It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that all those dick-swinging pundits with their big narratives, opining that the US election was ‘too close to call’ were flat wrong. Their fables-cum-journalism might’ve been fun to read, but not only is it clearly silly to analyse the behaviour of complex, heterogeneous systems using language (it makes me inwardly wince and smirk to read, for example, that the monoculture of ‘Ohio’ thinks somethingorother in its assimilated communo-brain): it’s been superceded. Statistician Nate Silver predicted the outcome of the vote down to the last state, proving that numbers continue to be the best system for determining which of two things is larger.
Mark Henderson makes an excellent case that this is an illustration of the failure of politicians and the media to embrace numerical methods where appropriate. I’d like to play Devil’s advocate and suggest something rather more left-field: given that Silver’s statistical model got it smack on, did we need to run the election at all?
I’ve written before about the idea of using small opinion polls to replace universal voting; statistically, except in cases where it really is too close to call, you can be ludicrously sure that your answer is correct with a relatively small sample. For example, imagine you want to find out whether or not a particular policy or president has national majority support. Imagine also that support is actually 70%. If you poll 10,000 people on the issue, your chance of getting the election outcome wrong is so tiny that it nearly defies analogy (it’s about the same as the odds of winning the lottery 58 weeks in a row).
We’ve also got to consider that current electoral systems are error-prone. The very reason we have recounts is because the results aren’t always right first time, so technically we should quote election results with some (probably quite small) margin of error too.
Silver’s final pre-election analysis suggested that Obama had victory sealed with odds of 91%: that’s perhaps not good enough to decide on a matter so weighty as who will lead America for the next four years, and so the polls might need to have more participants than those used by the statistical pundits in the US…but is it really worthwhile, in pursuit of spurious precision, to go so far as to make the election universal? How sure do we need to be about which way the nation has spoken? And, given the uncertainty in universal polls, how sure can we really be at the moment?
One possibly relevant level of certainty which occurs to me is your probabilistic conviction, as a voter, that the politician or policy you’re voting for is the right one. I’d argue that, in the fuzzy world of politics and, in particular, people and parties (who have been known to renege on their pre-poll promises), our precision in these matters is fairly low. Is there any point being sure of the outcome of an election to higher than that level of certainty? Might that even make Nate Silver’s statistical pre-election good enough?
Consider the electoral Devil advocated. Comments appreciated.