The Real Winner: Math

One of the post-election narratives that I love seeing get so much traction is how math was borne out, once again, as being the best way to predict things. Especially when the people who lost most were counting (no pun intended) on math being wrong and the voices in their heads being a better indicator of future trends.

Perhaps the finest example was Glenn Beck and David Barton, who could tell Romney was going to win because they were more spiritually attuned and god was making it look like Romney was losing because it wanted the win to seem more like a miracle.

Of course, Beck weeped openly and melodramatically yesterday. And this disappoints me, since he sheds tears so often that they cannot sustain me any more. Conservative tears are at their best when they’re like The Crying Indian ad.

Either way, watch as Beck weeps, calls for conservatives to abandon the east coast and take their kids out of school so they can be raised on farms far away from liberal influences. As always, my services to help pack are offered.

Now, I think the major issue here is that we have to recognize that math does not bend to wishful thinking. It didn’t in 2010 when Nate Silver (and Nate Cohn, and Sam Wang, and many, many others) predicted a red tide sweeping over the nation, and it didn’t this year. As Jennifer Ouelette at Cocktail Party Physics, a Scientific American blog, writes,

There are many complicated reasons why people react this way, but one of them might be the fact that math is just so damned unyielding, the enemy of wishful thinking, dashing our most cherished hopes with its cold hard facts. And is it sorry? It is not! Like the infamous honey badger, math don’t care. Math don’t give a s$%.

But people most certainly do give a shit, and you had everybody from the moronic David Brooks, to the slightly less moronic but still kinda dumb Joe Scarborough calling Silver names and trying to defame his character because math doesn’t yield to their particular ideologies. We saw this when the Bush administration stopped publishing reports that showed things they didn’t like. We saw this when the Government Research Service retracted a report that showed that supply-side economics doesn’t create jobs.

It was at least nice to see Dean Chambers admit he was very, very wrong, though he blames right-leaning polls for screwing up his unskewing. It was also nice that he entertained us with such laughably incorrect predictions and went all ad hominem on Nate Silver so we could get this tweet.

I’m a big fan of Neal Stephenson, who takes his love-affair with math and writes it into a fetish, so I already have a strong respect for what math can and can’t do. It is a powerful tool with limitations, but it doesn’t lie and when it’s wrong, you can see exactly how it got to that wrong answer. Math is consistent, it is self-correcting, and it works. So can we please stop attacking the mathematicians unless we can point to methodological problems? Also…

Keep Calm and Trust Nate Silver

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2 thoughts on “The Real Winner: Math

  1. “Math don’t care. Math don’t give a shit.”

    When people start yelling at me for using this line, like, 12 times a day, I’m blaming you for bringing it to my attention.

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