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The Idiot Savants of Our Time

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It’s time to put my humanities hat on for a bit. Obviously there are political scientists and economists who do good work. And we need people studying politics and economics, of course. But the idea that there is anything scientific about these fields compared to what historians or philosophers or literature critics do is completely laughable. As I tweeted at some point right after the election, the silver lining to November 8 is that I never have to even pretend to take political science seriously as a field ever again. Of course that’s overstated, but despite the very good political scientists doing good work (including my blog colleagues!) the idea that this field (Sam Wang, Nate Silver, etc., very much included) had some sort of special magic formula to help us understand politics this year, um, did not turn out to be true. They are just telling stories like I do, but with the pretense of scientific inquiry and DATA(!!!) around it. It’s really the same with economists, far too many of whom are completely deluded by their own models and disconnected from the real life of people. Luckily, there are economists who agree with this point and doing their part to make their own field better. But that’s a tough battle.

Before 2008, the experts thought they had things under control. Yes, there was a bubble in the housing market, but it was no worse, current Fed Chair Janet Yellen said in 2005, than a “good-sized bump in the road.”

So why did they miss the storm? This was exactly the question Queen Elizabeth of Britain asked a group of economists in 2008. Most of them wrung their hands. It was “a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people,” they explained.

But some economists supported a dissenting – and much more damning – verdict, one that focused on the failure of economics education. Most economics students are not required to study psychology, philosophy, history, or politics. They are spoon-fed models of the economy, based on unreal assumptions, and tested on their competence in solving mathematical equations. They are never given the mental tools to grasp the whole picture.

This takes us back to John Stuart Mill, the great nineteenth-century economist and philosopher, who believed that nobody can be a good economist if he or she is just an economist. To be sure, most academic disciplines have become highly specialized since Mill’s day; and, since the collapse of theology, no field of study has aimed to understand the human condition as a whole. But no branch of human inquiry has cut itself off from the whole – and from the other social sciences – more than economics.

This is not because of its subject matter. On the contrary, the business of earning a living still fills the greater part of our lives and thoughts. Economics – how markets works, why they sometimes break down, how to estimate the costs of a project properly – ought to be of interest to most people. In fact, the field repels all but connoisseurs of fanciful formal models.

This is not because economics prizes logical argument, which is an essential check on faulty reasoning. The real trouble is that it is cut off from the common understanding of how things work, or should work. Economists claim to make precise what is vague, and are convinced that economics is superior to all other disciplines, because the objectivity of money enables it to measure historical forces exactly, rather than approximately.

Not surprisingly, economists’ favored image of the economy is that of a machine. The renowned American economist Irving Fisher actually built an elaborate hydraulic machine with pumps and levers, allowing him to demonstrate visually how equilibrium prices in the market adjust in response to changes in supply or demand.

If you believe that economies are like machines, you are likely to view economic problems as essentially mathematical problems. The efficient state of the economy, general equilibrium, is a solution to a system of simultaneous equations. Deviations from equilibrium are “frictions,” mere “bumps in the road”; barring them, outcomes are pre-determined and optimal. Unfortunately, the frictions that disrupt the machine’s smooth operation are human beings. One can understand why economists trained in this way were seduced by financial models that implied that banks had virtually eliminated risk.

What unites the great economists, and many other good ones, is a broad education and outlook. This gives them access to many different ways of understanding the economy. The giants of earlier generations knew a lot of things besides economics. Keynes graduated in mathematics, but was steeped in the classics (and studied economics for less than a year before starting to teach it). Schumpeter got his PhD in law; Hayek’s were in law and political science, and he also studied philosophy, psychology, and brain anatomy.

Today’s professional economists, by contrast, have studied almost nothing but economics. They don’t even read the classics of their own discipline. Economic history comes, if at all, from data sets. Philosophy, which could teach them about the limits of the economic method, is a closed book. Mathematics, demanding and seductive, has monopolized their mental horizons. The economists are the idiots savants of our time.

With rare notable exceptions, the field of Economics totally explains the modern economy effectively.

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  • Mike G

    Most economics students are not required to study psychology, philosophy, history, or politics. They are spoon-fed models of the economy, based on unreal assumptions, and tested on their competence in solving mathematical equations. They are never given the mental tools to grasp the whole picture.

    This is how I lost interest in economics as an academic pursuit. I double-majored in psychology and considered econ and psych to be interrelated, but academic economics just seemed to be mathematical masturbation unconnected with explaining or predicting anything actually happening in the economy.

    You see the same mentality in MBA programs and in the business world, where everyone is supposed to swoon over numerical projections, and don’t you dare question whether the numbers have any accuracy or relevancy.

    • Nobdy

      First assume all humans are rational and have perfect information…

      And I know the models go beyond that, but that always seemed like a doozy of a hole to dig yourself out of.

      It is obvious that a lot of the market is driven by psychology. All you have to do is look at stock market crashes.

      • Tzimiskes

        I’ve often thought that economics would be a much more productive field if it focused on how to create institutions that would best approximate its assumptions.

        I can buy that a laissez-faire economic system would work well if humans were rational and information was perfect. To me, the interesting question isn’t what happens after this but rather what set of institutions (such as laws and firm structures) would best approximate these assumptions. I don’t think it would look much like current property right law and firm culture, after all, the origins of these date back to pre-market agrarian systems and were designed to institutionalize a very different set of incentives. However, it is much easier to justify the current set of institutions than it is to try to design and convince people that new ones are better so I don’t see economics slowly evolving towards this approach any time soon.

    • liberal

      …but academic economics just seemed to be mathematical masturbation unconnected with explaining or predicting anything actually happening in the economy.

      Bingo.

      AFAICT, in terms of intellectual history, economists like to think of their field like physics. But it’s not…it’s mathematics.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Actually the physicists who practice economics make a shit load of money modeling the market.

        • Chetsky

          Aaaand, he (or she, not that it matters)’s back, with the witty comeback, devoid of any connection to reality. Like all clever, clever, clever winghuts.

          TJ, the physicists who go to the Street make $$ b/c they’re good with numbers, with numerical programming, and with fudging numbers. Oh, and b/c the duffision equation (I believe) is believed to be at the heart of how markets work.

          Sadly, that’s “believed to be”, not “is”. And there’s been a ton of work on that.

          But hey, don’t let the facts get in the way.

          • Derelict

            As one hedge-funder explained it back when the physicists first became stars on Wall Street, “The guy has an advanced degree, so he obviously knows what he’s talking about. And what he’s talking about makes absolutely no sense at all, but everyone wants to believe it does. And that’s how we sell all these fourth-order derivatives that really are just casino bets made at a table we can completely rig.”

          • ThrottleJockey

            Chetsky, my nigger! What’s been up you Secretariat-sized steaming pile of horse shit? Making an ass of yourself again I see.

            • ProgressiveLiberal

              Um, whut? Hello? How is this still here?

              • rhino

                Probably because TJ is an african american black man, and is therefore the only one here who can get away with that word.

        • JL

          There’s some interesting adaptive systems modeling stuff going on combining computer science, physics, and economics. It will, however, only be useful to the degree that the assumptions made by the modelers are reasonably accurate (for instance, that human psychology needs to be taken into account in agent strategy design – there are definitely people out there doing that, but I don’t know if they’re the majority).

          Though that’s not what the physicists on Wall Street are doing.

          • Pseudonym

            Physicists on Wall Street are also modeling stocks and bonds and derivatives, the most micro of microeconomics. They can’t tell us how to increase employment rates in people without college degrees, for example, or how to accelerate the rate of GDP growth. In fact, by spending their energies in further financializing the economy rather than contributing to scientific or technological progress, in working for Wall Street they’re quite possibly retarding economic growth.

      • liberalrob

        Not even really that. It’s mathematical in that there are numbers on which you perform mathematical operations; but since nominally what economics is trying to do is model and predict behavior, it has to incorporate factors that are difficult to measure. Economics’ (and Political Science’s) mistake is assuming away those factors by positing “rational actors” and other shortcuts that make their models work on the blackboard but thereby don’t reflect the real world.

        The models are perfectly fine to have, and academic economics teaching their preferred models is a necessity as a basis for performing further analysis. Just don’t forget about those other factors.

        • ThrottleJockey

          You don’t stop with the assumptions a given though. The assumptions are simply a teaching tool. There are any number of ways to relax assumptions both quantitatively and conceptually. There aren’t many academic economists walking around who think markets only produce widgets.

          Of course as you know if you’ve ever taken an introductory Physics class physicists do the same thing. “How fast is the block traveling down the rail at Point A? Assume no friction.” We got questions like that all the time.

        • JL

          They could incorporate the insights of behavioral economics rather than leaving it as an advanced class.

          • ThrottleJockey

            Physics 101 leaves out lots of key details too but I don’t see anyone complaining about that. (How many rigid, symmetrical bodies do you encounter in real life?) You may as well as say if Physics doesn’t start at the 400 level it isn’t worth teaching.

            We had a Physics 101 problem in college once that asked us with how much force a book would hit the desk if we flipped it in the air. We were in a study group that particular night hosted by a particularly wise ass adjutant professor. He said “The problem with this question is that before the book hits the desk it flips horizontally not just vertically.” We spent the next half hour trying to see if he was right.8 times out of 10 he was. [ For you geeks out there it’s called the Dzhanibekov Effect, named for the Russian Cosmonaut who discovered it in 1985. Our wise ass adjutant had a personal interest in it since he wanted to be an astronaut. He succeeded. The 2nd link has some cool videos which show the effect in real life– in outer space.]

            Thing is the real world differs from text books in any number of ways. The reason our adjutant was right only 8 times out of 10 is because while his assumptions were more realistic than the book’s, they still weren’t 100% realistic. He too made some simplifying assumptions about how precisely we flipped the book, and how high off the desk the book was. (This was the reason the D Effect was only covered in upper level classes). It’s the reason we have both physicists and mechanical engineers: Life isn’t a book. Or as an engineer here persuasively phrased it: In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice they’re different.

            • ThrottleJockey
            • I’m pretty sure Kafka put that last sentence the other way round. They’re different but only in theory.

            • JL

              People complain about what is taught in Physics 101 (and probably every other big “101” subject) and how it is taught, all the time. Just not normally on political blogs, because, in general terms, politicians, other policy-makers, and pundits, aren’t making and defending bad policy based on inadequacies in introductory physics education.

              • Philip

                +1. Most intro physics (and chem, and bio, and…) classes are a monstrosity, and it’s a big part of why so many people are scared of any kind of serious science class.

                • ThrottleJockey

                  I don’t understand the idea that every schmuck who blows themselves pouring sulfuric acid down the drain can blame Chemistry because they took 1 class instead of 2? Same with Econ.

              • ThrottleJockey

                Then that’s a fault with the pundits and politicians not economists. To paraphrase Mark Twain you gonna blame statisticians for being liars because politicians intentionally twist the numbers?

                Statisticians like Nate Silver say Trump has a not insignificant chance of winning and we say “Hill can’t lose” and then we blame Nate? No way. We should blame ourselves for ignoring what he said and believing what we wanted to believe.

            • MacK

              We had a pair of courses – Math 141 and after that finished the engineers trooped out while we stayed for 141R, then 242 and 242R. The R designated that the math went relativistic, etc. I.e., it went into areas they thought the engineers did not need, but in NAT-1 you did.

    • MacK

      My problems, as someone whose undergrad was Physics/Math/Chemistry when I see these models is that they present a spurious rigor, but are based on assumptions that are rarely underpinned by any reliable data or values. They use equations where changing the value of many of the assumed constants and variable even a little cause huge changes in outcome – but when pressed, the authors often cannot defend or even explain and justify the underlying assumptions.

      My impression is the same of political science. First, it’s not a f*cking science – calling it one is just a vanity, as is naming university departments economic science and legal science. It’s bullshit. Inedible as I read down thread I see poly-sci types criticising statisticians like Nate Silver in ways that reveal that they are not scientists.

      Just stop calling it political science.

      • Manny Kant

        Also definitely not a scientist: Nate Silver, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics.

      • xq

        There’s no criticism of economics or political science that doesn’t also apply to (most of) biology. So you can either say that physics and chemistry are the only sciences or rethink your understanding of what science is.

        • The Dark God of Time

          Really? I’ll have to tell my doctor the next time he comes by for my weekly bleeding.

        • rea

          So you can either say that physics and chemistry are the only sciences . . .

          Math, of course, is the only science.

          https://xkcd.com/435/

          • rhino

            Math isn’t a science at all, is it? My understanding is that it’s a language.

        • Warren Terra

          There’s no criticism of economics or political science that doesn’t also apply to (most of) biology.

          I’m not going to claim to be well informed about economics or political science, nor will I weigh in on whether either “is a science” (I lack the knowledge of either field, a good definition of “science”, and a reason to care, although I admit a good enough definition might give me reason).

          But, still: this is nonsense.

          “Most of biology” is experimental. You don’t get to do experiments in political science, or at least not ones with adequate replication and control groups. Even the descriptive parts of biology tend to be highly quantitative and/or extremely detailed, and in a way that directly connects to all those experiments.

          This isn’t to denigrate “political science”. But, without making any value judgments, it’s silly to state it can’t be seen as in some way a different sort of effort than is seen in biology.

          • xq

            You don’t get to do experiments in political science, or at least not ones with adequate replication and control groups.

            Political scientists and economists both do controlled experiments. For example, here (linked as example, not endorsement).

            Even the descriptive parts of biology tend to be highly quantitative and/or extremely detailed, and in a way that directly connects to all those experiments.

            Not sure how this distinguishes biology from economics or political science. There is plenty of highly quantitative and extremely detailed economic data produced and analyzed by economists.

            • The Dark God of Time

              Ever heard of computational genomics?

              https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computational_genomics

              • xq

                It’s what I do. So, yes?

                • The Dark God of Time

                  Then by your admission you’re not much of a scientist, eh?

                • xq

                  It’s more the other way around: I do similar things to some social scientists, but few people try to claim that what I do isn’t science because, hey, I work in a med school. I’m definitely in favor of a broad view of what constitutes science.

              • The Dark God of Time

                Most doctors are little more than medicine men, like Dr. Oz or Dr. Carson.

                six heads turned, and Grossfleisch said, “Ah! Doctor Leibfremd, world- famous healer and distinguished author of Der Misunderstood Martyrs: Burke und Hare! Vhat gifs for zuch a dramatic entrance?”
                “Doctor Goodbody must be kept in good health! He is the only man with the genius to perform a brain operation on our glorious leader, Doctor Inderhaus!”
                Goodbody’s skin turned cold, and he felt like fainting. “Zo, our glorious leader has deep tumors of der cuneus and der lingual areas of der brain? Und Goodbody only has der chenius to cut? Mein Gott, how can ve trust him?”
                “We stand behind him,” Doctor Leibfremd said, “ready to thrust to the ganglia if he makes one false move!”
                Goodbody sneered as if he were correcting an intern. “Why should I do this for you when you’ll dissect me alive later?”
                “Not so!” Leibfremd cried. “Despite your great crimes, we will let you live if you operate successfully on Doctor Inderhaus! Of course, you will be kept a prisoner, but in Grossfleisch’s sanatorium, where, need I remind you, the patients live like kings, or, even better, Beverly Hills physicians!”
                “You would allow me to live?”
                “You will die a natural death! You will not be touched by a doctor!” Grossfleisch said, “And you will get a professional courtesy discount, too! Ten percent off your bill!”
                “Thank you,” Goodbody said humbly. But he was thinking of ways to escape even then. The world must know the ghastly truth.
                The day of the great operation, the amphitheater was filled with doctors from all over the world. The life of their glorious leader, Doctor Inderhaus, was at stake, and only the condemned criminal, the Judas, the Benedict Arnold, the Mudd, the Quisling of the medical profession, could save him.
                The patient, head shaven, was wheeled in. He shook hands with himself as his colleagues cheered wildly. Tears dripped down his cheeks at this exhibition of love and respect, not unmixed with awe. Then he saw his surgeon approaching, and the benignity of Hyde changed to the hideous face of Jekyll. Goodbody slipped on his mask and gloves. Grossfleisch held a scalpel to his back, and a man, who looked like Doctor Casey after a hard night with the head nurse, aimed a laser at Goodbody.
                “Stand back! Give me room!” Goodbody said. He was icy cold, calm as the surface of a goldfish bowl, his long delicate fingers, which could have been a concert pianist’s if he had gone wrong, flexed as if they were snakes smelling blood. A hush fell. Though the audience hated him to a man, despised and loathed him, and longed to spit on him (with no sterilization before or after), they could not help admiring him.
                The hours ticked by. Scalpels cut. The scalp was rolled back. Drills growled; saws whined. The top of the skull came out. The keen blades began slicing into the gray wrinkled mass.
                “Ach!” Grossfleisch said involuntarily as the forebrain came up like a drawbridge. “Mein Gott! Zuch daringk!”
                There was a communal “Ah!” as Goodbody held up the great jellyfish-shaped tumor in his fist. Despite themselves, the doctors gave him a standing ovation that lasted ten minutes.
                It was sad, he thought, that the greatest triumph of a series of blazing triumphs, the apex of his career, was also his black defeat, the nadir. And then the patient was wheeled out, and the surgeon was seized, stripped, and strapped. Grossfleisch and Ueberpreis, well-known proctologist and author of the notorious article Did Doctor Watson Poison His Three Wives?, approached the operating table. They were smiling with an utterly evil coldness and abhorrently sadistic pleasure, like Doctor Mabuses.
                The audience leaned forward. They had always felt that both the patient and doctor were better off without employing anesthesia. The physician could determine the patient’s reactions much more accurately and quickly if his responses were not dulled.
                “Doctor X, I presume?” Goodbody said as he awoke.
                “What!” said the nurse, Mrs. Fell.
                “A nightmare. I thought my arms and legs had been cut off. Oh!”
                “You’ll get used to that,” the nurse said. “Anytime you need anything, just press that plate with your nose. Don’t be bashful. Doctor Grossfleisch said I was to wait on you hand and foot. I mean…”
                “I’m not only a basket case but a crazy basket case,” he said. “I’m sure that I’ve been certified insane, haven’t I?”
                “Well,” Mrs. Fell said, “who knows what insane means! One man’s looniness is another man’s religion. I mean, one man’s schizophrenia is another man’s manic- depressiveness. Well, you know what I mean!”
                It was no use telling her his story, but he had to. “Don’t just dismiss what I’m about to tell you as the ravings of a maniac. Think about it for a long time; look around you. See if what I say doesn’t make sense, even if it seems a topsyturvy sense.”
                He had one advantage. She was a nurse, and all nurses, by the time they were graduated, loathed doctors. She would be ready to believe the worst about them.
                “Every medical doctor takes the oath of Hippocrates. But, before he swears in public, he takes a private, a most arcane, oath. And that oath is much more ancient than that of Hippocrates, who, after all, died in 377 B.C., comparatively recently.
                “The first witch doctor of the Old Stone Age may have given that oath to the second witch doctor. Who knows? But it is recorded, in a place where you will never see it, that the first doctor of the civilized world, the first doctor of the most ancient city-state, that of Sumer, predecessor even of old Egypt, swore in the second doctor.
                “The Sumerian oath — scratch my nose, will you, my dear? — required that a medical doctor must never, under any circumstances, reveal anything at all about the true nature of doctors or of the true origin of diseases.”
                Mrs. Fell listened with only a few interruptions. Then she said, “Doctor Goodbody! Are you seriously trying to tell me that diseases would not exist if it were not for doctors? That doctors manufacture diseases and spread them around? That if it weren’t for doctors, we’d all be one hundred percent healthy? That they pick and choose laymen to infect and to cure so they can get good reputations and make money and dampen everybody’s suspicions by… by… that’s ridiculous!”
                The sweat tickled his nose, but he ignored it. “Yes, Mrs. Fell, that’s true! And, rarely, but it does happen, a doctor can’t take being guilty of mass murder anymore, and he breaks down and tries to tell the truth! And then he’s hauled off, declared insane by his colleagues, or dies during an operation, or gets sick and dies, or just disappears!”
                “And why weren’t you killed?”
                “I told you! I saved our glorious leader, the Grand Exalted Iatrogenic Sumerian. They promised me my life, and we don’t lie to each other, just to laymen! But they made sure I couldn’t escape, and they didn’t cut my tongue out because they’re sadistic! They get a charge out of me telling my story here, because who’s going to believe me, a patient in a puzzle factory? Yes, Mrs. Fell, don’t look so shocked! A booby hatch, a nut house! I’m a loony, right? Isn’t that what you believe?”
                She patted the top of his head. “There, there! I believe you! I’ll see what I can do. Only…”
                “Yes?”
                “My husband is a doctor, and if I thought for one moment that he was in a secret organization…!”
                “Don’t ask him!” Goodbody said. “Don’t say a word to any doctor! Do you want to come down with cancer or infectious hepatitis or have a coronary thrombosis? Or catch a brand-new disease? They invent a new one now and then, just to relieve the boredom, you know!”
                It was no use. Mrs. Fell was just going along with him to soothe him.
                And that night he was carried into the depths beneath the huge old house, where torches flickered and cold gray stones sweat and little drums beat and shrill goat horns blew and doctors with painted faces and red robes and black feathers and rattling gourds and thrumming bullroarers administered the Sumerian oath to the graduating class, 1970, of Johns Hopkins. And they led each young initiate before him and pointed out what would happen if he betrayed his profession.

                • rhino

                  What the hell was that?

                • rea

                  Phillip Jose Farmer

            • Warren Terra

              The linked study counts as political science? Really? more than just barely?

              I’ve heard of it before (that and the LaCour abortion doorstepping one that turned out badly), and assumed they were run out of the psychology department. I realize you can’t separate humans from government, and from making it work, but this really seemed to me to be applied psychology rather than anything about optimal government.

              • xq

                How people vote and the reasons they do so definitely falls within political science. The linked study was done by someone in a political science department. The LaCour study itself was fraudulent, but another political scientist actually did it for real, so that’s another good example.

                Some parts of polisci are less amenable to experiment, but then, so are some parts of biology.

        • MacK

          Biology is a science, food science is a science – both apply rigorous scientific techniques to achieve reproducible results. They do not work on assumption or curve fitting the data points to match a theory.

          Economics and political science are not sciences – they are liberal arts with some dodgy arithmetic used to give them a spurious impression of rigor..

          • xq

            Biology is a science, food science is a science – both apply rigorous scientific techniques to achieve reproducible results. They do not work on assumption or curve fitting the data points to match a theory.

            Neither do political scientists or economists. Well, perhaps some do, but it’s not the field as a whole. I suspect you just don’t know much about what political scientists and economists actually do.

            Example: A political scientist does an experiment on voting behavior like the one I linked above. A medical researcher does a structurally similar experiment but on some health outcome rather than a voting outcome (this happens all the time). You’re going to say that one is doing science and the other isn’t? That seems ridiculous to me.

            • MacK

              I’m going to say that the experiment on voting behaviour is about psychology. It’s reproducibility is debatable because it’s experimental nature and reliability depends on the reproducibility of the sample and the representative nature of the sample. The effect of extraneous factors cannot be isolated effectively or indeed even identified, nor can unknown and sui generis biases of the subjects. So it is not a ‘scientific’ experiment.

              • xq

                It’s reproducibility is debatable because it’s experimental nature and reliability depends on the reproducibility of the sample and the representative nature of the sample

                But this is very often true of biological experiments too! You’re making an argument for physics/chemistry as the only sciences. Maybe you can include the part of biology that’s closest to physics/chemistry. But, like, a randomized controlled drug trial–the gold standard of medical science–is done on non-representative and non-reproducible samples.

                The effect of extraneous factors cannot be isolated effectively or indeed even identified, nor can unknown and sui generis biases of the subjects.

                Also true of medical RCTs. So, the highest standards in medicine fails your “is a science” test.

                • mds

                  So, the highest standards in medicine fails your “is a science” test.

                  Well, as someone who was involved in efforts to teach science to medical students, I would probably agree that medicine isn’t actually much of a science, either, but we’ve already got enough of a rhubarb going.

                • The Dark God of Time

                  “A drug is any substance, that, when given to a laboratory animal, results in a paper.”

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        I bet I know the study you are implicitly thinking of in that first paragraph…

      • ThrottleJockey

        Maybe you’ve gotten bad authors? O haven’t encountered many who couldn’t explain how relaxing key assumptions changed their model. In fact that’s the reason you spend so much time up front describing the assumptions because the “fun” part begins when you go relax them.

        And by the way, physics itself employs many enabling assumptions in early level classes. I once had my Physics 102 text explain that when a metal object (like a car or airplane) is struck by lightning the electrons harmlessly dissipate across the surface. That’s the kind of thing that’s only always true in a textbook and not always in real life…because most objects in real life aren’t simply sheathed in metal.

        • MacK

          I’m going to say that the experiment on voting behaviour is about psychology. It’s reproducibility is debatable because it’s experimental nature and reliability depends on the reproducibility of the sample and the representative nature of the sample. The effect of extraneous factors cannot be isolated effectively or indeed even identified, nor can unknown and sui generis biases of the subjects. So it is not a ‘scientific’ experiment.

        • MacK

          Oh blech – I just spent a long period discussing electrons actual behaviour in capacitors…

      • MyNameIsZweig

        it’s not a f*cking science

        I wouldn’t necessarily say that. Any discipline where the scientific method can be and is used to attempt to answer questions about the world is, in my opinion, doing science. Some disciplines just do it better than others, for a whole host of reasons.

        In other words, yes, when done properly, economics *is* a science – BUT: a) it’s often not done properly, and b) even when it is, we haven’t developed the tools yet to have the same level of confidence in the results as we often can for results in, say, chemistry or physics. So at its best, economics is a science, but still a comparatively crude one.

  • cpinva

    Krugman both identified the housing bubble, and predicted its bursting, several years before it did. so not all economists are blind to the realities.

    • CP

      Yeah.

      This is the view of a complete outside and I don’t pretend otherwise, but I always had the impression that the basic problem with economics today is that it’s one of these fields where it pays well to agree with right wing ideas, and as a result, actual critical thought tends to be drowned out by the cretins paid to repeat conventional wisdom.

      This can’t, obviously, explain everything that goes wrong in the fields described above – it doesn’t, for example, explain why Nate Silver and Sam Wang failed to predict Donald Trump. But it does explain at least some of it, like why so many economists failed (or declined) to see the housing bubble.

      • bw

        Also, and not to be pedantic, but the failures of Nate Silver (a statistician) and Sam Wang (a neuroscientist) hardly amount to an indictment of political science. The Dan Le Batard Show on ESPN interviewed Allan Lichtman and has been replaying again and again his response to their questions about Silver’s expertise: “Nate Silver is a clerk!”

        • liberal

          ..the failures of Nate Silver (a statistician) and Sam Wang (a neuroscientist) hardly amount to an indictment of political science.

          Agreed. They’re data scientists, in current parlance, not political scientists.

          • Heron

            I agree with the general premise, but I think you guys are completely wrong on the specifics. Silver had Clinton’s chance to win the day of at ~70% nationally, and much closer on the state races she needed to win, and ended up losing. His poll aggregates were actually pretty good, and considering that the election swung on a relative handful of voters swinging in response to a partisan FBI intervention and irresponsible media, 7 out of 10 for a close election loss is actually a pretty good call, stats wise. Wong there’s more of an argument for, he was giving Clinton a 90+% chance, but Silver got it about as right as statistics can get it, in my view.

            Another point that needs to be made; favorable odds in statistics does not equal a sure outcome. Like in cards, you can have a “hand”(a basket of variables) that will, by the numbers, win 7 times out of 10, but 3 times out of 10 you’re still going to be going up against a “hand” that beats yours. That your hand loses does not, retroactively, make it a 0% chance to win hand from the very start. To look at Silver’s call and say he was completely off base and didn’t know what he was talking about is to mistake hindsight for destiny.

            • bw

              I’m not saying that Silver was completely off base and didn’t know what he’s talking about, I’m just saying that he’s not a political scientist and so his successes and failures carry no weight in evaluating the reputation of political science.

              In context, Lichtman’s point was similar: despite the condescending tone, he’s not saying really that Nate Silver is a doofus, just that he is also not a political scientist but rather a statistician whose predictions are subject to the myriad flaws of the polls that his job is to analyze. It’s not Silver’s fault that he’s so influential, it’s ours (as his audience) and his employers’ (as non-experts with a vested interest in pumping up his reputation as a predictive guru). Lichtman was, I think, making the point that laypeople are being stupid to listen more to Silver than people with actual poli sci Ph.Ds (not that lots of these didn’t get things wrong either).

              • James B. Shearer

                … Lichtman was, I think, making the point that laypeople are being stupid to listen more to Silver than people with actual poli sci Ph.Ds …

                If so Lichtman is being silly. People want to know who is going to win. Silver is a reasonable person to listen to if that is what you are interested in.

                • Origami Isopod

                  People want to know who is going to win. Silver is a reasonable person to listen to if that is what you are interested in.

                  …. and Silver failed. I’m not sure what the point of your comment is.

                • Origami Isopod

                  Walking my above comment back based on what MacK and sonamib said downthread.

            • JL

              Wang (not Wong), unlike Silver, was using only state-level polls, not national. His modeling would have been largely fine if the state-level polls had been as accurate as other recent presidential general elections had suggested they would be. Though he screwed up his home-stretch correlated error estimate quite badly, as he has said.

            • random

              To look at Silver’s call and say he was completely off base and didn’t know what he was talking about

              The same can be said of anybody who’s looking at polls and calculating a probability based on them.

              You don’t need ‘a model’ or any advanced mathematical proficiency to reasonably project the election winner if you have a set of polls that aren’t all completely wrong in multiple states. The problem is one of polling, not of projection.

            • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

              And recall that Silver had earlier said repeatedly that Trump had no chance of winning the GOP nomination (recall his nomination predictor model which factored in things like newspaper and elected official endorsements), while Wang predicted he was the leading contender very early in the primaries.

              If anything, Wang’s “99%” probability of winning correlated with what the polls and most observers, including the Trump campaign and most people on this site expected.

          • ThrottleJockey

            But even that overstated Nate’s error. Statistics gives a range of possibilities. So does meteorology but I don’t hear anyone (here) calling climate change voodoo.

            There are certain realms of natural science that rely on statistics too and that doesn’t make them any less descriptive. As Upshot wrote well before the election someone with Trumps odds of winning would be expected to win once every 50 years. That’s not nothing.

            • Manny Kant

              Climate change science is not meteorology.

              • ThrottleJockey

                Of course it’s not from a time frame perspective but stochastic modeling is equally pervasive.

        • Phil Perspective

          Also, and not to be pedantic, but the failures of Nate Silver (a statistician) and Sam Wang (a neuroscientist) hardly amount to an indictment of political science.

          The failure of Silver was particularly acute in the GOP primary. Despite leading the polls for months, Silver didn’t have Trump as the odds on favorite to win the GOP nod until after the South Carolina primary. His prediction was, IIRC, Marco Rubio winning the primary.

          • humanoid.panda

            In the primary, Silver ignored his own model.

            • random

              He didn’t ignore his own model so much as he loudly and vociferously embraced a different model that explicitly rejected the validity of the original model.

      • liberalrob

        I always had the impression that the basic problem with economics today is that it’s one of these fields where it pays well to agree with right wing ideas

        Well, only inasmuch as it pays well today to espouse right-wing ideas in general. Economic models and methods should incorporate ideological influences as a factor, but math is math. Economists might be ideological, but economics should not be.

        • Chetsky

          And yet, it is. Like “free trade benefits both nations” leaving out “when you leave out distributional impacts”. Or “unilaterally dropping your trade barriers is a good thing”, leaving out “assuming capital is not mobile, and the economy is at full employment”.

          Econ is riven thru with political biases masquerading as “just math”. Like

          http://www.bradford-delong.com/2016/08/must-read-welfare-economics-and-existence-of-an-equilibrium-for-a-competitive-economy-negishi-2006-metroeconomi.html?cid=6a00e551f08003883401bb0932284b970d#comment-6a00e551f08003883401bb0932284b970d

          Delong may be (well, “is”) neoliberal, but at least, he has the courage to follow his assumptions thru to their conclusions, and not flinch from them — to call out the consequences for their stark horror.

          • The Pale Scot

            My favorite was (after the Berlin Wall fell)

            Tell the Russians they need to privatize everything immediately, don’t worry about not having a functioning legal system. All those Commissars are good chaps in their hearts (As C+ Augustus described Putin)

          • ThrottleJockey

            What idiot economist assumes that there are no distributional differences to the value of free trade?

            I’ve never heard an academic economist say that in my life. What’s good at a macro level is frequently not good for an individual sector. That’s not news.

        • Origami Isopod

          math is math. Economists might be ideological, but economics should not be.

          Every human endeavor is prone to bias. There are no exceptions. “Should not” is a nice ideal but will never be the reality. And you can’t convince someone to understand something when their paycheck relies on not understanding it.

      • MacK

        But they did. They are statisticians and they predicted about a 1-in-3 likelihood of Trump winning – and he did. To not understand that is to reveal the lack of matmatical understanding and science in your political science…..

        • sonamib

          Thank you, MacK. As you say, it’s quite mathematically illitterate to misunderstand what a 1 in 3 chance means. It drives me up the wall that some people think that a 70% chance of winning = near certainty. I mean, would anyone play Russian roulette with two bullets in the barrel? Would anyone be shocked if some idiot who tried to do it just the once ended up dead? He had a 67% chance of living, right? A lock-in!

          And when you look at the election results, you’ll see that Trump won by very slim margins in 3 states. It’s very easy to imagine them going the other way if th circumstances were just slightly different… It did require some bad luck for Trump to win.

          • ExpatJK

            Yes!

            Another issue is data quality. I read somewhere (Gelman’s blog maybe?) that there’s much more investment/interest in poll aggregation rather than polls, which has implications for analysis. Another question is actual data quality! This is usually skipped over, at best, in discussions of model/prediction failure.

            RE the “but they only focus on the maths” stuff, Gelman has been great about talking about the issue of measurement. Rubin had a paper on health data quality some time ago which was excellent as well.

          • ThrottleJockey

            This, this, this. A thousand times this. I looove the Russian Roulette example. It’s like people never heard of a long shot winning at the dog track.

          • Ronan

            But it’s a fair criticism of Wang, surely ? Who(iirc) gave a 99% probability of a Clinton victory (and explicitly said it was no contest)

            • ThrottleJockey

              Which is why Michael Smerconish made him eat a bug on his show. (I actually felt sorry for the guy then).

    • liberal

      I think “several years” is stretching it, unless by “several” you mean two or three.

      The guy who really predicted the housing bubble is Dean Baker. Much earlier than Krugman or anyone else AFAICT.

      • Just_Dropping_By

        When did Baker predict it? Robertson Morrow used the term “mortgage bubble” in February 2003. Excerpt:

        The brash sales pitches, reckless spending, and short-sighted decisions that fueled the dot coms’ rise and fall have taken over the mortgage market. Everyone now knows about the tech bubble because it has already burst; fewer recognize its near neighbor, the mortgage bubble because they are living in it.

        In the third quarter of last year, home mortgages increased at a record annual pace of $724 billion—accounting for 70 percent of the entire increase in personal and corporate debt. Increased home mortgage borrowing has reached levels almost twice that of corporate borrowing during the bubble years.

        Generations have bought homes by borrowing 80 percent and paying it down over 30 years. No longer. Now the American home is just one more credit line to be tapped. The problem is not that we have been assuming larger mortgages in order to live in larger houses that we can afford because of larger incomes. The problem is that Americans have had roughly the same incomes and the same houses but have been mortgaging a larger percentage of those values.

        As a percentage of personal income, mortgage debt has risen from 51 percent 25 years ago to over 100 percent today. In the last 5 years, mortgage debt has risen by 60 percent, or $2.2 trillion, an amount roughly the same as the profits of every American corporation for the last five years and twice China’s exports to the entire world.

        One problem with borrowing all this money is that people might not be able to pay it back. Another is that, for the foreseeable future, Americans will be spending a large proportion of their income on debt service. This will constrain consumer spending—two-thirds of the economy—which will retard economic growth for the remainder of the decade. Slow economic growth will inhibit income growth, preventing us from earning our way out of the hole into which we have dug ourselves.

        http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/living-in-the-bubble/

      • Chetsky

        I -distinctly- remember reading him saying “I’m selling my house and going to renting — the market is waaaaay overpriced, it’s gonna pop”. This article implies, around 2003.

        http://www.readthehook.com/96735/cover-sidebar-house-poor-are-prices-about-plunge

        • The Pale Scot

          Around the same time Greenspan was encouraging the simple minded to cash in their equity and invest in the stock market. Because the mortgage rate was <6.0 and the market was on its way to 36,000! Wo Hoo!

          Alan does sorta look like the underpants gnomes

        • njorl

          If he did that in 2003, it shows that he was a fool, unless he lived in one of a few very troubled markets. Outside of FL, AZ, MI and NV, home prices never went as low as 2003 levels.

          • Warren Terra

            This raises the important point that being right too soon can be about as bad as not being right at all. Can in some cases be even worse.

            • ThrottleJockey

              Timing is everything. That’s always the hard part. I missed out on the busy because I predicted the bubble too. But I gave up a shit load of upside unfortunately. Net-net I was too risk averse.

              • The Pale Scot

                Don’t beat yourself about bailing, hindsight is always 20/20. The world killing adjustment we all are making is from a world run by people who endured/experienced a Great Depression and a WW, to ones who think they can always manipulate a quick recovery and keep things going up.

            • petesh

              Totally true about investing (he said, with plenty of rue); see also “premature anti-fascist.”

          • The Pale Scot

            I was mistaken about the date. After thought it’s remembered as during the same time I was arguing that no, Bush and Rumsfeld didn’t have a plan for after the war. And family member was looking for a new house to get away from her old converted barn, it was charming, but a pain for two working full time people. We saw that renting was cheaper than buying. That’s the indicator I use for bubbles. In central Jersey near NYC where I’m from, house prices never go down, unless the house really sucks. Rent to mortgage ratios indicate a correction. Except when mortgages are dumped on the Market in indecipherable tranches. We all knew the rent pricing. Then it gets tricky. (I worked construction, you tend to notice house prices because it explained why/who was offering work . (Don’t work for a heavily leveraged developer unless you have to)

            Looks like 2001 from this graph, NYC area prices would have a steeper, earlier curve. A friend was bitching that a comparable house in Cleveland or even Pittsburgh was sooo much cheaper. “Ya but nobody in Cleveland makes a living remodeling/converting
            1950’s houses into modern spec (central AC, 110 to 220 voltage) dwellings. People have to go where the work is.

      • cpinva

        “I think “several years” is stretching it, unless by “several” you mean two or three.”

        I remember reading his column around 2003-2005, and there were a few of them directly related to the housing bubble, and that it was based on phony baloney mortgages, which were bound to come crashing back to earth.

    • Also, a not insignificant number of us warned that Clinton could very well lose the election, but, you know, purity ponies and all that.

    • Michael Cain

      Also Wynne Godley, who called the 1992 pound collapse, the 2001 recession (although he got the magnitude wrong, not anticipating the financial folks could blow a real estate bubble), and the 2007 recession. Godley’s thing was that finance is the 800-pound gorilla in a modern economy, and has to be considered first, not as an afterthought.

  • There’s nothing wrong with political science in general. The problem w political science is some people with a political science credential focus on debunking & place great importance in their self-appointed status as seers.

    In other words, political science that describes/explains is often great. Political scientists who tell those of us looking at something clearly seen in the real world that what we’re looking at doesn’t exist or is something other than what it obviously is and Aldo sneer that we’re rubes for not trusting their ability to predict the future, those jackasses are idiots.

    • Hey, now that you’re back, stay around again!

    • njorl

      It is often the case that people see things clearly in the real world which just are not so.

  • Happy Jack

    Bernie Sanders, Vladimir Putin, and James Comey throw an election, and your reaction is to toss academics overboard?

    • I’m not sure what is more ridiculous here, claiming that Bernie Sanders threw the election or claiming that I am tossing academics overboard.

      • NewishLawyer

        Don’t academics always throw each other overboard? ;)

        • ThrottleJockey

          That’s pirates.

          • njorl

            Piratologists are the worst of both worlds.

      • Hercules Mulligan

        “Another blog post from Krugman criticizing your platform, Senator.”

        In his office chair, Bernie Sanders, I-VT, said nothing.

        “Should we respond in writing?” asked his chief of staff.

        “Forget it. Not worth it” he replied, after a pause. The aide nodded, then left the room.

        In the gathering dark, the senator pulled out his phone. Contacts. Speed dial. 1: Vladimir Putin. 2: James Brien Comey. 3: Erik Loomis.

        A smile.

        The time would come. The time would come.

        • Excitable Boy

          Snark and smugness has served us so well lately. It is so much easier than actually refuting another’s contentions. Can’t wait for our triumphs in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

          Does this shit kill in Oberlin?

          • Origami Isopod

            We must be deadly serious for the next four years. No snark or jokes whatsoever, especially the clever kind. Burnout doesn’t exist, you filthy casual.

            • Excitable Boy

              It is all he does. I sat next to him at the DC LGM meeting. His Sanders halo is insufferable. He doesn’t want to do any you know actual work or compromise in getting anything done. Only true progressives can be Democratic nominees. We can’t even get a majority with Steny Hoyer types, not sure how his fantasy is supposed to work. It is a dilettante type of advocacy. I don’t think it is real effective.

              Honestly, I don’t find much of the posting here that effective currently. I am burned out, seeing the resurgence of people flying their confederate flags in my old hometown, when it was on the wane before Charleston.

              However, we are not very good at making our points anymore. We go too much for the cheap laugh. That doesn’t go that well with those not predisposed to like us. Good bon mots don’t do much when you are knocking on doors. Too much writing and laughing, not enough actual action and hitting the pavement.

              • Hercules Mulligan

                This is the most bizarre and hilarious criticism anyone has ever made of something I’ve said on the internet. Is this what you do? Go to LGM meet ups and make little notes of everyone you meet in order to smear them later?

                • Hercules Mulligan

                  (Should have thought of this before the edit timer ran out, but whatever)

                  I did not go to the D.C. LGM meetup to have vicious political arguments. I went because I had never met anyone from this community before, and I hoped to have a good time and meet new faces. I did meet people, who were all very nice (contributors and commenters alike), and I had a very pleasant time. Apparently you did not. I’m sorry for this, and I certainly never intended to offend either there or here. But if I seemed angry in my above comment, it’s because the last thing I expected from my night out at the pub with a community I’m still quite new to was to have my conversations twisted and distorted and thrown back in my face for the unforgivable offense of, what, a sarcastic comment? To me that seems both very rude and, to be frank, it makes me uncomfortable to learn that anyone who met me in person would use that meeting to try to attack me online.

                • ThrottleJockey

                  +1

                • ThrottleJockey

                  FWIW Herc I thought yours was a brilliant piece of writing. All brevity and wit. I’m quite jealous as a matter of fact.

                  Do you write for fun or for profit?

                • Hercules Mulligan

                  Thank you, TJ, that’s incredibly kind. I don’t write at all, really; I tend to lose steam beyond a one-paragraph proof of concept if I try, which perhaps explains why I spend so much time on twitter, Facebook, and comment threads.

                • Excitable Boy

                  I was back reading LGM posts (mostly Loomis) from the past month or so the past few days. Quite a few of your responses were only about Sanders. Perhaps, it was not representative. Doesn’t really matter, you can write about whatever you want. Did not mean to come across as a thought Nazi.

                  Go to whatever floats your boat. However, I am more interested in effective change. The meetup was fine, but it reminded me too much of Dean meetups in 2003-2004. A bunch of people commiserating and an almost pathological aversion to actually doing anything.

                  After reading another of your posts that didn’t really address anything, I kind of snapped. My fault as I read too long and was too tired to respond appropriately, which was to not even respond. The fact that your humor punched down did you no favors in my estimation. You were not pokinig fun at power, but mocking that the OP’s reply was absurd in your estimation.

                  I took no notes, just my memory. No smears just my perspective from meeting you and reading your replies.

                  I apologize if you feel I betrayed some sort of secret trust, but I was unaware of signing an NDA. I grant referencing other information was out of bounds and my response was inappropriate for your post.

                  I highly doubt I will attend another LGM meetup. As nice at it was, they are not for me.

          • humanoid.panda

            “Your internet comments insulted the white rural readership of Lawyers, Guns, and Money and drove it to Trump.”

      • Happy Jack

        Sanders didn’t poison the well by, for instance, making accusations about Clinton and the DNC engaging in “shady” fundraising?

        Political scientists are supposed to predict foreign intelligence agencies and domestic agencies interfering in an election?

        • Sanders didn’t poison the well by, for instance, making accusations about Clinton and the DNC engaging in “shady” fundraising?

          Oh come on.

          Political scientists are supposed to predict foreign intelligence agencies and domestic agencies interfering in an election?

          Are you telling me that predicting the future is worthless because one never knows what factors will intervene in a cute model?

          • Happy Jack

            Oh come on

            Is it your claim that all his caterwauling about a rigged, corrupt system had no effect on Clinton’s popularity? Interesting.

            Cute model? I see nothing wrong with it. Barring the interference of the KGB and the FBI, Clinton was well within the predictions.

            • Philip

              Is it your claim that all his caterwauling about a rigged, corrupt system had no effect on Clinton’s popularity? Interesting.

              You might have a point if he hadn’t also actively campaigned for her.

              • Happy Jack

                actively campaigned for her

                While that was mighty white of him, that only occurred after months of trashing her, the damage already having been done.

                • Philip

                  Ah, I see, it’s the duty of the left not to actually participate in politics except when it’s time to vote in the general election. Got it!

                • ThrottleJockey

                  I’ve never seen a candidate punch with such kid gloves as Sanders did with Clinton. He treated her better than she treated him. Hell Obama was harder on Hill when her ran against her. “Who cares about the Damn emails?” he said.

                • efgoldman

                  it’s the duty of the left not to actually participate in politics except when it’s time to vote in the general election.

                  It’s the duty of the left to see the inevitable arithmetic, stop fucking around, and get behind the winning candidate so that just maybe WE CAN WIN THE FUCKING ELECTION!
                  Republiklowns are vile, nasty, evil creatures with no souls, but dammit, when the time comes, holding their noses, thumbs up their asses, drunk or high, they come out and vote.
                  We could learn a lesson or two from the assholes.

                • Philip

                  It’s the duty of the left to see the inevitable arithmetic, stop fucking around, and get behind the winning candidate so that just maybe WE CAN WIN THE FUCKING ELECTION!
                  Republiklowns are vile, nasty, evil creatures with no souls, but dammit, when the time comes, holding their noses, thumbs up their asses, drunk or high, they come out and vote.
                  We could learn a lesson or two from the assholes.

                  I voted Sanders in the primary when it was already a foregone conclusion (I’m in CA). I also flew to Nevada to canvas for HFA and for CCM’s Senate race in late October. So maybe leave the assumptions out of this?

                • JL

                  While that was mighty white of him, that only occurred after months of trashing her, the damage already having been done.

                  Oh, fucking waaaah, this is nothing but an argument against competitive primaries. Especially given how gently Sanders and Clinton actually treated each other.

          • kvs

            Throwing out every model is as silly a response as blind faith in predictive modeling given that, as Nick056 pointed out, 2016 validated other data-based approaches to explaining elections.

          • Excitable Boy

            Oh come on

            Devasting response. You really destroyed his argument.

            This is the problem with so many of you liberal professors. You feign engagement, but you can’t really be bothered. You appeal to some hidden referee, is it the media you have written before about their impartiality? What exactly was so out of bounds that you could not form a coherent rebuttal? You deign so many responses it has become second nature. If you are going to respond do the work or don’t waste our time.

            Then you end with a non-sequitur for a final flourish, Bravo maestro.

            1. Sanders camp breached the data files of the DNC, then when caught sued the DNC.
            2. Sanders made a big stink about the Goldman Sachs speeches and a former NY Senator’s ties to Wall Street.
            3. Sanders presented himself as pure as snow, but never actually released his tax returns. Trump, Stein, and Sanders never actually released their tax returns. All three have visited Russia and either visited Ruissia this year or had top aides visit recently.
            4. Sanders chief strategist Tad Devine worked for Putin ally Viktor Yanukovich as did Trump’s former National Chairman Paul Manafort as recently as 2010.
            5. Sanders made the sexist allegation that Clinton was not qualified.
            6. Sanders implied constantly that Hillary was crooked with all “her evil PAC” money.
            7. Only Sanders could overturn Ctizen’s United.
            8. Sanders ran much longer and much more bitterly than any other non-nominee. Clinton when she ran in 2008 quit attacking Obama in late April or early May.
            9. Sander continuously pumped up false hope with Bernie Math and the old hail mary superdelegate switcheroo over the summer.
            10. Sanders implied and his camp explicitly claimed the nomination was rigged against him.
            11. Sanders was never able to contain the cancer of his fringe supporters slagging Clinton on Social Media.
            12. Trump’s campaign was basically Sanders greatest hits and Sanders’ campaign greased the skids for the GE.

            There’s more, but not sure how persuasive I can be to some one that thinks “oh come on” is persuasive. Not sure how much evidence your need for poisoning the well, but I am good.

            • humanoid.panda

              I actually agree with some of your critique: towards the end, the Sanders campaign encouraged conspiracy theorizing about superdelegates stealing the election etc, that really prepared the ground for the later Russian bugfuckery. But, some of it is just silly. Let’s take your number 4. Devine did indeed work with Yanukovich. What’s the implication of that? Sanders was a Russian puppet working for the GOP?

              • Excitable Boy

                Basically, it was a critique of Loomis flippant lazy response. If we are not willing to know or research the other person’s contention, then relying on straw men and mischaracterization is not going to serve us well.

                I’ll grant the Devine stuff is a bit weak, but not sure if I would accept silly. I read Cannonfire from time to time and it seems too CT even for me. He was writing about Devine’s involvement back in the early part of the primaries. He thinks Sanders was a puppet or a useful idiot. I dismissed it at the time. Now, with the apparent Russian skulllduggery I am not so sure. I am still skeptical Devine was working for the Russians. However, it may not be quite as far fetched as I once thought. I would like political operatives to not be allowed to work on domestic campaigns once they work for foreign politicians. I have felt that way when I read Carville was working on foreign elections back in the 1990s.

                The fact that Sanders was supposedly so transparent but never actually released his tax returns was quite odd. Then the purchase of the $600k Vermont summer home in cash after the primaries ended was also odd, because the cover story of his wife’s inheritance of a Maine house offsetting the purchase didn’t add up. The Maine house sold for $200k and she had to share that windfall with her other 2 siblings. That would only be around $67k or so. These could all be coincidences, but all the weird stuff in this election has made me paranoid that even more was going on than we are currently aware.

                It freaks me out that so many want to make Sanders the de facto head of the Democratic Party when he can’t commit to staying in the party or even identify as a Democrat and uses so many RW talking points to disparage the Party. Vermont is a weird Blue State. It gets more money from the federal government than it pays in taxes, and it has high SNAP participation rates. It is more a taker state like the southern red states than most northern and blue states, which is fine. Except would Bernie be as popular in VT if him and Leahy weren’t bringing home so much bacon? So I think his WWC whisperer reputation is overstated. I think much of his popularity in the primaries was he was not Clinton, just like Clinton got many votes in 2008, because she was not Obama.

    • NewishLawyer

      The second to yes but I think something was in the air as soon as Trump began winning primaries right and righter.

    • Warren Terra

      I was hoping we'd get another chance to relitigate Sanders in the comments.

      • Excitable Boy

        It is the 12 days of Christmas.

        • Hogan

          Seems too early for twelve wankers wanking.

  • NewishLawyer

    One of the current but I think eventually will be debunked “truths/mantra/crackpot” beliefs of our age is that you can solve any problem with the proper algorithm, numbers, or formula.

    Sometimes the “problem” being solved is harmless (“Our algorithm will give you perfectly fitted shirts!!”) But as Cathy O’Neil argues in her book (disclaimer: haven’t read Weapons of Math Destruction yet), all algorithms come with biases and sometimes malicious ones because all of them are written or manipulated by people at points.

    The weakness of a belief in progress is that we can achieve utopia. I feel odd as a liberal in that I believe in progress but I don’t believe in its natural forward march. Nor do I believe in utopia. There are 7 billion people in the world. How can someone believe in a world without any problems or disagreement? Sometimes disagreement of a most violent nature? It seems like kindergarten to believe in such things. The fight for liberty is always going to be a struggle with strong forces for reaction and pushback. It has always been such.

    • liberal

      One of the current but I think eventually will be debunked “truths/mantra/crackpot” beliefs of our age is that you can solve any problem with the proper algorithm, numbers, or formula.

      I’d put the current mania as “with the proper data”. Everyone seems to believe that you can solve any problem by collecting enough data and finding “the signal”.

      Sometimes the signal is difficult or impossible to find.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Still a worthy pursuit.

        • MyNameIsZweig

          Still a worthy pursuit.

          As long as you’re willing to admit, from time to time, that all your effort has amounted to naught and the data aren’t all that helpful. Because that does happen, of course, and the people (like most people) who spend all that time trying to solve problems with data hate acknowledging that they may have wasted a lot of time and effort on a particular project.

          • ThrottleJockey

            Been there done that brother.

    • ThrottleJockey

      People aren’t angels. You’d be a fool to believe in the linear forward progress of humankind. This is real life not a movie.

      It may be true that the arc of history bends toward justice but there’s no guarantee we’ll live to see it.

      • The Dark God of Time

        According to you, we just have to shoot more of the wrong people in order to win, like at the Bundy Ranch standoff.

        You have a love of violence and an intense distaste for non-violent protest if it challenges those holding power over those who do not.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Your 2 paragraphs are at odds with one another.

          Yes I supported using police force against the racist Bundy militia.

          Non-violent protest also has its place. I strongly support BLM even when they shut down highways and airports which is something even many liberals and blacks oppose.

          But fundamentally I believe that non violence is a tactic, to be used or discarded as a tactic. But so too is violence. George Washington chose violence while Martin Luther King chose non violence. They both were right because violence or non violence is a tactical decision not a philosophy.

          For instance there are situations in which I’m quite ok arming freedom fighters and other times I am not…not based on the morality of the issue but based on the probability of success.

          • The Dark God of Time

            June 27, 2015 at 11:23 pm
            I would never call someone that, not even Clarence Thomas.

            However your political acumen here is way, way, way off.

            This one isolated act is wildly unlikely to change anyone’s mind. But if a lot more of this exact sort of thing takes place regularly then the only result will be to make the thing more radioactive. It makes it harder to convince the mostly-white ‘mushy middle’ that it’s not a hateful and divisive symbol that offends black people. It makes businesses accept the wisdom that it’s a bad idea to have it around.

            What she did was brave. But it’s also a smart move. Keep the pressure up. More, please.

            http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2015/06/the-role-of-a-single-activist#comment-1535168

            Hand-wringing is something you do quite well. Perhaps you can team up with LeeEsq.

      • JL

        People aren’t angels. You’d be a fool to believe in the linear forward progress of humankind. This is real life not a movie.

        What does this have to do with the comment you’re replying to, which was about people’s preexisting biases being reflected in algorithm design?

        • ThrottleJockey

          I was agreeing with this statement of Newish Lawyer’s…

          The weakness of a belief in progress is that we can achieve utopia. I feel odd as a liberal in that I believe in progress but I don’t believe in its natural forward march.

    • MacK

      It’s simpler than that. If your job, your research grant, is to come up with an econometric model, or a poli-sci model, then that’s what you’ll do, and you’ll tweak it and curve fit it until it matches your selected data set. The problem is that this is not science, it’s simply a form of confirmation bias.

      • Matt_L

        ah no. People acting as scholars do not deliberately tweek their data or model to make it fit their preconceived notions. When it doesn’t work out they try to come up with a different model that will supply a superior explanation for the outcome. They don’t just cheat or succumb to confirmation bias.

        There is also a small problem with “data.” We live in an age of abundance of data, but it is not always the right information to answer the questions we seek to answer. Take the field of economics. All of modern macroeconomics rests on a relatively shallow and narrow set of numbers about national economies that governments only started collecting during the great depression of 1929. Even then those numbers were only applicable to the few big economies of the West. I don’t think we have anything accurate for Asia and Africa until the 1970s.

        • JustRuss

          I hate to burst your bubble, but I know of one grad student who was pressured to tweak his research when his conclusions conflicted with the interests of his professor’s sponsor. I’m not saying this kind of thing is common in academia, but it does happen.

          • MyNameIsZweig

            Of course it happens, but to assume that this is as common an occurrence in academia as it is in the corporate world is overly cynical about academics, I think.

        • MacK

          My point us that where someone is tasked, paid, employed to get a result – you gotta get a result. The result may be ultimately hand wavy BS, but you delivered.

    • xq

      One of the current but I think eventually will be debunked “truths/mantra/crackpot” beliefs of our age is that you can solve any problem with the proper algorithm, numbers, or formula.

      You’re stating this in a kind of strawmanny way. But I’d say the idea that we can use data to solve a whole lot of problems isn’t well appreciated in our society at all. A tremendous amount of our discourse is directed by people with no relevant expertise speaking on their intuitions. A move towards more trust in data and high-quality data analysis would be a very good thing, in my view.

      • sonamib

        Secondée. More data is good, with the caveat thta the people analyazing the data have to understand its strengths and limitations.

        There is a backlash against data-driven analyses because people are wildly overstating how wrong Silver was in predicting the presidential election. A few days before the election, he ran an article saying that since polling errors were correlated across states, both a Clinton landslide and a Trump win were possible. And a few months before the election, he said that there was no «blue wall» in the electoral college. Again, this went against the common wisdom, was backed by data and turned out to be true.

        • Manny Kant

          I don’t see how anyone can feel like picking on Silver makes sense, when he was out there yelling to anyone who could hear that Trump had a good chance of winning, and most of us (myself most definitely included) had no ear to hear it.

        • Lurks

          More data is good, with the caveat that the people analyazing the data have to understand its strengths and limitations.

          and the previous

          If your job, your research grant, is to come up with an econometric model, or a poli-sci model, then that’s what you’ll do, and you’ll tweak it and curve fit it until it matches your selected data set.

          I hate to say it in this way, but “both sides do it” is all too applicable. People (mis)use data and credentials for just about any issue of public importance. Those already inclined to believe one way latch onto any poll or study that says what they want to hear (abortion causes increased risk of birth defects in later children!), more so if it has an authoritative name or title behind it (“I’m an economist, so pay attention to my non-economics issue grandstanding!). Even decades past the conclusive debunking of said positions (there were WMD’s in Iraq, honest!).

          Conversely, people oppossed to a narrative/position automatically airquote dismiss their opponents’ items as “facts” and “studies” and call the origin of same biased or shills or if we are being atypically polite, merely mistaken. What would I call a day where the full spectrum of the blogosphere (including LGM) engages in massive ad hominems, cherry-picks data, and uses propaganda techniques and the logical fallacies page as its debate manual? Just another Thursday.

          This leaves only the undecideds in the middle to either research matters on their own (sadly low percentage) or carry in their heads whichever of the items last or most frequently crossed their screens.

          I mean, which of us was pushing the USC polling data as the best predictor for 2016? We went with the experts who confirmed our opinions (“it’s not whether we are going to win, but how much we win by”) and assumed predictions to the contrary were flawed. Note that I’m not touting the USC poll here, it was just the first one that popped up in a search for Trump-leaning polls on the eve of the election.

          Lather, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum.

          The end problem is that there seems to be no advantage to not be mindlessly and irrationally partisan as an organizational trait. No one is going to espouse “maybe the other guy is right” as a theme for issue advocacy or a politician’s polls/positions, even though that theme is almost certainly true. It’s like being the White House Press Secretary (the president is always right).

          The comments in this thread seem to boil down to:

          1. All the idiot savants are wrong
          2. The idiot savants we chose to believe were wrong
          3. The idiot savants need to get out and see the real world a little more
          4. We ignored the idiot savants who said things we didn’t want to hear

          • gmack

            I don’t endorse all of this comment, but I do think it tracks a real phenomenon. One of the problems with the OP’s (admittedly over-stated) critique of political science is that the example of the political scientists (Nate Silver, Sam Wang) who got it wrong aren’t actually political scientists. They’re poll aggregators, and that’s something quite different. It turns out that in this election cycle the political science models (many of which try to predict elections without using poll data) got the results closer than any other approach. This is unusual; in previous cycles poll-based predictions tended to be much better, and so my remarks here should by no means be understood as a defense of the discipline as a whole, or of mathematical modeling/predictive statistics in particular (I’m a political theorist for heaven’s sake; I believe it’s one of the bylaws of our professional association that we are obligated to engage in critiques of such stuff). Still, the OP’s critique seems to be overly broad in an unhelpful way.

            • xq

              It turns out that in this election cycle the political science models (many of which try to predict elections without using poll data) got the results closer than any other approach

              What is the basis for this claim? Are you comparing the average of aggregators to the average of political science models? (Should be pointed out that Silver and Wang are more than aggregators, they build predictive models).

              • gmack

                Yes. I’m looking at the average of the political science models (focusing in particular on econometric models) and comparing it to the average of the poll aggregators. My broad point, anyway, was only that it’s not clear what Erik means by “political science” predictions in this context.

                You’re quite right about Silver and Wang; it’s misleading to call them only aggregators.

        • JL

          Data is useful. As you say, people have to understand its limitations, and also the limitations of the algorithms that they’re using to process it, and what baggage those algorithms are bringing in. And algorithm designers have to understand what baggage they’re bringing in with certain designs. For instance, Cathy O’Neill, in her new book, talks about the social damage done when the legal system, trying to be more fair in sentencing, uses algorithms that unintentionally reflect preexisting biases – for instance, penalizing someone for having first had adversarial contacts with police at a younger age (which is influenced by racial profiling of black and brown youth), or for living in a high-crime ZIP code (correlated with both race and class).

          • Mac the Knife

            An actuarial science professor had a relevant aphorism that’s stuck with me: “All models are wrong. Some models are useful”

  • nkh

    I think you should be a little clearer that you (and most of the critics, self-aware or otherwise) are generally talking about macroeconomics. There are other, more legitimately scientific, and generally more successful fields of economics (if by that you mean ‘making pretty accurately predictions about things in a repeatable way’).

    • MyNameIsZweig

      Yes, and thank you for pointing that out.

  • Skidelsky is making what Noah Smith called a lazy econ critique. There are lots of valid critiques (I know, I make them), but Skidelsky’s is so muddled and even gets some basic facts wrong about macro econ and financial econ (as nkh points out above, critiques of economics are frequently just critiques of the subfield macroeconomics).

    http://informationtransfereconomics.blogspot.com/2016/12/skidelskys-lazy-econ-critique.html

  • Philip

    It’s funny, because I’d argue political science and economics also fail from the other side. Many of the people in both fields, even on the more mathematical sides of them, very clearly don’t have any kind of solid mathematical foundation. They make basic statistical errors. Their models are freshman-level math in any kind of STEM education. And despite that, when you push for an explanation they can’t explain a lot of it! They don’t even understand that fairly basic math.

    Obviously there are economists and political scientists who don’t have this mathematical literacy problem. But many do, and I think it’s a big factor in their blind trust of “the data.” If you understand advanced statistics, or the math behind a model, or whatever, you can critically evaluate it. You can recognize what it will be able to account for well, and what it will fall short on (and why). If you don’t…you take it all on faith and try to bullshit your way into getting published.

    • Bill Murray

      This

      also, the large bias towards Friedman’s idea that the assumptions don’t matter if the model fits the data, which is maybe OK (although wouldn’t be in STEM) right up until you want to make a statement about anything outside of that data set, at which point the assumptions become paramount has really made for bad economics.

      • Hi Bill,

        Actually Friedman’s “as if” methodology is not very different from the modern way physics is approached which is called “effective field theory”. For example, the Higgs field cannot really exist as a fundamental particle in standard quantum field theory (scalar field masses are renormalized to the GUT or Planck scale. The assumptions going into the electroweak theory are thus problematic.

        The modern way to look at the Higgs is as an effective theory — a stand in for some other more fundamental theory — that just fits the data.

        The real problem with macro and appeals to Friedman’s methodology is that the theories don’t fit the data in the first place. Since they don’t fit the data, Friedman’s antecedent isn’t met so being agnostic about the assumptions isn’t justified in the first place.

    • econoclast

      This isn’t true. The mathematical background of an economist is comparable to that of an engineer. Look at Stokey-Lucas, or Llundqvist-Sargent for examples of standard economic textbooks at a level much higher than freshman math.

      • Philip

        PhD-level economics requires the same mathematics as a 3rd-year undergraduate engineering class. And in fact this further reinforces my point anyway, because engineers notoriously have their own mathematical black boxes, they just happen to work well because when their black boxes fail it’s really obvious.

        • econoclast

          You have no idea what you’re talking about. There is hardly any overlap beyond calculus and linear algebra — economists study statistics, dynamic programming, game theory. At top programs, it’s common to take real analysis.

          • Philip

            Show me an undergraduate economics program requiring either DP or real, or stats beyond freshman “here’s how to take a regression” classes.

            • econoclast

              You said Ph.D.-level economics, but nice try.

              I’m not so much offended by the idea that economists don’t know a lot of mathematics as at the idea that engineers do.

          • nkh

            I have to agree with Philip on this one. Undergrad econ students are generally not taking real analysis.

            • nkh

              On the other hand, I’ve seen DP covered in required optimization classes. And any good program requires econometrics which (again, at any good program) goes well beyond freshman intro stats.

    • nkh

      This is a pretty drastic overstatement. Even fairly basic economics requires multivariate differential and integral calculus, linear algebra, at least ordinary differential equations and statistical inference. I wouldn’t expect a generic freshman anywhere to have covered all of this.

      And honestly, you really don’t need that deep an understanding of the mathematics, at least deep from the perspective of a mathematician, to understand most economic models. And if you are getting to that point, you might want to rethink your model.

      • Philip

        This is a pretty drastic overstatement. Even fairly basic economics requires multivariate differential and integral calculus, linear algebra, at least ordinary differential equations and statistical inference. I wouldn’t expect a generic freshman anywhere to have covered all of this.

        2 of the 3 as a freshman is pretty normal, at least. And an intro DEs class (obviously depending somewhat on the curriculum) is hardly math anyway, because so much of it is mechanically applying formulas.

        And honestly, you really don’t need that deep an understanding of the mathematics, at least deep from the perspective of a mathematician, to understand most economic models. And if you are getting to that point, you might want to rethink your model.

        The problem I’m trying to get at is that, at least from what I’ve seen, undergraduate economics teaches you a bunch of non-mathematical voodoo, and at best you start to get some mathematical foundation for it in grad school. And even then, you don’t get a real understanding of what that math means, so a lot of people end up applying black boxes they’ve learned. If you know how to use, e.g. DEs, but don’t really understand what they are, your ability to critically examine a model’s moving parts is limited. I don’t mean that people need to take number theory, that would be silly. But a bit more understanding of how the math works wouldn’t kill people.

        • Warren Terra

          at least from what I’ve seen, undergraduate economics teaches you a bunch of non-mathematical voodoo

          I feel this requires more explanation of what it is you’ve seen. The phenomenon of someone who spottily attended Econ 101 and so thinks they are an authority fit loftily to expound upon how everything must be run – usually in smug libertarian mode – is well known, definitely exists, and hopefully bears little resemblance to the studies of actual academic economists.

          • Philip

            Most of my day-to-day experience was the Econobros and PPE majors down the street at Claremont McKenna. But starting by setting aside the math (beyond really basic stuff) in undergrad and only introducing it in grad school is recipe for disaster because it trains people into exactly the wrong habits of thought.

        • nkh

          At Columbia, unless they came in with some credits, non-math majors were not getting beyond single variable calculus in their first year. And we weren’t generally giving them linear algebra or ODEs either. If you want to treat systems of ODEs/higher order ODEs you really need linear algebra as a pre-req or be willing to work through it concurrently.

          PDEs and (constrained) optimization are also pretty standard parts of economic models. And you will definitely not get that as a freshman (well, generically speaking; there’s always that undergrad taking grad analysis and making you feel like an idiot).I will admit that the econ students in those classes usually knew fuck all and just wanted the grade.

          I suppose the engineering school did things a bit differently, but, coming from the math department, I have ‘opinions’ about the engineering math curriculum.

          And obviously YMMV, but my undergrad micro courses actually spent quite a lot of time examining the modeling assumptions that were being used and took the effort to make clear how the economic analysis actually connected to the underlying mathematics (which at that point were just basic calculus). Macro, though… HAHAHAHAHA. That was a lot of bullshit. Basically just study hall for doing math and physics problem sets.

  • Nick056

    Fundamentals-based political science did pretty well this general election season, as Scott pointed out after the election. John Sides and Alan Lichtman both placed this as a toss-up trending Trump. The Keys to the White House was correct again.

    Nate Silver is not a political scientist. Even then, he wrote in great detail about why he was NOT giving Trump only a minimal chance to win. He ended up with about a 30% chance on 538. When you consider that McCain in ’08 had something like a 7.5% chance on 538, and that Trump’s margin of victory in the swing states is quite small, Silver looks okay this year. His warnings about the unreliability of polls, undecideds, etc., make him look much better than his competitors, folks like …

    … Sam Wang, who I sincerely hope is never heard from again. His 99% prediction was transparent nonsense and to the extent he had any influence, it was harmful.

    Where political scientists went wrong this year was, obviously, The Party Decides theory as applied to the GOP. And it’s worth noting that to the extent pundits and people like Nate Silver got the primary badly wrong, they were relying heavily on this theory, which didn’t hold up.

    Also, Jonathan Bernstein was terrible, but that’s more what Dana said above than anything else — after Rubio lost NH and SC, he wrote that he was fairly certain Rubio would be the nominee. Just willful blindness.

    • THE PARTY DECIDES!!!!

    • Phil Perspective

      And it’s worth noting that to the extent pundits and people like Nate Silver got the primary badly wrong, they were relying heavily on this theory, which didn’t hold up.

      Except people kept telling them Trump could win, and explaining exactly why, and Silver didn’t care.

      • nkh

        To expand on some of what’s written below, there’s nothing explicitly unscientific about Silver sticking to his models and ignoring people saying that Trump could win the primary. You can argue that the model was flawed, and it certainly was and I believe that he admitted that. But he had a model, built over time and calibrated to some amount of historical data. It had worked well before. This year’s election demonstrated that either the model fails to account for some important factors or the set of important factors changed. If he takes that into account and updates his models, that pretty much what he’s supposed to be doing.

        None of this is to say that election forecasting itself is really scientific. I guess the underlying practice that gives rise to the models that make the forecasts can be, although it could also just be data mining in the pejorative sense. Just saying that there’s nothing wrong about not changing your model because people are saying “But it could happen!!!” even if they explain their reasoning. Deciding not to update your model essentially constitutes an experiment. In this case, you might say, he had to reject the null.

    • JL

      This is rather unfair to Wang, who has always been far more transparent about how his model works than Silver (having the code publicly available, for instance, and encouraging readers to question and to report bugs). And who correctly warned about Trump’s rise during the primaries, and who raised close to half a million dollars for Democrats in highly competitive Senate races and put out a tool to help readers identify competitive House races for volunteering and donations.

      • ExpatJK

        Co-signing this. Also, what is interesting is how people are deriding Silver et al for not being scientists, because they got something “wrong”*. Mistakes occur in science, and learning from them and refining things as a result of that is scientific!!

        *As sonamib and others have said, they were not necessarily “wrong”, but this is the popular impression, so I am leaving this in.

  • mikeSchilling
  • SIS1

    I think Loomis’ basic critique is wrong – one election is just that, one election – a single data point. The fact that Trump’s victory was very particular (a significant PV defeat, and a victory in the EC by very narrow margins in a few states) just points to its particularity.

    That said, the critique of economics is correct. The discipline has decided to ignore that it is not there to discover some basic universal truths, but to figure out as best possible how large groups of social apes will split resources among themselves.

    • I think Loomis’ basic critique is wrong – one election is just that, one election – a single data point.

      Actually, that is my fundamental critique about this sort of political science. Presidential elections are disastrous because there is 1 data point every 4 years, making almost any comparisons completely meaningless.

      • SIS1

        Politics goes beyond elections – it covers a wide variety of conditions and means of decision making. That you choose to conflate electoral horse races with politics as a whole is your mistake, not on the discipline.

      • liberalrob

        So what do we do, then. Prohibit the public announcing of poll results because they are inherently unreliable?

        We are who we are. We like horse races, we like to root for our horse, and we like (allegedly) smart people to comment on how our horse is doing.

        • I don’t know. Realize that it is all bullshit and that no one knows anything about the future?

          • sonamib

            We did know something about the future. Did Trump win by a landslide? No, he won by a razor-thin margin in a few crucial states. That was within the realm of possibility. That’s why Silver gave him a 30% of winning. Because that kind of result was far from being unthinkable. What was unthinkable was a Trump landslide, and lo and behold, it did not happen!

            Sometimes the most we can say is that the election result is uncertain but one candidate is favored. Sometimes we can say more! But don’t pretend that some people were more certain of the outcome than they said they were and then criticize them for it.

            • Dilan Esper

              There is an argument for Erik’s point.

              I don’t KNOW this anymore than anyone else knows anything else, but it’s at least possible that all the horse race coverage and poll interpretation affects how people conduct themselves. People get complacent, etc.

              We might all be better off (and I would include the right in this as well as the left) just not worrying about the fucking polls so much and simply working to win the damned election. We all find out, eventually, who is going to win. The societal value of the endless stream of predictions is pretty low. So why make so many of them?

              • JL

                I think part of the issue here is that there’s an effort allocation problem. Any given election season has a whole bunch of elections going on at once. If someone has $X to donate to campaigns, wouldn’t they want to prioritize the ones that are close over the ones that are not?

                That’s explicitly the goal of Sam Wang’s site, to help people make decisions about which races around the country need their resources the most. Obviously, for various reasons, some of which were his fault, he got a really badly wrong presidential result this year. But I don’t think that makes the goal itself bad.

                • Dilan Esper

                  Effort should always be allocated to the presidency because the stakes are so high.

                • JL

                  The stakes are high in plenty of other races too, though. And the impact of an individual’s time and money is often higher in them. If I were in, say, North Carolina, you can bet I’d have been volunteering in gubernatorial and state leg races there.

                  As it was, I split money between the presidential race, PEC’s highly-competitive Senate races fundraiser, and Progressive Massachusetts’ slate of endorsed candidates for local/state office (which focus on highly competitive races and progressive pickup opportunities), with the greatest share of that money going to the Senate races, and my volunteer time went mostly to the big New Hampshire races (where we canvassed simultaneously for president, Senate, House, and governor, in a state where all of those were very close and the Senate race was a Dem pickup opportunity) and some to one of Progressive Massachusetts’ local endorsees.

          • MyNameIsZweig

            Realize that it is all bullshit and that no one knows anything about the future?

            Hell, given the way historians go on, one could be forgiven for thinking we don’t even know anything about the past.

            (ETA: not a dig at historians; rather, an acknowledgment that even understanding things that have already happened is harder than it may at first appear)

  • Wamba

    They are just telling stories like I do, but with the pretense of scientific inquiry and DATA(!!!) around it.

    This is preposterous. In addition to exaggerating the size of the errors, this post makes a completely invalid inference from one example of error to a blanket dismissal of all quantitative social science. Loomis thinks there is no difference between what is at least in principle a set of statistically representative samples and merely telling a story. Even Loomis doesn’t have a story that makes that story credible.

    And there is an important point about the errors in the 2016 polling (as opposed to models based on polling) — to the extent those polling errors actually exist once you count in sampling error and the difference between a mere margin among decided voters only, taken some number of days prior to an election vs. the ultimate result after the intervening time and accounting for how the undecideds make their decisions. To the extent your really have egregious error, it is an important fact that the errors are strongly correlated, i.e. they mostly seem to be in the same direction, undercounting Trump voters. This is an important finding and probably reflects a new level of non-cooperation among some subset of Trump voters. That qualifies as a simple mistake in unusual circumstances, not a catastrophic debunking of an allegedly baseless pseudo-science.

    Dream on, Loomis.

    • But really, the issue is not with models but the stories people use them to tell. Crunching numbers can only get you so far. The numbers you chose to focus on, and the meaning you assign to them, is where things get messy.

      The problem with the poll aggregators and their models isn’t that the polls were off by very much. At the end of the campaign poll aggregators showed Clinton ahead by four points. She was, instead, ahead by two, well within the margin of error. So the mistake was not there.

      Rather, the error was that they arguably vastly underestimated Trump’s chances of winning based on the numbers they had. Silver’s estimates may have been reasonably close to the mark (how does one assess the accuracy of estimates of the chances of a one-of-a-kind event occurring after the fact?), but the others can only be seen as having been way off unless we are to see Trump’s election as a major fluke.

      Moving away from the aggregators, what commonly expressed political science assumptions were shattered by this election?

      1) All else being equal, no candidate who fails to pivot to the center can win an election

      2) A candidate who can’t be bothered to run a traditionally well-organized, well-funded campaign has little chance of winning an election

      3) A candidate who is demonstrably ignorant, who refuses to release his tax returns and offends most demographic groups of the electorate has little chance of winning

      4) A poll lead of 5-10 points in a general election one month before the election is virtually insurmountable

      5) The “electoral map” was highly unfavorable to Trump

      Yes, the political scientists (or, should I say, media commentators who do “political science” analysis in public for a living) told stories- comforting stories for many of us – that turned out to be based on unwarranted assumptions. That calls for some soul searching, I would think.

      • econoclast

        What’s weird about #2 is that there was clearly no statistical evidence one way or the other about it, so not something political scientists could speak to. It seemed like a defensive reaction to all of the people shouting “Are you saying that campaigns don’t matter at all!” Likewise for 1 and 3, political scientists are just guessing.

        • humanoid.panda

          3) A candidate who is demonstrably ignorant, who refuses to release his tax returns and offends most demographic groups of the electorate has little chance of winning

          This is wrong. The basic assumption underlying all poli-sci/data models is that candidate quality matters only on the margins.

          5) The “electoral map” was highly unfavorable to Trump

          No political scientist or prognosticator was ever saying that- not even Wang. In fact, Silver spent the election screaming that this was nonsense.

          What you are doing is taking a lot of vague common knowledge “blue wall” that was circulating on the internet, and imputing it to people who did not believe in it.

      • xq

        Silver’s estimates may have been reasonably close to the mark (how does one assess the accuracy of estimates of the chances of a one-of-a-kind event occurring after the fact?), but the others can only be seen as having been way off unless we are to see Trump’s election as a major fluke.

        Upshot had Clinton at 85%. 15% probability events aren’t major flukes. What you can say on the basis of a single election is that PEC was badly off, but it was clear that Wang’s model was absurd before the election.

        • JL

          What, other than the home-stretch correlated error estimate (which he admits was a fuckup, and the correction of which would have brought him in line with the predictors who weren’t him or Silver), do you consider to be the clear absurdities in Wang’s model? Reliance on state-level polling? Insufficient accounting for turnout-related uncertainties? Some factor that should be included and isn’t?

          • xq

            My basic criticism of Wang (which I made a number of times before the election) is that he claimed very high confidence in the distribution of polling errors based on a tiny sample of presidential elections (only 6 IIRC). Six data points is just not enough to get a good sense of what a distribution looks like. Silver did better in part by going back further in the past to include more elections.

      • Dilan Esper

        At the end of the campaign poll aggregators showed Clinton ahead by four points. She was, instead, ahead by two, well within the margin of error.

        Does an aggregate of different polls with different sampling techniques and different methodologies actually have a margin of error?

        Isn’t a margin of error a calculation of a confidence level with respect to the size of a particular random sample? Wouldn’t seem like that could be calculated for an aggregate of polls. But what do I know, I’m not a statistician.

      • Wamba

        I agree with the basic thrust of what you’re saying but most of the numbered points you make about alleged failures of political science are not really failures of political science. They are more like the conventional wisdom among more quantitatively inclined pundits or the findings of one school of thought in a discipline that has no consensus paradigm.

        There certainly are limits to social science. For one, the objects of study are not 100% categorizable into consistent units across time in the way that all electrons are the same and obey the same laws of nature across time. For another, even if presidential elections were like electrons, we have the low-n problem so all results are provisional.

        Nevertheless, polls are scientific and informative. If you take a bowl full of voters and draw a sample of them out at random and ask them questions you will have a fair representation of how the larger population of voters in that bowl would answer those questions.

        How you then interpret those results is a craft as well as a science. Note the “as well as”. Also note that “craft” doesn’t mean anything goes.

        Starting with scientific polling data is a helluva lot better of a start than just talking out of your ass or talking about what people think in the convenience sample of people whom you happen to run across in your particular social circles. For one, there are many hypotheses which can be safely ruled out based on the data. Ruling the right ones in is harder, but we don’t just throw up our hands and say that any story is as good as any other story.

  • Souris Grise

    Can you (or Nate Silver) offer any prediction on the possibility that, sometime between soonish and The End, even just one of the humanities might receive dispensation to sit at the big people’s table?

    I’m not devaluing political science, economics, statistics, or any discipline. I’ve noticed, however, an incompleteness in reportage and discussions (outside of here) that I can’t define, but often respond to with some exasperated equivalent to, “A novelist would have seen that coming chapters ago. Trump did it with the candlestick in the … library. That’s the shocker.”

    To me, those ongoing efforts to reshelve the humanties in the Hobbies section have seemingly successfully restricted the kinds of knowledge and forms of thinking available to the general us for making or not making sense. And that makes a potentially dangerous difference. But maybe it’s just me.

    • Origami Isopod

      It’s not just you.

      Science matters, but I’m getting very tired of hearing that only that which can be reduced to numbers, atoms, or bytes matters.

      • Philip

        I’ve thought about this tweet at least once a week for more than a year.

  • kvs

    This is a weird indictment of two disciplines–and arguably a third if we throw in data analysis for good measure–for failures that aren’t necessarily representative of the fields as a whole. It amounts to cherrypicking examples to support a narrative while ignoring the rest of the literature.

    Should we toss out history as a field because Stephen Ambrose was a plagiarist?

    • The Dark God of Time

      No, but the fact that Doris Goodwin is considered a respectable writer despite her own documented plagarism is also noteworthy, don’t cha think? Serving on the Board of Overseers, too.

      • Excitable Boy

        Does everyone consider her respectable? Or is it more of a media thing? The media has favorites like her, Beschloss, and Brinkley, but I always wondered if it was due more to the fact that they could be ready to be on air within the hour more than anything else. Brinkley seemed like the best of that bunch willing to contradict the newscaster on occasion. Beschloss has mastered the art of obsequiousness.

        • The Dark God of Time

          The Board of Overseers isn’t a media position. That’s what makes her respectable.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      It also confuses “Statements of Scholars of Social Science X Who Get Invited on Television Shows” with actual Social Science X. Many, many economics professors recognized the existence of the housing bubble, for example, but Debbie Downers generally don’t get invited on CNBC panels.

  • AMK

    I majored in political science as an undergrad, but when people ask me what my major was I never say “political science”….I say “government” or “politics” or “public policy”— partly because “political science” gets eye-rolls from lots of STEM people, but mostly because it’s a far more accurate representation of what I actually studied. There’s a point where colleges trying to “science up” politics/government/public policy really just starts doing far more harm than good.

    • Ronan

      This is so stupid. You never say “political science” because you get eye rolls from some insufferable STEM goons ? So instead of using evidence and logic, like, you know, the scientific method should have thought them, they all just come to opinions based on prejudice , emotion and ignorance ?

      “There’s a point where colleges trying to “science up” politics/government/public policy really just starts doing far more harm than good.”

      This really doesn’t mean anything.

      “but mostly because it’s a far more accurate representation of what I actually studied”

      Eh , so what ? Your experience/the level you reached doesn’t really say much about the field in general.

  • Brett

    There’s a massive split in quality between Micro-Economics and Macro-Economics. Micro has a ton of really good research that you never hear about, stuff like auction theory and so forth. It’s frequently empirical with a strong focus on evidence and testing. For an example you probably know about and care for, the research showing minimal effects of gradual minimum wage rises came out of this field (although it’s still studied extensively, for obvious reasons).

    Macro-economics . . . most of it is useless, or not particularly helpful beyond generalities. This is a pretty harsh but true description of what Macro-Economics usually means. It can make for good Economic History, but as a predictive science? It’s not very good. Even economists who get certain things right in advance (Baker on the housing bubble) usually can’t make consecutive accurate macro predictions.

    And of course you’ve got a boatload of hacks running around because their arguments are useful to someone in power or searching for it. ECON 101 Worship is the worst form of this, but there are others.

  • Kevin Hayden

    With notably rare exceptions, Jeanne Dixon, Edgar Cayce and Nostradamus fared horribly with the Trifecta at Churchill Downs, yet even an undegreed swayback like me – a maintenance man – could see that Sir Bubbles Greenspan was a mere ideological valet for every Oval Office occupant. In 2006, I had 2009 pegged as the bottom of a housing bubble collapse (and calculated an 11 to 12 year recovery period from what turned out to be a 2007 peak to the next full recovery peak).

    My data points were mostly anecdotal, based on:

    1) Helping a friend repair a rental house in 2005 that he hoped to sell for $200,000. Three realtors appraised it and the top appraisal said he’d get $180,000 max when the repairs were complete. As we both had day jobs, we worked on it in our spare time. It was mostly a lot of spackle, plaster and painting -no significant upgrades – and a year after the appraisals, he sold it for $220,000. (a one year increase of 22% for a mostly sweat equity investment)

    2) Another friend in 2005 was post-divorce house shopping. And unlike the bidding I’ve seen for decades, she had to bid higher than the listing price because speculation was so rampant.

    3) My day job was running the maintenance department for a longtime leading real estate broker in Eugene, OR. His executive assistant got her real estate license and made repeated efforts to sell me a house. I was recovering from a financial wreck of a divorce and my creditworthiness was so bad that 7-11 clerks wouldn’t sell me a lottery ticket, so I politely refused. Even though she INSISTED she could find a way to qualify me.

    My data set beyond those anecdotes came from looking at charts of historical housing bubble collapses. It seemed apparent that they were deeper and the recovery periods were much longer than other recession-inducing market bubble pops. So 11-12 years was a bestguesstimate without scientific merit. But it means I’ll be looking for a market downturn from a 2018-2019 peak, but more of a correction than anything apocalyptic.

    My point isn’t to negate the science and math of Von Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Keynes, etc, etc. But adding in a bit more real world horse sense surely oughta rein in the temptation to apply rigid formulas to the greed and fears of hominids without acknowledging that horse poop is a feature, not a buggy.

    OTOH, I could be full of road apples and my prognostication could be mere luck.

    • MacK

      My data set was twofold- and I,predicted the Irish and US, but I’m off on the UK so far.

      The first was a data analysis of worldwide metropolitan house prices as a function of incomes, that simlmy showed that house prices then to track in the medium and long term 3-3.5 times household income and perhaps 4.5 to 5 times individual incomes (the latter has diverged most significantly from household recently.) Markets prone to bubbles tended to burst at around 5-5.5 times household incomes and to fall to around 2-2.8 before recovering.

      The second was from the chairman of a large construction company I had worked for, ad]md a family friend. This very large builder in the DC area is essentially family owned, has existed since around the Korean War era, and never gotten into serious trouble. I asked him how.

      He explained the following. Big companies like his are lead contractors – they sub a lot of the work. As builders of a major development, say an office building, the have a choice – (a) they can build it on their own account, owning it, but using borrowed money, or (b) they can bid to build it for someone else, the government, another developer, a property fund. In principle (a) is much more lucrative than (b) provided you can either lease the building or sell it. But you have to time it right.

      His company had followed what he called the 8% rule, that was market value had to result in a gross rent roll/rates of 8% At the time, after interest, taxes, maintenance, voids, services (HVAC, etc), and unrented common and public areas, this equated to a little over a good long term bond yield. They would pick option (a) if the 8% rule was met, option (b) if it wasn’t. They never got fabulously rich, just quite wealthy – and sooner or later the famous players all went bust. They kept plugging away on fixed price contracts in downturns and never had to lay people off, which they were proud of.

    • The Dark God of Time

      My datum was an article in the SF Chronicle in 2005 detailing how it was becoming impossible to flip houses in Las Vegas because of the market conditions there.

      • postmodulator

        My favorite piece of anecdata came from my kid brother, a trained economist working in real estate finance in Phoenix. In 2006 he told me about a guy in Phoenix who was pounding a FOR SALE sign into his front yard, and someone drove up and said “I’ll take it” before the sign was stably planted.

        (My brother worked in mortgages in the oughts. My father was part of the American intelligence apparatus in the 80s. I’m the only male member of my family who hasn’t destroyed a country. So far.)

        • ThresherK (KadeKo)

          No data to contribute, but I think the Denver Post was running a series on foreclosure rates and exurbia as early as 2006.

          I’m two timezones away, and that certainly got my attention. It should have gotten the attention of smarter, more powerful folk than me.

        • MyNameIsZweig

          I’m the only male member of my family who hasn’t destroyed a country. So far.

          It’s good to have goals.

    • JustRuss

      My data set was an old friend I visited in 2006, he was selling mortgages for Countrywide. As we cruised through LA in his Mercedes roadster he told me how he was making bank selling these insane mortgages to people who clearly couldn’t afford them. “But why does your company let you do that? Aren’t they worried these people will default on them?” I asked. “No”, he said, “we do a balloon loan with a payment they can handle, then they’ll re-fi in a year after appreciation gives them some equity. Besides, we sell off the loans to investors, so if they do default it’s not on us.”

      It was blatantly obvious that a huge house of cards was going to come tumbling down very soon.

  • SNF

    Fundamentals based models of the election said that this was either a toss up or a lean Republican year, and they were right.

    The problem was that everyone, even the political scientists who made those models, refused to accept them because they showed Trump as a likely winner in the general election. And that was treated as so self-evidently absurd that people assumed the models didn’t count this year because Trump was an exception.

    Political scientists didn’t trust their data enough.

  • MacK

    I remember a law and economics course given by a quite well know economist when I was in law school – he had a terrible time with 4-5 of us, all scientist and engineers. He’d stern an equation, assume a value for a several variables/constants and we;d pepper him with questions as to how he could make the assumptions he just did – one or another of us would tweak a variable and show how his chrve went nuts. Later, in practice, we needed economic witnesses constantly in antitrust and ITC matters – as a junior lawyer I was shocked to here the question asked “have we picked which whore-house we’re going to use…..” in reference to BigName economic consultancies…. Later still it became apparent to me that none of the economic consultants would like their opinions in cases perused by their peers – they loved protective orders.

    Macroeconomic forecasting, at least to me, seems to be a game of confirmation bias drive curve fitting to cherry picked data points – and grossly unreliable. That said, economic thinking, supported by a knowledge of history, law, psychology and technological and trade trends is a useful tool. Amongst other things it tells us that Keynesianism largely worked, that.complete;y unregulated economies stagger from crisis to crisis, etc. It can be used to look at economies that reflect Austrian School/Hayek ideas in the past and allow us to realise that for most people they were disctopian hellholes.

    • Ronan

      Most quant centric political scientists and economists understand maths to an undergrad physics level, and realise the assumptions underpinning their models. Austrian economics is also not representative of mainstream economics.

      • MacK

        I agree that Austrian School economics is not “mainstream” except that it has capture the Republicans and drives much of the current ‘austerity’ agenda.

        As far as the quant-centric understanding the assumptions, I have to disagree. Paul Romer recently published a pretty brutal paper based on a lecture he gave https://paulromer.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/WP-Trouble.pdf

        • Ronan

          Thanks, I’ll check it out. But from a quick glance it seems romer is less saying economics is not scientific, than branches of macro have lost their way. This seems to be becoming common sense within the discipline (ie Roger farmers stuff, the shift to agent based modelling etc) So it would seem to me to be a positive that a lot of “neoclassical economics” has shown itself to be able to identify problems in current practices, and correct them. (I don’t have the expertise to adjudicate between the various intra disciplinary arguments, but the delegates are there)
          Dani rodriks New book is interesting enough on these debates, the usefulness of modelling in economics etc

      • L2P

        http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2006/04/austrian-economics.html

        I mean, you’re not wrong in a technical sense, but the basic Austrian principle (government should stay out of the economy as much as possible) is assumption no. 1 for a ton of mainstream economists.

        • Ronan

          Did neoclassical economics inherit that assumption from the Austrian school ? Im not an economist, so can’t really judge this stuff, but my understanding is that even aside from the methodological conflicts between the Austrian school and mainstream economics (which are severe) there are deep disagreements even over the role of the state (with Austrian economists often objecting to central banks, any intervention in the business cycle etc)
          Most mainstream economists, ime anyway, aren’t really that opposed to state intervention in the economy (just depends what the intervention is)

    • Woodrowfan

      FWIW., the latest issue of the Economist has an article about the influence of Vienna and it ends up focusing on Mises and Hayek, and speaks of them in glowing* terms and gushing* over their influence…..

      * my impression. yours may differ.

      • MacK

        Ever since Micklethwait became effective editor and then actual editor the Economist has become an increasingly unreliable publication. It’s pretty bad now.

        • River Birch

          Micklethwait has been gone for two years…

          • MacK

            But his influence and impact remains – the Economist has dumbed down and become ideological. It prints a lot of stories that are corporate PR spin too.

            • Woodrowfan

              I agree. It’s still the best magazine for world news though, but only because there are no other alternatives..

  • xq

    Economists claim to make precise what is vague, and are convinced that economics is superior to all other disciplines, because the objectivity of money enables it to measure historical forces exactly, rather than approximately.

    Who believes this? Can you point to a single economist who claims to be able to measure historical forces exactly? This whole article seems like a giant strawman. Totally non-responsive to what economists today are actually doing.

    • MyNameIsZweig

      This whole article seems like a giant strawman.

      There’s a pretty simple explanation for that, actually.

  • I would say the more a political scientist or economist claims their insights are backed by objective science, the more suspicious one should be. The problem is not with models per se but rather with people using them who fail to recognize their limitations.

  • The Pale Scot

    But the idea that there is anything scientific about these fields

    My most favorite, most speciallest saying after watching and researching markets for 30 years,

    Economics is the science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn’t come true today.

    Markets aren’t rational, neither are people, especially when money is the subject.

    Latest personal example, trying to explain to my favorite wingnutty like capitalist over Xmas that no, ammunition manufacturers do not have an incentive to purchase and install expensive equipment that cannot be re-calibrated to make something other than .22 rimfire shells to alleviate a shortage caused by conspiracy theorists insisting that Federal agencies are buying it all up, getting the ammosexuals to run out get as much as they can.

    Which doesn’t make sense to me, I’d be concerned if .223 or 30-06 ammo was getting scarce. But, .22?

    Add: Squirrel Hunters of America Unite!

  • Amadan

    To paraphrase the old physics joke: ‘Assume a spherical consumer in an information vaccuum….’.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the United States of America!

    • Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the United States of America!

      Soon to be rebranded as The Aristocrats!!

  • gmoot

    Bibliometric data show that economists are least likely to cite other social sciences, even when they are studying topics that other social scientists have been working on (with models, and data, and stuff!) for decades. Social mobility is a great example: economists “discovered” mobility as an area of study in the 1990s, more than 50 years after sociologists first started analyzing mobility tables. Social psychologists tell a similar tale: most of behavioral economics is ripped off from 1950s psychology, without attribution or conceptual improvement.

    Some of this is intentional. I once heard a prominent economist tell a group of grad students that they should look to other social sciences for ideas and then apply better econometric models to test their ideas. But, he added, don’t cite the sociologists, because sociology is low status. He said he was just kidding, but he was kidding in the same way that conservatives “joke” about welfare queens or tribal medicine. Dog whistle academics.

    Not all economists are disciplinary snobs, but there’s no disincentive (see what I did there?) in the field to be otherwise. In fact, many of the economists who do read and engage outside their discipline (e.g., feminist economists) are treated as pariahs within it.

    • Origami Isopod

      But, he added, don’t cite the sociologists, because sociology is low status…. In fact, many of the economists who do read and engage outside their discipline (e.g., feminist economists) are treated as pariahs within it.

      “Hard” sciences are gendered masculine, “soft” sciences are gendered feminine, and the respect they get follows from that division.

      “Evolutionary psychology” is another one. Remember “women like pink because they were the berry-pickers, not the hunters?” A little acquaintance with sociology — or even history or literature, FFS; there’s a reason people spoke of “blue bonnets” but not pink ones — would have made this claim a nonstarter. But, of course, sociology doesn’t tell conservatives what they want to hear.

      • Souris Grise

        Yes! Your example of the sciency “sussing out” of pink makes the point much more clearly and succintly than my extended warbling.

  • Woodrowfan

    Hayek’s were in law and political science, and he also studied philosophy, psychology, and brain anatomy.

    And he still got it wrong.

  • humanoid.panda

    Like others on this thread, I think that the ragging on Silver is unjustified. In fact, I think his performance was possibly more impressive than it was in 2008/12: he kept on pointing out not just that Trump had a decent chance of winning, but also correctly nailed the mechanism through which Trump could and did win: he was doing much better in the swing states than Romney ever did. Given the imperfections of polling this cycle, this was the best possible performance a prognosticator could pull.

    • Excitable Boy

      His predictive performance in the GE was fine. The problem was his performance in the Primary with Trump was so bad, it tainted his reputation. With his proprietary “special sauce” we had no idea if he was over tweaking in trying to overcompensate for missing Trump earlier. In addition, his website had numerous “Evan McMullin Can Win Utah” and “How McMullin Can Win the White House” clickbait articles and not enough on how the EC favors the Republicans or the media is making this race closer than it should be. If my memory is right they stated the EC had a slight Democratic bias, but that was based on recent history of a small sample size. The flippable states were predominantly blue. The states out of reach like Montana are the ones that have an outsized EC footprint.

      • humanoid.panda

        With his proprietary “special sauce” we had no idea if he was over tweaking in trying to overcompensate for missing Trump earlier.

        But we do now. Plus he laid out his argument for over-compensating and “we” (myself included) just ignored it!

        In addition, his website had numerous “Evan McMullin Can Win Utah” and “How McMullin Can Win the White House” clickbait articles and not enough on how the EC favors the Republicans or the media is making this race closer than it should be.

        Did they have a lot of clickbait? Sure. But Silver kept publishing story after story laying out why his prediction was less sanguine than others’. It’s just that people have developed antipathy towards him, and thought that those stories were a form of clickbait (keeping the horserace alive!)

        If my memory is right they stated the EC had a slight Democratic bias, but that was based on recent history of a small sample size. The flippable states were predominantly blue. The states out of reach like Montana are the ones that have an outsized EC footprint.

        Your memory is wrong: as early as 2014, 538 was writing stories about how blue states like Iowa were moving rightward.

        • Excitable Boy

          Not sure my memory is wrong, because they did stories about Georgia and Arizona were moving left around the same time. Those stories were not EC specific. I mean there were more than 3 McMullin stories, when they stated the odds were around 100k-1 of him winning the WH. The odds of Trump winning the EC and losing the popular vote were 133-1, yet there was only one story that I noticed, and it was a hodgepodge of everything that could happen in the election.

          Was his writing always so dull? I think they have too many “whiz kids.” Their writing and podcasts are insufferable, because they are lacking sleep and hopped up on root beer or caffeine. They are trying to do too many things. I went there for expertise on polling and I got a bunch of apathetic millennials complaining about ennui. Why didn’t he spend some of that money on better polling, since it is his constant dodge? It would have been better spent than on “analysts” like Claire Malone or Harry Enten.

          • humanoid.panda

            Given that Harry Enten was the guy who called Iowa (and by extension, Ohio) a problem in 2014, I daresay you are mistaking style for substance, and then turn around and say your failure is 538’s fault.

          • JL

            He doesn’t do the polls himself, he forecasts based on others’ polls. How would he spend money on better polling?

            • Excitable Boy

              HP, how do you make the leap that he made one vague prediction 2 years ago, that anyone could have made with the thousands of words he has expanded since then as some sort of exhibit of substance over style? If I have to wade through all the other stuff, I might as well read Tom Friedman or David Brooks. No thanks.

              JL-I realize they have to depend on the work of others, but that is becoming problematic as state polls seem to be in decline to previous cycles as organizations cut costs. They need to start funding their own polls or team up with VOX or some other entity to defray the costs. Not sure if that is viable any longer as money seems to be not as available as it was when he moved to ESPN. Polling is becoming more and more difficult as the modeling seems to be missing important subsets. Silver has warned about this trend for at least the last 2 cycles.

  • njorl

    I think the biggest problem with sciences which study human behavior is that the results get used to modify human behavior, thereby reducing the model’s accuracy. That can be good. If you find a model of what causes teen pregnancy, you can use it to reduce teen pregnancy rates until the point that the model is no longer effective. That effect is most pronounced in economics, though, where profits motivate the behavior. Any economic model which works well will be studied for ways it can be profitably exploited to the detriment of those who rely on it.
    An exploit which is used narrowly will leave the model functioning, while the exploiter makes significant profits, but that won’t last. More people will find and use the exploit, rendering the model useless. Human nature being what it is, the model will remain in use until there is a catastrophe.

    That’s what happened in the mortgage crisis. Someone discovered that
    mortgage loans were a more profitable investment to base the “safe” portion of an investment portfolio on than corporate bonds or treasuries. The mortgage market was too small to support this as a general behavior, but that was ignored.

    The advantage in physics is that I don’t have to worry about some other physicist exploiting Maxwell’s equations for his own benefit and ruining the way they work for me.

    • njorl

      I meant to add, the same thing could have happened in the previous election. A model which tells you a state is safe based on demographics and sparse polling might make a candidate more likely to ignore specific demographics or make fewer visits to a state.

      Some feedback behaviors would be built into the model already. Candidates have always ignored states where they had big leads, so a candidate who does that isn’t really exploiting their model. That behavior is built into it because candidates have always done that. But, if a candidate is told, “Yes, that state is close but you can ignore it because these arcane demographic facts mean you will certainly win.”, then the candidate is exploiting their model. They are engaging in behavior which the model does not necessarily describe accurately.

      The whole point of having a model in political science is to exploit it. You want to know which constituencies you need to devote more effort to and which you can afford to devote less to. While the model might have been accurate last election, you need to incorporate into it cumulative effects. While it might be fine to ignore a constituency for one election, or two, such tactics might cause a fundamental change in behavior if you try it a third time. You find out your model is broken by being exploited too much.

    • The advantage in physics is that I don’t have to worry about some other physicist exploiting Maxwell’s equations for his own benefit and ruining the way they work for me.

      There was a Russian mathematical logician (Yosenin-Volpin) whose particular version of “ultra-finitism” (as it was once explained to me by a possibly biased source) involved deductive systems in which some (maybe all?) axioms could only be applied in proofs finitely many times before being used up.

  • The renowned American economist Irving Fisher actually built an elaborate hydraulic machine with pumps and levers, allowing him to demonstrate visually how equilibrium prices in the market adjust in response to changes in supply or demand.

    You get this kind of ridiculous thing any time you think society is a system that works in a predictable way like a machine. Economics, for good or bad, happens to be the only developed theory of society as a machine that we have (even on the left), and the barrier to entry to discussions of economics is high and exclusionary in a way (nontheoretical) discussions of literature or history aren’t. So, luckily for us, most people trained in other fields get along without pseudoscientific ideas about society as something there could be a mechanistic model of. But that leaves the glamor of economics.

    • ExpatJK

      Red Plenty does a good job of discussing how this sort of thinking operated in a different ideological (Communist) context. It’s an entertaining book.

      • humanoid.panda

        But that book also does really good job of demonstrating that while economy 101 models are simplified, they have an important truth about the world: an economic system that doesn’t have price signals and suppply and demand as coordination mechanisms will have serious issues.

        • Yankee

          An economic system that attempts to use money as the cost signal and coordination mechanism will have serious issues, as can be seen from the present situation.

      • Yes, I think if there’s a problem with Red Plenty for this purpose, though, it’s in its ambiguity about exactly what the “algorithms” are determining. They were really very restricted in purpose: only to replace the price signals of the market, and those price signals only in a restricted sense. It worked fairly well as an argument to convince a strict Marxist of the need for money (or as a fable about the limits of computational thinking) but I felt it was intended as more.

        eta The addition of the “fixer” character added yet another ambiguity. Is this what really makes society work, not either theory? Or is he the flaw that ruined socialism, not the limitations of 1950s computer systems? Novelists and sociologists have long been fascinated by the “fixer” who “nuances” the rules, too, which adds another wrinkle.

        • humanoid.panda

          I think it was intended as an Austrian fable about the hubris of ruling without price signals.

          ETA: I think adding the fixer was necessary, simply because they kept the wheels of the economy running. (One of the major mistakes Gorbachev made early on was allowing fixers to start their own small businesses, not realizing that once they turned their efforts to competing with enterprises for resources, the enterprises will be screwed).

          • It seems to be very popular with Marxists. And I thought it took the possibility of using differential equations to predict economic needs very seriously as something there might be a quite easily fixable flaw with.

            • humanoid.panda

              That’s interesting because Spufford himself is a conservative with some libertarian tendencies..

              • He seems to be conservative in the way liberals in the Reagan years said they were true conservatives, and libertarian in the way some outside the US perceive the left as more or less libertarian, with a sincere, well meaning interest in economic and social justice, as far as I can tell.

                • humanoid.panda

                  To be fair, it’s hard to study Soviet economics and not come out sounding like a libertarian (I struggle with this in my academic work..)

    • If anyone has a German-language historical materialism text for sale, though, the kind that would be used by sixth year engineering students in East Germany, email me at the address at the link.

  • bernard

    Like others, I think criticizing Silver because Trump won is silly, and actually says quite lot about the critic’s lack of understanding of statistics. Trying to justify that ignorance by going nyah, nyah, nyah at Silver is childish.

    • random

      All of the various election ‘models’ are really just looking at the consensus of the polls and then adding a thin layer of mumbo-jumbo on top of that.

      So yeah it seems misplaced to blame the people interpreting the polls when the polls themselves are just wrong. The polls are the actual model of the election, that’s where things need to be corrected.

  • Dagmar

    You are all being silly, failing to recognize that ignorance is knowledge, and making policy decisions based on scientific or quasi-scientific research is so last century. In the future, the only question worth asking is: “Will this benefit ExxonMobil?”

  • Yankee

    An “idiot savant” or wise fool is an autistic or otherwise objectively mentally handicapped person who is able to give correct answers to problems that would normally be considered intractable, like multiplying two large numbers. That’s pretty much the reverse of the link, about smart looking people who consistently fuck the dog. Callem “sundeck skiers”.

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  • Tracy Lightcap

    Jeez, have I heard enough of this.

    The problem with what Erik says above is that it is based on an impoverished view of what science is and what it does. Science is an attempt to use empirical variation in stochastic (i.e. those effected by random processes) systems to form explanations of states of affairs. The kind of explanations are dictated by the states of affairs. Here’s what I said about this controversy back in 2013.
    ____________________________________________

    Freeman Dyson came up with a useful distinction some years ago between what he called “Athenian” and “Manchesterian” science. Athenian = time invariant states of affairs, use of conclusive explanations based on experiments, deductive theories generating law-like relationships and predictions. Manchesterian = historical states of affairs, descriptive explanations based on narrative sequences, inductive theories generating probabilistic explanations. (Dyson put this better, btw.) Obviously, many think of Athenian science as the only legitimate model.

    But, of course, it isn’t. Many sciences – medicine, geology, meteorology, the social sciences, even astrophysics – are more Manchesterian then not. This doesn’t make them any less sciences; the distinction is based on the states of affairs the science is trying to understand. We can predict that in the Klingon Empire hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of a flame will produce a reaction resulting in water. Explaining how the Imperial High Council works requires another, quite different set of explanations and approaches. Practicing scientists don’t appear to have much trouble realizing this – recall Einstein’s remarks about social science – but the general public and some philosophers of science seem puzzled about it.

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    I still stand by that. The basic goal of science – see above – is the same in both kinds of work. The kinds of explanations and conclusions are different. And so are the predictions. For a science like physics (leaving out quantum mechanics), point predictions are both possible and useful. For a science like astrophysics or political science, the best you can do is statistical predictions that usually have substantial confidence intervals. (For predicting novas, the intervals are tens of thousands of years wide.) Trump’s final figures for the national popular vote were just about spot on; the state polling – always sparse – was off, but not by much except in the three swing states where .007% of the total vote swung the Electoral College. There could be plenty of reasons for that, but I’d put sheer bum luck close to the top of the list. Statistical explanations can try to take that into consideration, but they will sometimes fail. That does not mean that the explanations aren’t scientific. Full Stop.

  • naburroughs

    Sam Wang and Nate Silver are not political scientists. Speaking as a political scientist who has studied elections, it’s completely unfair to criticize the entire field of elections research based on the results of this election. Most of us engage in explanatory research, and only a handful engage in election forecasting (we’re trying to understand elections, not predict them). However, nearly all of us use probabilistic models and would be the first people to tell you that there’s a ton we still don’t know about presidential elections (not least of which because of the small N problem) and that our models are designed to examine overall trends (but wacky elections happen!). Further, most trained political scientists have a reasonably strong grounding in statistics, and over the last decade of so there has been a major methodological shift from correlative to experimental research (the “identification revolution”).

  • thegonch

    naburroughs is correct, this was a very poor post from Erik.

    I’m an IR person, who’s UG degree was History and Political science…

    First, the post names no actual political science as the field is professionally practiced (naburroughs is right). The post is a serious straw man.

    As a result Erik has missed that the main ‘social science’ critique of the humanities is not a lack of data (because data does not automatically make something scientific, nor make the study of politics ‘science’). The main critque is ignorance of the uses and abuses of data and theory. I’m in the UK and vast swaths of UK degrees in history have largely abandonded any attempt to engage with epistemological or ontological discussion; as far as I can tell, History has become a profession that simply grubs for ‘facts’ that can somehow be gleamed by repeating what was in some diary or document somewhere, a field having not moved on since the embarrasment of David Irving and the ‘get off my lawn’ nonsense of Richard Evans’ ‘in Defence of History’. If Political Sicence is faux science, History is lazy journalism. See… anyone can throw around generalised straw men.

    More seriously, how often is a subject like history actually working on the problem of politics, power and neo-positivsm? How many historians are doing work such as that of Will Davies at Goldsmiths, or Patrick Thaddeus Jackson in IR? I use their work to teach the uses and abuses of statistics, by the powerful. Where would there be room to do that in a History degree? As far as I can tell the History professional largely runs away from commitement to theoretical discussion; on the one had bemoaning the irellivance of philosphy and on the other hand mocking the uses of data by Pol Science / Philosophy / Economics…whilst most of the time not really understanding those fields in the first place.

    What Erik should realise is posts like his are actually undermined academic enquirly; they are ringfencing what is and is not acceptable ways of looking at things. If he doesn’t want to read political science anymore, fine. When I was a history student I was told the classic line that “…we study history not to repeat the mistakes of the past”. Myabe I should give up reading history then, because as far as I can tell it is doing a pretty piss poor job and helping people not repeat mistakes.

  • thegonch

    pfft, typos in the above, but whatever. If Trump winning plus Nate Siver and Sam Wang’s statistical predictions being incorrect are a justification to abandon social science…I am not sure fewer typing errors makes any difference :)

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