Confession of a Data Junkie

It’s almost been a week since the election was over and I feel it’s safe now to admit my dark secret, I loved every minute of the debate about Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog and what it meant about the 2012 Election.  I read his blog religiously as the election approached and election night, I may have single-handedly been responsible for the periodic server glitches in the “512 Paths to the White House.”  As a long time political junkie, I’ve always been annoyed by the arm-chair quarterbacking, even from people I ideologically more or less agree with.  I’ve found their “gut-feeling” predictions to be nothing more than flamboyant showmanship and an attempt to grasp some sense of personal relevance in a situation that wasn’t about them in the least.

I enjoyed reading about the nuances of polling data, particularly the difference between state-level and national polls and yesterday’s post about Which Polls Fared Best (and Worst).  It may be wonky and nerdy, but understanding how to accurately sample public opinion is very important in a democracy such as ours where polls serve as mediums of communication with our elected leaders, guiding them in their decision making process (for good or bad).  Nate Silver demonstrated a level of domain knowledge about polls and polling that put to shame pundits who seemed to be making it up as they went along.  I agree with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi that elections are more vital than polling when it comes to public opinion, but having a robust way to capture public opinion is also vital in a democracy.

It’s a shame we don’t teach basic statistics in public school.  I think far more people would benefit from being able to read a poll than calculate a derivative (though that can be fun too).  Then maybe we wouldn’t need professionals like Nate Silver to tell us what we should already be able to understand, polling is biased, but that bias can be handled in ways that still make the data meaningful and useful, so long as they aren’t cherry-picked or taken out of context.

In the next election cycle, the 24-hour news networks will still have the talking heads who blather on, blissfully dismissive of their own ignorance because it makes for highly-rated television, but if only one of the talking hair-dos who anchor and moderate those discussions takes the opportunity to ask, “And what data supports that?” I will be a happy citizen.

One thought on “Confession of a Data Junkie

  1. Don’t you know it is all about who has the flashiest, splashiest graphic running across the screen? Oh, and the most grating voice. Now that Nate Silver is in the public eye, I wonder if the mainstream media will try and form him into some kind of television pundit? Time will tell.

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