Wednesday, November 07, 2012
Ok.. Rant warning.
I've saved the state by state prediction made by the widely cited Unskewedpolls.com site. It was not just that it was off in its overall prediction, but it was off in literally every state deemed as a 'battleground', and in a fair number of states where the results were never in question. How wrong it was is not news any longer. In fact the alternative universe version of Nate Silver behind the Unskewed site has gone on record today with a very wonkish mea culpa: BusinessInsider: 'Unskewed' Pollster: 'Nate Silver Was Right, And I Was Wrong'
So points for having the guts to come out with that kind of statement. My feeling is that it was unnecessary. Seriously.
Unskewed was just part of a cottage industry of punditry that rained down on Nate Silver and his 538 based predictions. It sure seemed that the only real complaint against his results was that some didn't like what the numbers were saying. There clearly are a lot of issues with polling, surveys and the business of prediction. Even the 'hardest' of data has a lot more issues than the public cares to ponder. There likely were, and likely still are, all sorts of issues with error in all polls. There are legitimate debates still to be had over Silver's methodology even after the accuracy it showed with Tuesday's results. Maybe he was just lucky?
But here is the thing. Even if the legitimate critiques of Silver's methodology were stronger, it does not give credence to the idea that you can just make up alternative numbers; certainly not numbers that are equivalent to what Silver was coming up with. The Unskewed methodology was not flawed, it was fiction. The regular commenter here MH actually pointed out the single biggest error in the Unskewed methodology, though calling it 'error' implies a real methodology even existed. In essence Unskewed was assuming most of the result it was purporting to predict. If you tried that in Excel it tells you your formula is circular. No such error-check in punditry, which is all it was in the end. Punditry confused with a bunch of numbers that may have appeared to mean something, but they didn't
We need to give a name to this phenomenon though. I am pretty sure that without Silver's rising profile via 538, there would have never been an Unskewed site to begin with. The mere mention of Unskewed here is one small reflection of the site's noteriety. Noteriety that was generated as a reflection off of what 538 was doing.
This is a huge problem and not just in poltical polling. There is good analysis and bad analysis out there. There are almost always innumerable data sources out there for any issue. I feel for my journalist friends actually who have to report on date-intensive topics. They can't be experts in all topics, but without a certain degree of expertise, you almost can't navigate between the good, the bad and the ugly. When all else fails you rely a large part on credentials and past practice. So again, Silver has a long history in applied statistics, and an undergraduate degree in economics mind you. Anyone tell me what in Unskewed's background makes him qualified to be doing quantitative work of any kind. Ad hominum I know, but lacking any other rationale for ever using the site I am not sure what to look at. The problem in the end was not unskewed's results or methodology, but that anyone bothered to reference it in the first place.
Ok. I'm moving on now. I swear. Off to only looking at hard numbers, like say employment counts. No fuzziness there.