Nate Silver Himself Is the Entity to Be Analyzed

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.

Heidegger continues…

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.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

8 thoughts on “Nate Silver Himself Is the Entity to Be Analyzed

  1. Yet, let us not forget that there is an almost 1 in 5 chance that Silver is also correct in calling the race for mitt rmoney. Nice thing about race CALLING – you can’t lose (unless the race goes to an unknown third person.)

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  2. In the grottoes of Neuschwanstein, an ivory hand reaches out of the living rock, as if the rest of the sculpture was embedded within it. Those who say that God speaks only through the prophets are sadly mistaken. God’s natural language is numbers.

    Numbers are the finest of all tools. We may thank the Hindu mathematicians for the Zero, though it’s hard to say where that fits into the larger scheme of that stew pot of ancient wisdom.

    Nate Silver did an interview on NPR the other day. As I sat there, fuming in the gridlock of Poydras Street in New Orleans, Nate laid out his intrinsic bent: he’s a Libertarian in many respects and a Liberal in others.

    DAVIES: Right. So you call them like you see them. But just so we get this on the table, kind of what is your political perspective?

    SILVER: I would describe myself as being somewhere between a liberal and a Libertarian. A fancy way of saying I’m probably fairly centrist on economic policy, but liberal or Libertarian on social policy.

    DAVIES: Now, when you got into political forecasting, were you interested in policy and politics or was it more the challenge of prediction?

    SILVER: Probably more the challenge of prediction. Although one reason why I did get more interested in politics was because at the time poker was my livelihood and Congress passed a law in 2006 that essentially banned Internet poker. So I wanted to see if those rascals would get voted out of office and that increased my interest in politics.


    SILVER: But I more like the – I don’t want to call it the game of the election but I like elections a lot more than I like politics themselves, where elections are an interesting thing to look at and look at the data. It’s very much like a baseball season where it develops slowly, a little bit at a time, and then you have kind of a climactic ending. But I’m not a fan of the political culture per se. I’m happy that I live in New York in its own kind of bubble and not in D.C., which is a wonderful place but where you can’t turn down the street without someone having some kind of tie to Congress or the White House or something else.

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    • You, of course, ignore that the polls are severely undersampling the huge, silent “Mexican Born Polygamist” block.

      Seriously, as a an applied mathematician I am following Mr. Silver’s travails in political punditry rather closely. It is rare that the political class (media, politicians etc…) gets a dose of quantitative, empirically based arguments. This perfect vacuum has been filled by this guy and predictably, he is being assailed via the usual sound of fury of this entitled class. Their binary view of the world (Win/Lose mainly), just does not fit into the rather unpartisan probability distributions being quietly integrated in Nate SIlver’s laptop.

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