The Grifters, Chapter 3 – Election Prediction

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EnochRoot
15 days ago

the cynicism is clear and i understand where it’s coming from. But this article assumes bad faith across a diverse set of actors (corporations of course, and Nate the person, and all those polling firms, AND all those thousands (millions?) of poll respondents) in a way that i don’t really see justified by the points made here. (I dunno, maybe it is well defined and i just can’t see it because i don’t like it because it doesn’t seem charitable, and we need some charity right now in how we approach each other. ) It rather feels more down the road of Pepe Silvia meme if you know what i mean. As such, the frame of the article as part of the grift series seems more man with hammer syndrome on ETs part. If anyone’s creating a cartoon “Nate silver” in order to drum up engagement, it seems as likely as not that the cartoon’s been invented right here. Which, you know… I’m engaging! So, good job i guess.

EnochRoot
15 days ago
Reply to  EnochRoot

PS he definitely did look like a disheveled schlub, though. Felt pretty inappropriate to me tbh.

Matthew Leidlein
15 days ago

Friends, Wolfpack, Epsilon Theorists, lend me your ears;

The noble Ben Hunt hath told you that “Nate Silver” is a cartoon and a grifter.

I’m no expert on “Nate Silver”. I don’t really consume the core product however Ben defines it. But I’ll try to defend a friend, Nate Silver, whose last three pre-election bylines were these articles:

Biden’s Favored In Our Final Presidential Forecast, But It’s A Fine Line Between A Landslide And A Nail-Biter

I’m Here To Remind You That Trump Can Still Win

Trump Can Still Win, But The Polls Would Have To Be Off By Way More Than In 2016

Ben’s piece stipulates this, I know, but I find it unnatural to credit these articles to Nate while accusing “Nate’s” model of dishonest oversimplification. I speak not to disprove what Ben spoke, if you catch my drift.

The core criticism here, as I understand it, is that playing the election as a sporting event is a grift, and those who contribute in-game commentary are grifters. To me, that’s a very broad media critique, extending far enough beyond elections/538/Disney that I wonder how it misses Epsilon Theory… If that matters? Also, “Nate’s” model was pretty careful to lay out the possible distributions? If it were so, it was a grievous fault… ?

Between explicitly harmful grifts like the Kodak handout and N95 mask (non-) production and… Fivey Fox, my pitchfork is already headed in the former direction — and I must pause till it come back to me.

Nick Burgin
14 days ago

A little harsh on Nate, I would say. His model assumed the polling error in 2016 was random – which is what polling errors have tended to be over time, across many different elections, and seems to me like the most sensible ex-ante assumption here. Now we have two observations of the polling error in an election involving Trump going in the same direction, so maybe it’s not random. Or maybe it still is, hard to know for sure. And, of course we don’t know going into the election with any certainty if Biden is an 89.5% favorite, or a 71.3% favorite, or what exactly, we just know he’s probably going to win, but it’s not definite. So, you can criticize Nate for being overly specific if you want, but him pinning an exact number on it doesn’t seem any different than the bookies saying the Patriots are a 9.5 point favorite over the Jets. Yes, it is to stimulate debate/engagement/wagering, but what’s wrong with that? I don’t find it to be intentionally misleading in any way.

Andrew
14 days ago
Reply to  Ben Hunt

There is a huge difference between a book putting NE -9.5 versus 538 saying Biden has a 94% chance of winning Wisconsin (which is equivalent to Biden being -14.5 in football terms). When the book sets the line wrong they lose money. If the book sets the line wrong enough they go bust. On the other hand, there are no negative consequences for 538 in setting ridiculous lines on swing states. And I suspect Ben is right that Nate knows his model is overconfident. I doubt that if Nate were running a book that he would have accepted bets at even money for Biden to win Wisconsin by 6.4% to 10.4% (the 8.4% polling average +-2%). If they would not accept that bet it means they don’t believe the polls (or the polls have large enough errors to be meaningless). But they can’t admit this because if the polls are flawed all of their forecasts are garbage. I think the 538 polling average is superior to realclearpolitics but their forecasts are not only a waste of time, but done in bad faith.

Nick Burgin
13 days ago
Reply to  Andrew

fwiw, nate has in the past offered to bet with people who call out his model (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/11/nate-silver-joe-scarborough-wanna-bet/321880/), so i would argue that he is, in fact, willing to put at least some money where his mouth (ie, his model) is. with that in mind, it hardly seems fair to trash him for generating predictions in bad faith. also note that most bookies are reluctant to set the first price for anything, typically waiting for someone else to do so and then just copying the existing price. moreover, they’re only willing to accept much action on a single game if they have a secondary market (ie, other bookies) where they can lay off the risk. so, i don’t think they typically have more ‘skin in the game’ than nate does.

Andrew
12 days ago
Reply to  Ben Hunt

Good thoughts. Nick, sports books are reluctant to set openers but that’s because they admit that the early bettors are actually better handicappers than they are. Nate, on the other hand, repeatedly says how stupid the political betting markets are, so he should not have the same excuse.

Ben, I think the sample could be larger than you think if you include each state in multiple presidential elections along with Senate and House races. My guess is that 538’s model would be as good as the betting markets in setting margin of victory in most states but in states where there is large disagreement the betting markets would be more accurate, as was the case in this election. I think somehow whose predictions generate so much press has a responsibility to publish a track record of those predictions in a falsifiable form (margin of victory in this case). Otherwise, he will claim to be right regardless of the outcome.

nocklebeast
14 days ago

“Everyone knows that everyone knows this is how polls are used today, that you are part of a larger political game that is distinct from the actual act of voting. This is the common knowledge of polling today, and as a result, no one provides “straight”, i.e. non-strategic, poll responses today. No one.”

Nate Silver knows it and at least some politicians know it. Here is some text from an e-mail I received from Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign in August 2019.

  1. Sign up for YouGov and take a few surveys with them 
  2. If you are called from an unknown number, remember that it could be a pollster. If you are selected to participate in a poll, make sure to specify if you’re a registered Democrat or leaning Democrat and that you plan to vote for Tulsi in the primary election 

Remember, the more online polls you take, the higher chance you have of being selected to take a poll on the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary. So whenever you’re asked to take a poll, take it! We have thousands of supporters in every state—if only a handful of us are selected for a poll, it can make the difference.

Lawrence Pusateri
13 days ago
Reply to  nocklebeast

Game, Set, Match

Michael Greene
14 days ago

TL/DR: It feels here like this note attacks the way Disney markets 538 to the average consumer. I don’t have a strong opinion but that seems like a reasonable take. While it’s somewhat of a straw man, I do feel it’s important to point out that 538 does offer plenty of value to a hardcore political junkie who knows how to interpret it. My .02 is that during this election season, as a political nerd myself, I found 538 to be a useful but obviously not infallible part of a balanced media breakfast. Recent experience and various insiders’ Twitter feeds told us that Florida was hard to poll and that models would overestimate Biden’s chances. Trump’s messaging suggested that he might outperform with Latinos in NV, TX, and FL. We also knew that Parscale’s explicit strategy was to drive turnout from demographics that aligned with those of Trump’s base but had not previously voted, and that if it were successful, it could produce a Pro-Biden polling error in any model that was built to account only for historical rates of turnout. Amidst all of the above qualitative and narrative information, the ability to refer to a purely quantitative “ticker” like 538’s forecasts (and prediction markets) helped form the relative value scaffolding for the narrative mosaic. I don’t think 538, in this way, is dissimilar from the various crudely constructed factor baskets and quantitative indicators that the investment banks publish for the equity markets. You may do all the bottoms up,… Read more »

Desperate_Yuppie
14 days ago
Reply to  Michael Greene

Your analysis is fair, charitable, and is truer than you think. Indeed 538 is for political junkies and insiders, much like analyst reports and price targets are for those within the IB community. The problem starts when those things bleed out into the retail world, and they always do. Because insiders and junkies aren’t a big enough audience. So now you need to widen the demographic enough to make all this analysis worth something. So you sell to mom and pop investors/political novices (basically every journo age 22-34, which is like 90% of them). These retail clients know nothing. They lack context. They lack depth of understanding for the report they’re holding in their hands. And yet armed with that information they take to Twitter and start pumping. Chaos ensues. The problem we have now is everyone has this information, very few actually understand it, but each person in possession of it believes they grasp it so fully that they’ll start making choices based on it. Silver knows this, or at least should know it. He’s got sell side literature he needs to move and it matters not if mom and pop get crushed because they went all-in on Valeant.

Michael Greene
13 days ago

I think that’s the right bridge between my take and this note. I think it also illustrates the difficulty in ascertaining when a sales pitch crosses over and becomes a grift. Is it a function of the audience’s sophistication in an absolute sense? The information asymmetry? The truth (and “truthiness”) of the pitch itself? There’s this element of the word “grift” as opposed to the word “fraud,” which is more akin to the definition of “pornography” (I know it when I see it) than anything legally definable. There’s this sense that certain sales and marketing practices just make us feel uncomfortable, but it’s very difficult to draw a bright red line around ethical standards for commercializing information. Warning: rabbit hole ahead…. I think a great example of this challenge is found in some of the financial crimes that were prosecuted in the early ’10’s. Insider trading, market manipulation, etc, were found to be really difficult to define against pre-existing law. The Jesse Litvak case, if you remember it, strikes me as the apotheosis. I remember when that story came out, I was a buyside trader and thought there was nothing wrong with what he did. “Well of course he lied about where he bought the bonds. I assume I’m getting lied to every time I pick up the phone.” I had this sense that his behavior was ethical, because of the “Big Boy Rule.” His counterparties had COMMERCIAL and SOCIAL recourse to punish him if they didn’t like his behavior,… Read more »

Desperate_Yuppie
14 days ago

I’m an idiot nobody from the middle of Nowhere, America, and my EC map missed one state (Nevada). I get paid $0 to make predictions about elections and yet I managed to get it as close as (or in some cases closer than) Silver and the rest of his fellow traveler charlatans got it. Perhaps we should throw the entire polling/politics-as-entertainment industry into the fire and start over? Or at the very least we should examine why it is that we want this kind of cottage industry to exist when we know–without question–that the motive is profit and not information. Professional wresting has had a bad reputation for decades, but at least their audience knows that it’s fake.

Carl Richards
14 days ago

I think I missed Georgia, Nevada, Iowa. All I know is, you can’t make this shit up, and every time I say that, I find myself thinking… Did they just make that shit up? Every day is new, no seeming relation to the day before whether it is polling, markets, politics, sports, etc.? Everything has become professional wrestling, and I’m not so sure that the “audience knows that it’s fake.” Everybody has a script that says the perception of truth is more important than the truth.

chipperoo
13 days ago

I re-read the three previous blog entries after reading this, and am wondering, what does the Pew Research Center do (as mentioned in revealing the widening gyre in “Things Fall Apart”) that makes the Pew Research Center more reliable compared to the current polling mess?

Did they use a relatively constant voter sample base – similar to the “Nielsen families” – to measure the US Democratic/Republican split?

Flat Arthur
13 days ago

Pre-election I was mentioning to a friend that I thought the polls would be off again for a number of reason, including “shy Trump voters”. My friend disagreed and referenced a FiveThrityEight “Politics Podcast” recorded on 10/30/20 entitled “There Just Isn’t Good Evidence That Shy Trump Voters Exist” https://fivethirtyeight.com/tag/politics-podcast/page/2/ (sorry, I can’t link to it directly). I listened to it and was appalled at the overt bias and that they essentially had no evidence either way, which led them to the conclusion that there should be just as many “shy Biden” voters… Any defense of FiveThirtyEight based on Nate Silver’s “credibility hedge posts” ought to consider this indefensibly sophomoric take on polling too.

Mike
13 days ago

Thanks Ben, I did follow 538 this cycle and the case you present seems pretty solid to me. It occurs to me that Biden is (currently) logging 50.7% of the popular vote, the highest number for a candidate challenging an Incumbent since FDR in 1932. I went back to the RCP average of polls and saw that the final pre-election average was 51.8% and had been higher in the weeks before. If anyone had supplied this context (Nate Silver perhaps?) it would have prevented me thinking the polls were telling us what we are told they are telling us… and potentially lost them a spectator! Selling statistical sizzle rather than steak is very Disney

Dan Collison
13 days ago

1- Isn’t punditry OK, whether it’s by financial market commentators, Nate Silver or Terry Bradshaw? For one thing, it’s entertaining. For a second, even if the specific guidance isn’t always useful, the patterns (e.g., traffic analysis [b]) might be. 2- Isn’t promotion of one’s expertise in predicting OK, whether it’s by Fivey-Fox, ABC or a re-tweet of praise of one’s own tweeting? Don’t we know to take promotion, especially self-promotion, with a grain of salt? 3- Isn’t running a financial advisory firm similar to what one version of Nate Silver does, namely, using observations of past behavior, data sources, models and spreadsheets to predict what might happen? One might criticize a particular conclusion or, in depth, a methodology, but aren’t the business models similar? I realize that others have brought up this conclusion as well, or similarly, but my mentioning this is the distillation of what is fleshed out in more detail below. 4a- Isn’t a cartoon [c] just a tool, and not nefarious? Isn’t the use of cartoons just a typical heuristic [j] that humans use to handle the different roles a person has? A typical man might be represented by several cartoons, e.g., of (a) “a father/grandfather/alpha male” to a toddler; (b) a “doctor” to his patients; (c) a “mate” to his wife. Likewise, it’s normal that Nate Silver has several cartoons; one is a TV pundit, one is a sabermetrician [f]. Another man might be understood as (a) a sociopolitical commentator; (b) a financial commentator; (c) a… Read more »

jb00212000
12 days ago

But Ben! We have no access to the “thing in itself” — not to the election itself, the game itself, or the “real thing” (Hume, Kant). And, without such access, we can’t know what is “straight” or “non-strategic” (what “mirrors” the thing in itself). You see the problem here, no? You want us to compare “Nate Silver” to Nate Silver. But everything in the mind is a form of “Nate Silver” (with quotation marks). As soon as sensory data enters the mind, it gets quotation marks around it — it is interpreted. The mind is incapable of knowing Nate Silver “in itself.” The mind begins by organizing manifold sense experience in space and time.  We do not observe space and time, our mind imparts those things to sense experience to organize sense data for us (Kant).  So all that the mind has is in quotation marks.  You appear to imagine a world in which there’s a real truth that can be compared to a constructed truth. There’s a Nate Silver that can be compared to “Nate Silver.” But our experience of the world is always an interpretation — always “truth” in quotation marks. We have only “Nate Silvers” to compare. We can’t know anything about Nate Silver. Should we debate whose “truth” (whose “Nate Silver”) is better? Sure. But its not that one is “straight” and “non-strategic” and the other not straight and strategic. No narrative (even yours) can claim correspondence to a Truth to which we have no access.… Read more »

Dan Collison
12 days ago
Reply to  jb00212000

Agree. ET’s Narrative Machine can benefit from the insights of Speech Act Theory and Pragmatics.

But analyzing language is damn hard work and takes a lot of data.

Metaphor: like advancing from applying Hunches to applying Sabermetrics. Language acts are a lot tougher to code and analyze than at bats and slugging percentages.

https://www.wtamu.edu/~mjacobsen/SpActCats.htm

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

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

tromares
12 days ago

I want to join in with Ben and congratulate the commenters on bringing their A game to this one.

We are all being sold constantly and to some degree the very thing that sustains our unbelievably rich lifestyles depends on the success of those sells.

At the same time we all give up something.

Kudos for trying to stay real. Keep staring into that mirror and thanks again to all for sharing!

chudson
12 days ago

I am now applying the following part about the panopticon effect that you wrote to the reporting of the Covid numbers:

How do you get more engagement with your news programming? How do you trigger more neurotransmitter brain chemicals in your ABC News audience?
By creating “news” that can be transformed into an entertaining/enraging game.
By transforming a singular Election Day event into a months-long spectator sport, complete with plays and scores and announcers and cheering/anxious fans.
That’s what election modeling does. That’s why public polling and election modeling exist. Polls to create the “news”, election models to create the score, Fivey Fox and “Nate Silver” to announce the game. All to create engagement with a diversified media corporation.
That’s why Disney acquired FiveThirtyEight. That’s why they originally had it within ESPN and then transferred it to ABC News. That’s why they created the cartoon characters of Fivey Fox and “Nate Silver”.
No one understands how to create and sell a spectator sport better than Disney.
Here’s the kicker. This spectator sport that Disney/ABC News/FiveThirtyEight has created around Election Day has very little connection with the election itself. The “scores” and the “announcing” and the game itself are a totally distinct thing from the process and dynamic and the outcome of our most important political institution.
And they know it. And yet they sell their game over and over again as if it were the real thing.
That’s what makes it a grift.

Ward Good
12 days ago

I’m pretty sure you’re great, friend, buddy-pal’s at the facebook understand that whole dopamine, norepinephrine thing too.

Curt
11 days ago

Come on man, let’s call “shy Trump voters” by the more accurate term…racists. Recall that Trump started his racist “Birther” recruiting pitch on Twitter circa 2012, so let’s not call these voters “shy”, they’re just embarrassed to be outed.

Victor K
11 days ago
Reply to  Curt

Finally! Now I can relax since the ‘racist’ terminology (perhaps a post-modern power grab) has been dutifully applied on ET to ‘shy Trump voters’! I was called a racist by a patient who fired me because I said Trump will make the best president because he is an expert in bankruptcy (in early 2016). Now I know the term is just a shortcut, like Nazi or Hitler. Now I won’t take it so personally! That’s All Folks – The End

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