to test a model. But it takes breathtaking hubris to dismiss statistically validated models as ways of understanding the world.

Let's be clear about what you're criticizing here. You're not just criticizing statistics, you're criticizing the idea of understanding the world by making models with propositional predictions, which one then improves iteratively in response to the accuracy of the predictions. You're saying that, by the time one has stated a proposition that is testable in this way, one has created a game-world in which the proposition can be stated, which is so different from the real world that it doesn't rise to the level of understanding.

And that is not something that most people have much respect for. Because most people desire to exercise power over death and pain. It's model-understanding of the world, and the technology it facilitates, that provides that power.

It has always baffled me how that desire has been called uniquely masculine, except by feminist internalization of the "men are propositional" idea, which was created by men to justify male power. A hungry woman will use propositional logic and internal models to predict the presence of food just as well as would a hungry man.

That we live in a world where we can conceive of that as "not really understanding what is important about the world" is truly an amazing accomplishment of the propositionally-refined models which drive our economic activity.

I'm also puzzled why constructs such as betting -- which better realize the analogy between predicting votes and predicting the presence of food -- are seen as puerile gamesmanship, while linguistic arguments against propositionally-refined models -- arguments that participate in the dialectic of the Academy -- are seen as more real. But hey, unpredictability makes the world interesting.

Anonymous said...

The generous assumption that the author knows what she's talking about, and it is the fault of the readers that they do not understand her, can be spared if she is able to demonstrate any knowledge of the subject matter that she's attempting to discuss here. Unfortunately, whenever she wades into a discussion on statistics, it becomes patently clear that she has little to no knowledge about the subject, and what little she is saying here is mostly lifted from cursory readings of pop-science critiques of statistics.

Anonymous said...

Her thesis seems to assume that at one point campaigning was about substantive issues as against winning and getting votes. That seems incredibly naive of the history of politics.

New media has probably just lowered the costs of communication such to reveal the large demand for what people really want to know -- whether their ideology will win.

I'm not sure how it's statisticians' fault, or their chromosomal makeup, for being concerned with "winning," considering politics is by definition a contest for the rights to forward one's views with violence, for control of the State.

Maybe we ought to blame the puerility of politics, of being too immature to rely on voluntary persuasion, argument, and trades to organize groups.

Chris Jillings said...

I notice you mention the issue of race that stats can't address (wrong! you can estimate how many people won't vote for Obama because he is black; or what voter suppression efforts will do).

And I notice you think sports irrelevant to serious issues.

Nate Silver got his start trying to figure out what made baseball teams win. Trying to create winning baseball teams in the 1940s and 1950s moved the civil rights movement forward. Sport is important in our society (as a safe outlet for tribalism, because it is a big business, because it's fun) and sport has helped make our society better at times.

As for the whole puerile thing, what is wrong with child-like wonder? Have you forgotten what it's like to open a book and see something new and fresh? Have you forgotten the feeling of the first time looking at the full moon with a telescope? (If you haven't done this, please do.)

Why do you denigrate child-like joy in understanding?

Anonymous said...

Does this mean Larry Summers had a point about math and science?

Not a fraud said...

When stupid sh*t like this gets posted by a Yale postdoc it's no longer a problem with the person, it's an indictment of the entire system. Only in a truly rotten discipline, completely shut off to the rest of the world and operating under self-congratulatory feedback from fellow know-nothings, can a person who has so little knowledge of the subject of her critique get a position in a top university.

Anonymous said...

An English lit scholar who calls herself an expert on the "history of science" doesn't think that statistics should be used at all in the study of social issues.* Why am I surprised? The trend of willful ignorance in the humanities is long past its prime, though unfortunately there are still a few 70s leftovers here and there circling their wagons and licking their wounds.

*And no, I'm not misreading you - "FiveThirtyEight knows better than to try to answer with statistics."

Anonymous said...

Summary of this 'essay':

1. Silver thinks this...

2. Silver's backlashers think this...

3. Silver's defenders think this. They're probably right...

4. But it's important to be wary of the defenders' arguments too. There are good reasons to be wary of statistics. And the reasons are...

[ends]


Jonathan Stray said...

An interesting perspective.

However, as the author of one of the pieces cited, I do feel a little misrepresented.

You wrote:

A Nieman Lab defense of Silver by Jonathan Stray celebrates that "FiveThirtyEight has set a new standard for horse race coverage" of elections. That this can be represented as an unqualified good speaks to the power of puerility in the present epistemological culture.

The previous three paragraphs in my piece were an argument against "horse race" coverage, decrying the facts that

a) there is a too much of it, in fact 60-70% of all coverage and not just in the US,

b) most of it is meaningless

c) it would be better if more political journalists spent their time asking about the effects of the candidate's policy on actual people's actual lives.

However, given that "who will win" is an interesting question, however limited, I am arguing that Silver answers this question better than almost anybody.

Other commenters have well covered the epistemology of statistics, which is fundamentally about counting. Deciding who wins a vote is also about counting, so there is a good match here, and that's why I believe Silver is a model in this (narrow, overrepresented) field of horse race coverage.

Thanks for taking the time to write, and read,

- Jonathan

hardheaded liberal said...

If your objective was to stimulate spirited comments to your post, you have succeeded. If you had any other substantive objective, you have failed to say anything useful.

This post may be one of those items you choose to delete in order to avoid its being considered in any future tenure reviews or job assessments -- in small part because of your failure to understand that the gender critique was simply irrelevant and inappropriate, but in large part because you used the language of ridicule to attack the person and work of someone whose discipline you apparently do not understand well enough either to appreciate or to critique. That kind of attack does not wear very well these days outside of the right-wing hackeries that are (mis)labeled "think tanks." (And right-wing blogs.)

I am (sorrowfully) not surprised to see a faculty member bloviating, as you did in this post, but I am a bit surprised that the faculty member has a position at Yale.

(I have read several of the comments but I have neither the time nor the patience to read all of them, so I apologize for any repetitions.)

In the 2008 primary campaign, where Silver first came to wide attention, there was very little in the way of policy differences between Obama and Clinton. The "horserace" was important, because until the economy collapsed in September 2008, there were keen differences of opinion about whether Obama or Clinton would be a more effective standard bearer against McCain. Silver's statistical analyses informed many of us who participated in that debate, because he was able to address questions such as, "will white voters support Obama" or would whites reject Obama en masse -- like many Protestants in 1928 apparently rejected Al Smith because of fears about Papal influence on a Catholic president.

My recollection is that Silver's analysis showed pretty clearly that Obama was able to command substantial white voter support among Democrats in most parts of the country. Silver also clearly showed that Obama could not command white support in Appalachian states (his worst states in the primaries), and that his support was weak among white Democrats in the rest of the South. But the fact that Obama was competing well for the white vote in the Midwest, Northeast and West Coast was an important consideration for Democrats to be aware of in the selection of their presidential candidate. DATA, and the creative but accurate analysis of that data, was important!

Silver's statistical analysis enabled him to predict primary after primary -- not 100%, but he had one of the best records among prognosticators in the 2008 primaries.

In blogging, as in mountain climbing, it is wise to look before you leap. I hope you will reflect a little more if you ever consider posting in this area again. Surely you can leave out the language of ridicule.

Anonymous said...

Re your attack on Dubner/Levitt, criticizing the works of scholars whom you don't understand is probably not a good habit to take up in academia. Do you even know what techniques Levitt use in his work, why they're innovative, and how they can tell us something we didn't know about society? I'd guess not. Just as being ridiculed by people who don't understand gender theory is probably not a nice feeling, it'd be nice if you can tone down on the unnecessary snide remarks and focus on your critique. Which does look interesting, and might be convincing if supported with more than anecdotal evidence and jargon.

F Lengyel said...

I look forward to the end of the non-mathematical political pundit. The hope is that introducing the mathematics of the social sciences into political discourse could elevate the level of political discusion above ideological debate.

Nate Silver's critics aren't entirely wrong, but not for the reason they suppose.

low-tech cyclist said...

"Statistics is an inherently puerile discipline, not because it is dominated by men but because its principles concord so strongly with the way we have constructed boyhood—an unrelenting commitment to the play of abstract forms above all else: above wishes, above belief, above ethics, its only ethics being a commitment to the rules of the game. It presumes being unable to really know "the answer," except as defined and bounded by the game."

Good Lord. I had always figured an outfit like Yale had some quality control standards with respect to hiring new faculty.

To take just one point, it's true that Nate's models don't explain the role of race in this election. But without statistics, you don't have evidence that race has a nontrivial role in this election. But once you know that white males are supporting Romney over Obama by a 2-1 margin - thanks to my puerile profession! - you've got a starting point for the discussion, don't you?

The question is, do you want to have some actual facts as a starting point for your explanations, or do you want to just theorize without their benefit?

And once you come up with an explanation (they're not hard to come by), you're ultimately going to have to use statistics to test the truth or falsity of those explanations.

And it's trickier than you think. While questionnaire design isn't exactly my bailiwick, we statisticians are all too aware of the surprising effects that even slight variations on question wording can make on the responses a question gets. But intellectual integrity demands that we test these things to ensure that respondents understand the question the same way we do, because if you just make up some questions off the top of your head, chances are they won't, and a survey that you thought tested the truth of your explanation in a valid way might really be a pile of crap.

Our puerile discipline can help you avoid traps like that, if you give us a chance. Like other scientific disciplines, we're about intellectual integrity, and separating truth from BS. You appear to need some assistance in that department.

Daron said...

I seriously don't understand why there are so many negative comments on this post. After re-reading the post three times, I still don't see any sign of an argument being made. She plays around with words, seemingly makes a point, then abruptly ends her essay before she offers an argument or any evidence. So there's no argument or evidence to criticize. The most we can do is mock the author's incredible pretentiousness, but that's not a very interesting way to spend your time.

Anonymous said...

An earlier commentator, critiquing the original post, seemed to defend Dubner and Levitt and Freakanomics. Don't lump Silver or others in with those two. Dubner and Levitt's work has been taken apart several times, and much of it is junk. Although you have to understand the econometrics and stats to know why in detail, you can easily say those two are doing pseudo-science in service of a backward ideology. For those who want to wade through the technical critique, see John DiNardo, "Interesting Questions in Freakanomics," Journal of Economic Literature, vol. XLV (December 2007), pp. 973-1000.

Anonymous said...

It is also is fair to raise the political context of how statistics are used and developed. For example, the first prominent use of multivariate analysis in social policy was developed by Charles Stewart Loch in an argument about English poor relief in the late 19th century. An analysis had claimed that giving people (especially the elderly) relief outside of the workhouse did not result in people taking more funds, but Loch (an advocate of workhouses and against "out-of doors" poor relief) used multivariate analysis to argue that the poor should only get assistance in workhouses.

But the fact that statistics, or other sciences, are developed in political contexts and used by reactionaries isn't news--wouldn't be to Marx or other critics. But Marx would also have seen the development of the science as useful, and not permanently tainted by its origins, or the uses to which it was put.

Helena said...

An interesting analysis, but I think you have misunderstood the role statisticians play (in the same way many commentators have misunderstood the value of literary analysis). Polymath does a fine job of grounding the field of statistics in the "actual" world. I would like to add (as a woman) that I find it terribly destructive to associate a gender with the practice of mathematics, but, alas, this is an ongoing struggle.

I would also argue that statistics is a more democratic tool for discourse in the public realm than it's given credit for. Alternatives include people in power who sound off at length on camera about what they believe to be true "in their gut." Whereas throughout history, recourse to reality almost always benefits the underprivileged or underrepresented.

Your point that the question "who will win" is a lot less helpful than "how will the next administration govern" is an entirely fair one to make. I just hope that the next president will value the statisticians who advise on very real issues like climate change and health policy!

??? said...

It would be nice if Natalia responded in any other way than to denigrate her critics' knowledge of her specific use of the word 'puerile' on her Twitter. Unfortunately, she has nothing to say about the fact that two of the authors of works she cited came here to tell her that she misrepresented their beliefs.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like you need to understand anything about a subject to launch a pomo critique of it. You just need to redefine a word to take on some greater meaning, and then apply it to anything that moves.

Xlp Thlplylp said...

Jacob Bronowski wrote that "Abstract thought is the neotony of the intellect" and Richard Hoftstadter wrote that intellectual attitudes range from the playful to the pious. The Theory of Puerility adds Gender 101 to the mix, as one learns from the author's Twitter account, where she and her giggling friends twit her critics, who necessarily miss the point. The background isn't mentioned here. An interlocutor who wanted to see how these "ideas develop across future posts" was referred to the established literature on Puerility and told that "it's also fine not to be interested"--it's a specialized subject. Don't worry your bulbous forehead about it (especially if you presume that the ideas haven't been worked over in the institutionalized method of the humanities.)

Anonymous said...

Check her twitter feed (@ncecire).

Remember while reading that this clueless and utterly contemptible pseudo-intellectual is among the best and the brightest in English.

Anonymous said...

https://twitter.com/ncecire/status/264827306554564608

What a hypocrite! Have you even opened a book on statistics?

Anonymous said...

Oh, what a scholar!

Anonymous said...

I like how the author responds to the blowback from her frankly unfounded and uninformed "critique" by saying that one needs to buy into her personal brand of ideology ("Gender Studies 101") hook-line-and-sinker. Then again, though, I suppose if your take on math and statistics is that they're somehow "abstract boyish playthings" I guess you can be fooled into thinking any bogus ideology is the fact of the matter...

Anonymous said...

Criticizing statistics for not having a moral component is like criticizing morality for not helping you solve physics problems.

Xlp Thlplylp said...

You don't have to be mean just because the post and the Twitter feed have been carefully calibrated to provoke that response.

NC has interesting things to say about the Digital Humanities. What are you supposed to do with the glut of Ph.D.s? Put them in charge of enhanced Wordpress sites re-christened as the online Academic Commons. Most of it is boring administurbatory work. (The technical support staff who serve them should quit en masse if they had any shred of dignity. Besides, the profs could use the work.)

But like anything else (since neurons are rare) occasionally one sees (and even comprehends) useful commentary. Even when the humanities adopts the mathematical methods it currently deplores as "value neutral"--taking a conceit of contemporary economics and game theory at its word--there will always be room for the institutionalized methods of the humanities, just as there will always be room for ethnographic studies in the social sciences.

In the end, the "blowback" is counterproductive. The best one can do in this subject is add to the commentary and the endless interpretation and re-interpretation. If you're lucky, you might be fashionable when you're alive, and if you're really lucky, you might labor in obscurity and find a posthumous audience.

Anonymous said...

From Twitter:

"it's being read as a criticism of NS personally or of his project or of stats, rather than of their cultural ripples."

Ok, so the post is not a criticism of statistics, and puerility is not used pejoratively. It's just a critique of the puerile cultural ripples of statistics -- stats being a field that is inherently puerile. Now I understand!

Truly, this is a brilliant way to insult a whole discipline while still claiming that you're not.

Anonymous said...

I mostly disliked Cecire’s post, even though I felt that it had a couple of nice insights. My negative reaction is mostly to the genre within which she is writing, rather than to her particular contribution.

In this genre the author must adopt an omniscient voice, while making meta-level assertions about the people and social phenomena under examination. It is key to this omniscient style that the analysis is all directed outward to its subjects, with no direct accounting for the author’s involvement, situatedness, or commonality with those subjects. I get the same feeling when reading it as one does reading very old anthropology texts, from the era when the demarcation between the observers and the observed would have been very clear.

I don’t mean this as parody, exactly, but, as illustration of my reaction I will try to write a passage about Cecire’s piece that mirrors one of her passages about l’affaire Silver. She says this:

“When I use “puerility” in this way, I don’t mean it pejoratively but literally: this is a form of boyishness, as boyishness has been constructed in U.S. history. It’s concerned first and foremost with abstract play—even a certain virtuosity with play—and it is entirely bound up its own game. And it is a game that may be a little ruthless, a game that implicitly must be played by a white, boyish figure.”

Similarly, I find her expository stance here ‘maternalistic’, which I don’t mean in a pejorative sense, but as rhetorical strategy that gains authoritative force via literal re-enactment of a parental style constructed in 20th-century industrialized economies, particularly in the middle and upper-middle classes.

In the maternalistic tableau, the supervised children are focused inward, on their small group and a narrow, stipulated area of concern (the “game”). The maternal gaze has a much broader field, encompassing the children and the game with an ambivalent indulgence, but also attending to ‘real-world’ concerns beyond the game, both spatially and temporally.

Physically, the maternal parent typically stands both above and at some observational remove from the game. On rare occasion the parent may actually enter the game and “play along”, with a sort of willing suspension of distance and scope of view (usually this is accompanied by both drawing closer and moving physically lower, to join both the locus and the horizontal plane of the game), but this is understood to be temporary, and is usually done with a whimsical or ironic tone.

The game is contingent and limited, and continues in some sense only at the sufferance of the maternal parent. The children are granted provisional authority over the conduct of the game itself, but is a given that the relationship between the game and the situating context is understood only by the maternal parent, including the question of whether it is advisable for the game to continue.

In the maternalistic stance, the author attempts to reconstitute this tableau, with the corresponding construction of the game, the children, the comparative triviality of the game when compared to the author’s own concerns, and especially the deep asymmetry of understanding between parents and children about anything outside the boundaries of the game itself.

By adopting the maternalistic stance, the author gains rhetorical authority through attachment to metaphors of breadth of concern (spatial and temporal), physically distant and superior position (i.e. literally “looking down on” the game), and of course to parental knowledge and authority in general.

The maternalistic authorial role can only be taken by a woman.

boris said...

As much as one might take issue with NC's framing in a vacuum, the venom in the comments justifies it. Well trolled.

Anonymous said...

The author is claiming that statistics in general and Nate Silver's work in particular are abstract, puerile game-play which contribute little of value to society. This begs two questions.

First, what evidence would it take to convince you that these things were NOT puerile? You appear to have thought about why your thesis is true without putting any thought into why it isn't true.

Second, how are you going to accuse statistics of not answering socially useful questions in a blog post about whether statistics are "puerile" or not? What does the puerility or non-puerility of statistics have anything to do with their social value?

Your piece reads like a hammer thinking everything is a nail. You're used to viewing everything through the lens of your discipline. Your critique of statistics as broadly useless is not evidence-based and misses the point in a way that nobody who had ever worked with statistics would. Instead, you substitute a non-critique using the language and frameworks that you're accustomed to, not because they are well-matched to discussing the usefulness of statistics, but because they're what you know how to do.

Anonymous said...

It's hopeless to attempt to mansplain the rules of the game in an attempt to win, or for any reason. The clever attempt to assign a gendered stance to the essay is itself a game automatically transcended by the indulgent essayist, who, we flatter ourselves, suffers our impotent tantrums in her awesome presence with equanimity. The only way to win is by not playing, but it's already too late. We are disgraced oppressors, frozen in stone behind an epistemological event horizon which prevents us from recognizing our privilege even if it were to be patiently spelled out to us. Absolute non-interaction, on every level is our optimistic minimax strategy--forever.

n-c said...

This is why I became an academic historian after my PhD in literary & cultural studies. Apparently one has to be so obtuse , while punning and playing with language, and so defensive about one's perspective, blaming others for ignoring socio cultural impacts without ever doing concrete labor or community organizing oneself, that the academic cultural studies club was one that would never accept me as a member, just as I rejected them. The absurd "defense" of puerile 's definition as game playing and masculinist (is epidemiology a game with no social utility?) shows how cultural studies has morphed into a Death Star, nuking all in its path, way off course from any usefulness in literary analysis . And damned sexist too! Didn't Larry Summers claim that women cannot do math? now we learn that women can't do statistical modeling either. So words are not pejorative? Why not adopt " retard"? Oh, sorry , Ann Coulter has taken that.....

Sociologist said...

This little circle jerk between NC and her fellow fraudsters on Twitter is really quite amusing, were it not so pathetic.

Damien Sullivan said...

"These are questions with real ethical resonance. FiveThirtyEight knows better than to try to answer with statistics.**** But we should still ask them, and try to answer them too.*****"

Yes, 'we' should, or someone should. That doesn't mean everyone should. I look to Nate Silver and others for poll analysis, and to Krugman and Klein and others for policy analysis. Specialization is not inherently puerile.

Damien Sullivan said...

"Didn't Larry Summers claim that women cannot do math?"

No. He suggested as a hypothesis worthy of consideration -- and testing! -- that men are more represented at the extremes of ability.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Summers#Differences_between_the_sexes

(Why? Having only one X chromosome could be a possible reason. A man with an unusual gene on an X chromosome doesn't have another one to balance it out; this is why women are hardly ever color-blind.)

Damien Sullivan said...

Statistical thought has an interesting effect on sports, too. There's the surface level of calculating performance stats of various players, but I don't mean that. Rather, the human storytelling instinct is always looking for reasons, causes, for phenomena. Someone getting a string of hits in baseball, someone having a 'hot' game in basketball. These are noticed and taken as things to be explained.

But, given that there's an element of chance in performance, we'd expect runs of success and failure, which raises the possibility that there is no explanation for a player or team doing unusually well for a while, and no reason for them to stop doing so.

I don't think there's any gender to that; everyone's interested in stories. Of course, since our society discourages girls from going into math, and statistics is math, we might expect to find fewer women in stats. But to take that as meaning statistics is 'male' is to internalize the patriarchy that caused the gender gap in the first place.

The Geezer said...

The author and the respondents have all had their 15 minutes now ... nothing to see here folks ... now move along ... nothing to see here ...

Joseph M said...

I hope the author is enjoying her 15 minutes of notoriety. It is most likely the closest that an English PhD will come to having any impact on public discourse in his/her lifetime.

Philip Nel said...

I'm glad that this post has inspired debate, though disappointed that some of those posting comments have resorted to personal attacks. That said, perhaps one can appreciate the unintentional irony of (male) commenters criticizing allegations of puerility by behaving in a puerile fashion.

Either way, I would not take issue with (what I perceive to be) the central claim here: that aggregate polls sites direct us to the horserace, rather than the significant policy differences (and philosophy of governance) represented by each candidate.

I would take some issue with the characterization of Nate Silver, who (in my reading of his blog) is well aware of the benefits and shortcomings of statistical analysis. But the focus here is really more on the responses to Silver (both pro and con), rather than Silver himself. And, here, too, some good points. To defend Silver by mocking his detractors descends to their level of puerility. Not a rhetorically effective move for his defenders to make.

Platitudinus said...

There were perceived allegations of puerility, but none intended given the specialized usage. While we cannot prove the specialized usage is disingenuous, one might ask a statistical question. What is the likelihood that the term would be misunderstood? What is the likelihood that the term would be misunderstood, given additional context?

Some of the critical response has to do with the institutionalized practice of statistics and mathematics. Mathematicians and statisticians often refer informally to mathematical maturity as a prerequisite for engaging the subject in any depth. Youth is a dim memory by the time most of us develop it.

Anonymous said...

Natalie,

You're representing your discipline when you post online, take one example of the use of statistics, and expect everyone to extrapolate inductively right along with you that the culture of, and cultural implications of statistics are puerile.

Then you started waving your hands about the use of the word, as if a broad internet audience should be expected to tease out the subtleties of your putative re-coining.

There is much, much more to the progress of American campaign coverage than Nate Silver's blog, and as a cultural scholar you would do better to understand his work in the context of the political culture which creates it. The economic interpretation of such "context shaping" would be that there exists a robust demand for his work.

If you want to play games over the definitions of words, asserting that you didn't mean to make a gendered attack, and then turn around and claim your interlocutors just don't know what they're talking about because they haven't taken first course gender issues, you're going to continue to contradict your already shaky argument.

If you're wondering where the flood of nasty comments are coming from, look here: http://www.econjobrumors.com/topic/english-phd-playing-with-numbers-exemplifies-second-gilded-age-puerility?replies=75

Next time you want to comment on the influence of polling and punditry on the substance of politics, why don't you embed your attacks on specific people like Silvers in a modicum of the history of polling, which antedates your diapers, and of baseless cavorting, which is as old as political campaigning itself.

And why don't you just drop the prancing work-around phrasing, and come out and say that you think statistics is an immature manifestation of the lack of maturity of a male-dominated field. You might even have a point. But you would have to make one, and stand behind it and argue it first.

Anonymous said...

The author and friends have used the words "uppity" and "'splaining" in a Twitter conversation about the pushback to this piece. These words are both intended to signify that the people criticizing the piece are oppressors who are unaware of their privilege and are dismissive of the views of people with first-person experience in the issue being discussed.

But why on earth are WE the ones doing the 'splaining here? The entire point of her piece is to argue that statistics are puerile in the sense that she defines at the start of the piece, yet when people who actually work with statistics disagree with her description of a field she knows little about, she suggests that their indignation or annoyance must come because of their misunderstanding, not because of hers. Who is it with the first-person experience that is being denied by an outsider? And who is it who's trying to patiently explain to us something about a topic that many of us think about for hours every day?

Anonymous said...

Because when the keystone of your argument is that a group of people whom your characterizing have no concept of their own character, and its negative impact on the world, them asserting that *you* are wrong only provides evidence that you were right -- that in fact they do not know themselves, their task, and their impacts.

It's a lot like trying to argue with a pretentious psychotherapist who thinks you're in denial:

Therapist: "You are in denial."
You: "No I'm not."
Therapist: "Exactly."

Laura said...

Guys and girls, this is an argument we can win. The author clearly has no intention of educating herself even the slightest bit about the discipline she is trying to characterize. In her deluded mind, any attack on her ignorance - pure, undiluted ignorance - is simply a confirmation of her nonsensical claims of victimization. She simply has no way of knowing that any scholar who has a remotely basic understanding of statistics, even ones that are well familiar with gender studies (e.g. D. McCloskey), would find her argument utterly ridiculous. It is impossible to know what one does not know, and when the author has given up all intention to admit that she might be wrong, there is no point of wasting more time attempting to educate her. Let's mourn for a moment the collective ignorance of our self-isolated humanities peers and get back to real work.

Laura said...

*can't

Anonymous said...

The entire idea behind the humanities is to make politically-charged arguments (generally a combination of far-left rhetoric and bourgeois, anti-science romanticism) in such a convoluted, jargon-filled way that you can claim you're being politically neutral by saying "you do not understand me, please educate yourself about our terminology".

Searle:With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.”

Andrei said...

Brad Delong's comment should have been the end of this debate. The truth is that Natalia Cecire is, for all intents and purposes, an intellectual equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. Both are in fact ignorant and think that criticisms of their ignorance merely confirm their own perceived brilliance. Both have the tendency to make snide remarks about things that they do not understand, then refuse to own up to the viewpoints that they formerly expressed. And most importantly, both are self-deluded to the extent that they will probably fail to see any similarity at all between their characters.

Anonymous said...

I thought this post from the Monkey Cage addressing Michael Gerson's critique of polling and political science is applicable to this post and the comments (Gerson's critique isn't precisely the same as Cecire's, but it has enough similarities to render the linked post a reply, in part, to Cecire as well): http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/11/05/michael-gersons-latest/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+themonkeycagefeed+%28The+Monkey+Cage%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

Hanna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hanna said...

I'd like to second what Helena said above:

"I would like to add (as a woman) that I find it terribly destructive to associate a gender with the practice of mathematics. . ."

As a woman involved in a statistics-heavy profession, I can't realistically argue that there aren't legitimate gender issues that may affect what we do with math (or why we do it). Women in science and math often struggle with striking a balance between societal perceptions of femininity and the supposed objectiveness of their area of study.

To shrug statistics off as an "inherently puerile discipline, not because it is dominated by men but because its principles concord so strongly with the way we have constructed boyhood ..." is to contribute to the popular erasure of women in scientific and mathematical disciplines.

Yeah, I get it; I heard it from the folks at home and my liberal-arts friends in college -- I must be unfeeling deep down (and therefore unfeminine) -- because I want to have good solid facts underneath me before I take an impassioned stand. I want to understand what's going on before I jump to conclusions. And when it comes to politics, it would be nice to, say, have a good idea of how solid my presidential candidate's lead is, so that I can decide whether to make that last-minute donation on the local level instead.

It's not that I trust Nate Silver (or statistics) uncritically, you understand -- statistics is just a tool. It is, as pointed out in the OP, amoral. So's a hammer. Men are more likely than women to geek out over all tools, not just mathematical ones. I fail to see how that leads to a perception that people who reject the use of tools are somehow taking a stand that is more moral, or less sexist. And I resent the idea that 'peurile' is somehow not meant to be pejorative, but 'innumerate' is and implies some kind of castration. 'Innumerate' is parallel to 'illiterate'. It doesn't feel great to be accused of either, but pooh-poohing numeracy is a sad rebuttal.

Anonymous said...

The analysis of the puerility of the statistics of winning tonight's election omits digital cartography, and a fortiori the puerility of spatio-temporal data analysis, which includes spatio-temporal statistics, the geostatistics of continuous fields, geoinformation science and the thematic analysis of spatial data, remote sensing image processing, including the highly puerile feature extraction processing of images, the point pattern analysis of finite objects, and geomorphometry.

Pace Cercire, the statistics of oppression is not puerile, in either of the pejorative or sublime, precious senses of the term. The statistics of oppression is emancipatory mathematics, freed from experimentalism's puckish (I mean boyish--Yalie's are notoriously puckish; about Harvard we will say nothing*) third cousin, not to mention the relation of consanguinity which it stands with respect to the dogmatic empiricism of the Empire Loyalists for Logical Positivism--to say nothing of paralipsis.

*Larry Summers, mentioned elsewhere, preferred to spend money on property acquisition instead of hiring faculty during his Harvard presidency; for this reason the Harvard philosophy department lacks a single philosopher of note (with the exception of one logician).

Anonymous said...

Wow, you've been pummelled by the economists from EJMR. Serves you right. I work in an interdisciplinary department. The resentment and mischaracterizations of my (quantitative) research by inumerate humanities scholars has made my workplace absolutely miserable. I can't believe you think you could speak intelligently on this subject. It's not that you don't have the background knowledge to intelligently criticise statistical methods. You're not even in a position to know what statistical methods you're criticizing.

A Volunteer said...

Natalia, I would be willing to tutor you on some basic statistical topics if you are willing to acknowledge that having some understanding of how a discipline is practiced - first-hand knowledge from people who actually work in the discipline, not armchair theorists from other departments - is at least somewhat essential for someone who wishes to make characterizations of the entire discipline.

Perhaps a first lesson would be to educate you on the differences between the classical statistical view and the Bayesian statistical view. Then hopefully the next time you attempt an intelligent discussion you won't horribly confuse yourself (and your readers) before you finish your 3rd paragraph.

Anonymous said...

The very worst thing about this contemptible garbage is that you just can't argue with it in a way that has any hope of changing the mind of the person making the argument! The author does not have even the slightest understanding of what she is criticizing.

Moreover, I suspect the author is not even interested in making any effort to actually understand what she is criticizing! Honestly, if you would just take a statistics class, even a very basic one, you would come to view this entire post as deeply, deeply misguided.

I used to be in the humanities. I was a philosophy student. I value the serious training I received there which had absolutely nothing in common with this postmodern literary criticism bullshit. I switched to economics initially because I thought that much of it just had to be wrong.

After actually learning about it, actually understanding it, studying it seriously and working hard on it, I've decided that it's mostly wrong, it's not bullshit. There are good, intelligent people trying to solve hard problems in the best way they can. They are not a bunch of conservative ideologues whoring themselves out to investment banks. (For what it's worth, Paul Krugman and I will still vote the same way in every election! Most, though not all, of the economists I know are moderate Democrats.)

So I can say that about economics from a position of some strength, epistemologically. In short, I have some idea of what I am talking about!

You can't. You don't. You have no interest in doing the work (and, as an academically-oriented person, I believe that you could!) that would be necessary to understand the statistics you are criticizing. You'd prefer to sit back and make snide remarks about something you completely fail to understand and have no interest in trying to understand.

What is the difference between you and the average Republican who thinks climate science is a conspiracy by left-wing environmentalists? I see none. You both criticize something you just don't like from a position of total ignorance! You are both completely wrong.

It is sad, a really sad commentary on the state of things in English departments. To any other economists (or anyone else) still reading, this is absolutely NOT characteristic of the work that goes on in many other humanistic disciplines. It is, in particular, not at all characteristic of philosophy departments.

I care about those disciplines and think they are worthwhile and do provide good training in serious thinking, but it does not surprise me that universities continue to cut budget in those areas and will continue to do so as long as garbage like this is what comes out! What can you offer a student in the way of understanding, in the way of training in critical thinking or analysis, which I take to be the key values of humanistic disciplines, if this is characteristic of the work you produce? The short and long answers are both the same: nothing, absolutely nothing.

What's more, the idea that English scholars have is that their critical apparatus is a tool of universal applicability! That your "deep insights" allow you to "deconstruct" and see hidden power relations underlying everyday life, science, or anything else!

With that in mind, the training you provide to students is actually positively harmful! They will not gain any understanding, but will believe that they have the understanding and the conceptual capacity necessary to criticize things which they fundamentally do not understand. They will be both totally ignorant and totally secure in their ignorance, again showing that the position you and your students end up in is no better than that of your average Republican, who thinks climate science is a conspiracy and evolution a myth.

In my opinion, and in fact, that is truly a tragedy.

Anonymous said...

The above poster who claimed that philosophy departments are devoid of nonsense like this is correct. There have been a segment of philosophers of science - usually younger scholars, born in an age of specialization, where you can specialize in philosophy of science those with no background at all in science - who have been on the side of "anti-methodology" for a while. Feyerabend and Hacking, for example. I wouldn't be surprised if the author derived most of her views from the ramblings of those idiots.

Gabe said...

This is so typical of the thinking/writing in humanities departments. A ludicrous, facile, irrational and virtually meaningless thesis, backed by words like "psychologized" and vague accusations of sexism.

(1+1=2 is a masculine construct, that is to say boyish and puerile, because it's binary, and it also purports to be "true," as if such a thing could possibly exist - "truth" is just a bullshit patriarchal construct, etc etc. Also: psychologized, phenomenality, puerility - all words that make me sound smart and truthy, and they all start with P, and what other word starts with P? Penis.)

Anonymous said...

What I'm still trying to understand is how Nate Silver predicting the election results or Natalia evaluating that exercise is moving humanity forward. It seems like this is all an exercise in self-promotion. As a woman who uses statistics in her every-day work life (and beyond!), I'm not too sure about the characterization of the field nor the gender focus in the article and commentary, either.

Barry said...

Natalia: "But in fact, the word "puerile" is my attempt to elucidate the treating of politics as a game. Statistical culture is bound up in the performance of youthful masculinity. "

You keep saying that, but don't back it up. And Nate's work contrasts strongly with the pundits, who *do* treat it as a game (to be specific, a horse race).

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