The Grifters, Chapter 3 – Election Prediction

Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscribers only): The Grifters, Chapter 3 – Election Prediction

That’s Nate Silver, founder and face of election “modeler” FiveThirtyEight, performing his traditional “Awkshually, we weren’t wrong” dance after mangling yet another national election.

Haha. No, that’s a falsehood, as the fact checkers would say. That claim was made with no evidence, as an ABC News reporter would say.

In truth, this is a picture of Nate Silver speaking at the “ABC Leadership Breakfast” during Advertising Week XII. Of course Advertising Week uses the same numbering system as the SuperBowl ™. That would be 2015 in normie text, about a year prior to FiveThirtyEight’s mangling of the prior national election.

You will only see Nate Silver on ABC News and other ABC media properties and events, because FiveThirtyEight is a wholly-owned subsidiary of ABC News.

ABC News, of course, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Corporation.

Hold that thought.

That’s Fivey Fox, the FiveThirtyEight cartoon mascot, who is happy to guide you through the genius-level mathematics and super-science that “powers” FiveThirtyEight’s election models. You may have also seen Fivey Fox on ABC News programming, as part of a weekly animated cartoon segment broadcast over the past nine months to “inform” viewers about “how the election actually works”.

For all you FiveThirtyEight and ABC News viewers, I’d guess that most of you find Fivey Fox and the cartoon infographics pretty cringey. I’d guess that most of you believe, however, that these animated cartoons are not aimed at you, but at “low-information” viewers who are not easily capable of understanding how the election actually works, and certainly not capable of understanding the genius-level mathematics and super-science behind FiveThirtyEight’s election models. I’d guess that most of you believe that yes, Fivey Fox is a little silly, but it’s necessary to speak in cartoon language in order to communicate with all those Fox-watching and Trump-voting dullards out there.


Ask not for whom the cartoon tolls. It tolls for thee.

Fivey Fox and his cartoon friends on ABC News do not exist to “educate” the great unwashed, any more than ESPN programming exists for people who don’t watch sports. Fivey Fox exists to engage YOU, the politically-aware ABC News/FiveThirtyEight viewer.

So does “Nate Silver”.

I put his name in quotation marks because of course a real life Nate Silver exists. But the “Nate Silver” that you see at the ABC Leadership Breakfast or that you hear PhD-splaining every four years that “modeling isn’t polling” is just as much a cartoon – just as much a constructed abstraction of an abstraction in service to narrative ends – as Fivey Fox.

The disheveled look, the stark black eyeglass frames … “Nate Silver” looks exactly the way it needs to look to optimize your engagement with it. Not to like “Nate Silver”. Not to dislike “Nate Silver”. To engage with “Nate Silver”.

For the ABC News/FiveThirtyEight viewers who like the election prediction made by “Nate Silver” and Fivey Fox, this will be a mirror engagement yes! this Genius Expert ™ agrees with me! Science and Mathematics agree with me! And it’s so obvious that even a child could understand! Ah, sweet dopamine!

For everyone on the other side of the election prediction made by “Nate Silver” and Fivey Fox, this will be a rage engagementno! this Idiot Egghead ™ has lost all credibility! The polls are clearly not capturing Factor XYZ, and it is enraging to be told otherwise as if I were a child! Ah, sweet norepinephrine!

There’s nothing accidental about any of this.

Three mega-corporations in the world today truly understand the primacy of engagement: Google, Apple and Disney. Other mega-corporations have successfully adopted this principle over time, but Google, Apple and Disney built their empires on the primacy of engagement, on how their products or services make you feel. It’s the foundation of Google’s internet search algorithms. It’s the foundation of Apple’s product design. It’s the foundation of Disney’s media content.

Of the three, the Covid pandemic has hit Disney the hardest. Parks are shut down. Movies aren’t being made. As for television, sports programming is getting killed and overall ad spend is down. The only potential bright spot is that this is an election year, where $11 billion will be spent on political ads, and where maintaining engagement with its news programming has never been more important for Disney.

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.

In a nutshell, the FiveThirtyEight prediction model is designed around thousands of simulations of statewide results (based on statewide polls and a hypothesized probability distribution on state level results) that are then mapped against the Electoral College. These thousands of simulations of possible statewide results create a probabilistic distribution on the Electoral College outcome, and whatever percentage of outcomes are on the good side of 269 Electoral College votes for a candidate is the answer for the point-in-time odds of that candidate winning.

FiveThirtyEight went into Election Day 2020 assigning Joe Biden a 90% chance of winning, which was even more divorced from election reality than their 2016 “prediction” that Hillary Clinton had a 72% chance of winning. There is zero alpha … zero useful information … in a model that predicts an election outcome with near certainty when in truth that outcome hinges on a few tens of thousands of votes out of 150 million votes cast.

To use a spectator sports analogy, FiveThirtyEight set the 2020 betting odds for this “football game” with Joe Biden as a massive favorite, say 20 points. He won by 1 point. In 2016, FiveThirtyEight had Hillary Clinton as a somewhat less massive favorite, say 15 points. She lost by 1 point. There’s nothing “robust” about these predictions, as “Nate Silver” is currently claiming. These predictions are disasters. FiveThirtyEight would be laughed out of Vegas for setting odds like this.

The FiveThirtyEight model failed in both 2016 and 2020 – and will fail again in 2024 – for the same two reasons.

First, the prediction model failure in 2016 and 2020 is NOT just a garbage-in-garbage-out problem with the polls that serve as model inputs, as the current F#ck you, we did a good job non-apology tour of “Nate Silver’ would have it.

In fact, the Disney/ABC/FiveThirtyEight business model is in large part responsible for creating the bad polls.

Both polling and responding to polls have become political acts. There is a panopticon effect here, where both pollsters and the polled know that their behavior is being observed. Not in the sense of an enemies list or being personally identified, but observed nonetheless by a massive hidden audience watching the very public playing field of the election spectator sport. And in true panopticon fashion, the polled begin to see themselves as members of a team competing in this election spectator sport, as active political participants through their poll response.

This has an enormous – and predictable – impact on poll response behavior. It’s not that members of the Out group (in this case Trump voters) are “shy”, it’s that both In group and Out group members see themselves as players in a game. Because they are! And when you see yourself as a player in a game, you … play the game. You act strategically. You agree or refuse to participate in a poll for strategic reasons. You answer the questions one way or another for strategic reasons. It’s not that you’re lying in your answers, although of course some people do, it’s that you’re considering both your poll answers and your poll participation within the larger context of this election spectator sport that you know your answers will be used to support.

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.

And Nate Silver knows it.

Hell, he and his Disney bosses created this game that uses polls as the “play” that happens on the field! They know exactly how the meaning of polling has changed, how polls are no longer an independent signifier of voter intentions, but are the output of strategic gameplay that is only tangentially connected with Election Day.

FiveThirtyEight depends on bad polling data as the play-by-play action in their election spectator sport.

Bad polls are necessary for this lucrative grift to continue.

So they will.

Second, the FiveThirtyEight prediction model itself is a category error, created and designed to promote a spectator sport business model with hundreds of point-in-time odds (the “score” of the game) over the months-long course of this made-up game, NOT to predict the outcome of a real-life, singular rare event.

To use an online poker analogy, the model is designed as an “engine” for a game where you can play poker all the time, as often as you like. It’s designed for you to engage with Fivey Fox and “Nate Silver” every day if you can stomach it, checking in constantly to see if the “odds” have changed with some new state poll and a rerunning of the simulations. That’s not a bad thing. The math of this game isn’t wrong.

Or as fellow cartoon Jessica Rabbit would say, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

But the way the prediction model was drawn … the way it generates a new probabilistic “score” of this constructed game every time a new state poll comes out … is NOT representative of the experienced odds of the single election event. At all. The math IS wrong when it comes to understanding the odds of who is actually going to win the actual election.

Why? Because Silver’s run-ten-thousand-simulations methodology masks the volatility and the uncertainty hiding in the statewide polls. I’m not talking about the uncertainty of a poll with a big margin of error. The methodology can handle that fine. I’m not talking about the uncertainty of a poll that says a statewide race is 50/50. That’s not a problem, either.

I’m talking about the uncertainty of a poll that doesn’t MEAN what you thought it means, where – in the lingo – error in the poll is not randomly distributed, where – for example – you have a pandemic changing actual voting behavior in a systematic way, but not changing poll response behavior in a systematic way, where – as Nate Silver understands perfectly well – you have poll respondents acting strategically in a systematic way.

If you have THAT kind of uncertainty in your statewide polls, then the FiveThirtyEight prediction model will not catch these errors. No, no … the simulation methodology will MAGNIFY these errors.

The result? FiveThirtyEight has no idea what the real score of the actual election game might be.

All of econometric and statistical analysis – ALL OF IT – exists to give you an answer to two and only two questions:

  • What’s your best guess?
  • How sure are you?

The FiveThirtyEight election model gives you an answer to the first question. That’s what a model – ANY model – does.

The fatal flaw with the FiveThirtyEight model is that they have no answer to the second question. Or rather, there is an answer – NOT VERY SURE AT ALL – but the Disney/ABC News/FiveThirtyEight business model does not allow them to report that answer. Because if they gave this truthful answer, then we would all ask a third question: Why the hell are we playing this game?

And that’s the question that blows up the entire grift.

A spectator sport must have a score at all times. That’s what it means to have a spectator sport. It’s perfectly fine if you say that the score is tied. In fact, that’s a really good thing for audience engagement. But what you cannot say is that you don’t know what the score is. What you cannot say is this:

“Yeah, I think Biden is ahead, but there’s a lot of uncertainty embedded within my model. Maybe Biden is way ahead and maybe the score is tied, I really couldn’t tell you. But I’m pretty sure that Trump is not way ahead.”

Nate Silver knows that’s the truth of the 2020 election and the FiveThirtyEight prediction model.

“Nate Silver” can never admit it.

Is there a better way to understand the truth of an election? YES.

There’s a toolkit for understanding how to play singular or rare events, where the consequences of being wrong or overconfident or just unlucky are far more impactful than repeated-play events. Jimmie Savage, the smartest statistician you’ve never heard of, called it decision theory. This toolkit is used in military decisions. This toolkit should be used in our Covid decisions. For more, read Once in a Lifetime.

There’s a toolkit for understanding the consequences of a polarized electorate and how that polarization changes both a politician’s behavior and voter response behaviors, including voter response behaviors to pollsters. This is the toolkit of strategic interaction. This is the toolkit of game theory. For more, read Things Fall Apart.

There’s a toolkit – which we are at the forefront of developing – for understanding the structure of narrative and how it impacts social markets. Like investing. Like voting. We call it the Narrative Machine. For more, read Inception.

I think these are the three toolkits required to understand the statistical truth of modern politics. Is there a scalable, billion dollar business model to be created around these toolkits, the way Disney has created a scalable, billion dollar business model around the game-ification of Monte Carlo election simulations? Nah. Not a chance. But that’s the thing about truth, statistical or otherwise. It rarely makes you really rich, but it always gives you a life worth living.

And it never turns you into a cartoon.

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  1. 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.

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

  3. 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.

  4. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    I appreciate your defense of a friend, but what you lay out here is my biggest problem with Nate Silver: he knows better. He knows that there is massive uncertainty embedded in his model. He knows that when the model says 90%, the real answer could just as easily be 50%. He knows that he is the public face of a statistical charade.

  5. 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.

  6. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    What’s intentionally misleading, imo, is using a fundamentally flawed and limited election model as the cornerstone of a large media initiative within Disney/ABC News to game-ify and cartoon-ify national elections. Nate Silver the person knows perfectly well how flawed and limited the election model is … that in truth the model doesn’t know whether the Pats are 9.5 point favorites or 0.5 point favorites … but he goes along with it anyway. I realize that comes across as harsh, but that’s my biggest problem here: he knows better, but does it anyway.

  7. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    FiveThirtyEight is the functional equivalent of the Fox NFL Pregame Show, and Silver’s model has all the predictive power of a Terry Bradshaw pick.

    But the model and Silver himself are presented to us by ABC News as so much more than that.

    This is what I think is intentionally misleading.

  8. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Cynical? Maybe. Assuming bad faith? No.

    Disney has never pretended to do anything other than what Disney does - find new ways to make money.

    As for Nate, I’ve heard he’s a nice guy, and he is certainly very smart and creative. He certainly wouldn’t be the first nice, very smart and creative guy to think that he only sold his company but ultimately discovers that he sold his soul. That’s not bad faith. It’s just an old, sad story.

    I think you’re misunderstanding what I mean by the strategic behavior we all have with polls today. It doesn’t mean we’re acting in bad faith (necessarily, although some might). It only means that both our responses and our decision to participate in a poll in the first place are made with an additional level of thought and gameplay.

  9. “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.
  10. 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, qualitative research that you want, but on a day to day basis, understanding how value or momentum are moving relative to the prior period is by all means useful, even if it is not a precise, standalone representation of every exposure that’s driving your book.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. fwiw, nate has in the past offered to bet with people who call out his model (, 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.

  16. Game, Set, Match

  17. 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, so should not have to resort to LEGAL recourse.

    By contrast, when you watch Wolf of Wall St. or Boiler Room, it makes you sick to your stomach. There is nothing categorically different between lying to Cap Re and lying to Joe Sixpack, but at the same time, there is an obvious difference in the norms governing those two interactions and the limits of ethical behavior within those norms.

    Similarly, when we take a step back and see Disney selling 538’s forecasts to the innumerate masses, it seems obviously, viscerally wrong. I bet none or very few of the individual decisions that led them to pursue their financial incentives in this way felt bad at the time, though.

    By the way, it’s probably the same for fearmongering politicians and Fox news opinion anchors too (but I’m far less willing to let them off the hook).

  18. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    I’ll agree with Nick on this one … I don’t think the problem with Nate is that he doesn’t have enough skin in the game. More generally, I think that election betting markets are a really bad place to demonstrate “edge” for the same reason that professional gamblers don’t care much about the SuperBowl. Edge is a probabilistic thing and will only show up over repeated play, like 12 games a week for 17 weeks. Edge gets swamped by luck in a single game.

  19. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Great discussion here, guys. Thank you!!

  20. 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?

  21. 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” (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.

  22. Avatar for mckett mckett says:

    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

  23. Avatar for Dan Dan says:

    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 financial advisor; or (d) a hedge fund manager, all represented by different cartoons.

    4b. Limitations on the reliability and scope of roles/cartoons can be disclosed [k] [l] .

    5- Another similarity between those who run financial advice, Nate Silver and sports betting: they work by relying on derivatives of the actual businesses, the actual campaigns and the sports teams, i.e., they don’t have skin in those entities themselves. Thus, except for reputation, in general commentators and advisors don’t have downside skin in the game or pay penalties (it is conceivable that some advisory or punditry contracts could include penalties), unlike companies’ workers, candidates, campaign managers, athletes and coaches. Yet one can be paid for derivative work: commentators are usually paid purely for their time/expertise, as are some financial advisors, but others take a cut up front, or have floors, and many take a cut of upside risk (i.e., gain) as well.

    6- Divination [a] is divination, even when it’s a more precise [h] type of divination such as entrail-reading [f].

    On the other hand, what appears to be divination may turn into something quite different if emergent properties are used. Example: traffic analysis [b].

    Example of the difference between divination and traffic analysis: it is foolish to think that a more precise analysis of the motion and wriggling of a fish’s tail will tell you much of anything, except, if by analyzing scores of fish-tail-wrigglings more useful information emerges, e.g., about the current of the ocean the fish are in (sabermetrics [f]) or the presence of a shark [e]

    6- Whether its businesses/financial markets, politics or sports, if one is following a commentator, it is easier to follow them when the commentator sticks purely to traffic analysis or purely to divination; when a commentator switches back and forth between traffic analysis and divination, it is hard to follow.

    7- I hope that ET will help its readers understand how Epsilon Theory’s use of The Narrative Machine [g] might be akin to using traffic analysis on narrative to detect useful patterns; that The Narrative Machine it is not just a more precise [h] use of divination, namely, the divination of words that people produce.

    8- Also, I hope that ET will help its readers understand that even though the words that people produce are a derivative of what they are remembering/affecting/thinking [m], yet that people’s word production are a reliable indicators of how these people might behave in the future, and not just ex post facto.

    [a] Divination:
    [b] Traffic analysis:
    [c] Cartoon, sense 3: “a simplified [and sometimes] exaggerated version … of something”
    [d] Entrail reading is only one example of divination.
    [f] Sabermetrics.

    One can’t tell much about one at bat. But by analyzing hundreds, and cross-tabulating them with who a batter faced, ball count, etc., useful information might emerge.

    Note: The audience of 538 / Nate Silver includes those interested in the outcomes of both politics and sports. It would not surprise me if the population of hedge-fund-managers, financial advisors and financial commentators also had a high percentage of sports-hounds.
    [j] A heuristic is a rule of thumb, a quick way of guiding behavior, including decisions
    [k] See bottom, and compare to [l]
    [m] Humans rely not just on memory (including instinct and other pattern imprints) and cognition, we are also affective creatures [i, which is above]

  24. 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.

    You have to argue that your narrative is better, not that it is the straight one.

  25. 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!

  26. 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.

  27. Avatar for rwgood rwgood says:

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

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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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