I love Nate Silver. I love his steady analysis of staggering reams of data. I love his measured treatment of complicated electoral possibilities. I love that he talks in terms of probabilities instead of certainties. I love his (apparent) bewilderment at the rhetorical windstorm currently swirling around his work.
Nonetheless, I still feel bad for the blowhards who’ve tried to burn off his data with punditry’s hottest air. That’s because I spend a lot of time trying to convince fellow political scientists that there’s more to politics than statistics. Some (many) things can’t be quantified, and overemphasizing the power of stats often obscures our political judgments. On some days, I trash quantitative analysis for a living.
But these jokers are going about it all wrong. For example, some dismiss Silver on the grounds that their “gut” rumbles deeply and powerfully in favor of Romney’s continued viability (mine rarely tells me anything other than “time to eat”). Others argue that his comprehensive slate of polls takes, um, too many pieces of data into account. Still others try to invalidate Silver’s entire model by picking at pieces of it in isolation. David Brooks thinks polls are—dadgummit—just bad for your health. Some think Silver is too small (physically) and stupid to be taken seriously.
As a public service, then, let me offer conservatives a more comprehensive option. Since they’ve (as yet) proven unable to unhorse the particulars of his treatment of the data, they might as well go full-bore. Hit him in the epistemology! What if Nate Silver is insufficiently Heideggerian?
For instance, Silver insufficiently recognizes that “Dasein is never to be taken ontologically as an instance or a special case of some genus of entities as things that are present-at-hand” (I.1.¶9). Humans are not chairs! They’re not bugs! They’re not pieces of equipment always and already available to be counted and sorted! Don’t “enframe” me, bro! Don’t reduce voters to non-subjects, raw data!
In other words, it may appear that increasing numbers of voters are prepared to reelect the president, but that is an unknowable belief which only appears apparent (argh) when we ontologically distort the structure of human Being. Clear? Oh. Well, in still other words, “The person is no Thinglike and substantial Being. Nor can the Being of a person be entirely absorbed in being a subject of rational acts which follow certain laws. The person is not a Thing, not a substance, not an object.” (I.1.¶10) Stats can’t capture the fluid, complicated experience of being a human.
See how that works? If we follow Heidegger by positing that humans are constructive creatures that reveal and ultimately decide the meaning of experience, then it’s surely a distortion to reduce their views to narrow poll questions. Each individual, each Dasein is in each case gonna make its own call—we can’t aggregate national trends from unique, diverse individuals. Thar’ be mysteries in them individual human souls, just as sure as thar’ be arsenic in them coal mines and oil in them national parks. Surely Silver’s strictly numeric formula cannot capture the full picture of American voters’ hearts, since “Objectification of acts…is tantamount to depersonalization.” (I.1.¶10) Silver, like so many elitist liberals, depersonalizes real Americans by treating them as numerical objects. Astonishing. Scandalous. Unfair. Skewed.
So: stop waving your science around, Silver, because we’d like to know
What is signified here by “carrying on researches into the ‘truth,’” by “science of the ‘truth?’” In such researches is ‘truth’ made a theme as it would be in a theory of knowledge or of judgment? Manifestly not, for ‘truth’ signifies the same as ‘thing,’ “something that shows itself.” But what then does the expression ‘truth’ signify if it can be used as a term for ‘entity’ and ‘Being?’ (I.6.¶44)
What does polling science even mean (man)? What is truth, Nate? Have you adequately addressed the ontical presencing of your model’s bringing-forth from concealment? Have you? Science can’t do the work you’re assigning it, Nate, because “In no science are the ‘universal validity’ of standards and the claims to ‘universality’ which the ‘they’ and its common sense demand, less possible as criteria of ‘truth’ than in [your polling analysis for the New York Times]” (II.5.¶76).
And hey, what about language? What about the buzz and the bias that protects Silver from criticism? Heidegger writes,
In the language which is spoken when one expresses oneself, there lies an average intelligibility; and in accordance with this intelligibility the discourse which is communicated can be understood to a considerable extent, even if the hearer does not bring himself into such a kind of Being towards what the discourse is about as to have a primordial understanding of it (I.5.¶35).
In other words, Nate Silver does not bring himself into the right kind of Being, the American kind of Being, and thus misunderstands all sorts of elemental things about our politics. These zeitgeisty things do not show up in polls, but they damned well matter. If you’d like, John Sununu can give you some pointers.
We do not so much understand the entities which are talked about; we already are listening only to what is said-in-the-talk as such. What is said-in-the-talk gets understood; but what the talk is about is understood only approximately and superficially. We have the same thing in view, because it is in the same averageness that we have a common understanding of what is said. (I.5.¶35)
Look, Nate…there are some secret messages in Romney’s rhetoric. These get understood by the right people, ok? You can’t measure them, and—at best—you understand them only approximately and superficially. But our base has the same thing in view, and it’s a Mormon president. Though he’s not average. Ignore that part in this case.
After all, “The groundlessness of idle talk is no obstacle to its becoming public; instead it encourages this.” (I.5.¶35) Romney and Ryan are gonna keep saying this stuff, and when that voting curtain closes, man, your polling data is toast.
Ridiculous? Maybe. A terribly misguided use of Heidegger’s text? Without question. Persistently and selectively obscure? Of course. Willfully confusing? That’s the point.
But hey, once the facts get this hostile, one might as well suggest that they don’t—and in fact, can’t—exist.
[All above citations from Heidegger’s Being and Time. Several terms borrowed from “The Question Concerning Technology.”]
Conor P. Williams is well aware that Heidegger doesn’t actually argue almost anything of what’s assigned to him in the above post. It’s mostly a joke. For (usually) less dorky humor, analysis, etc, find him on Facebook or Twitter. Here’s his email. Here are his credentials.