In the TV series MASH, there was an episode featuring a statistician – an Army officer who predicted how many men would be killed or wounded given the parameters of an upcoming battle. To the statistician character, it was all about numbers – “just business, nothing personal”, to invoke a line from a different seventies production. To surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, the character who had to try to patch together the actual men behind the numbers, is was in fact personal.
At the end of the episode, losing his temper at the statistician, after showing the geek through the operating room, Pierce yells “the thing I hate about you isn’t that you’re good at your job. I hate you for liking it so much”.
I have a similar reaction to people who try to boil all human behavior down into numbers, statistics and analytical models.
Now, before you launch into some misguided jape about conservatives hating science, remember – part of my day job is, well, boiling down human behavior into numbers, stats and patterns. A bigger part, at least for me, is finding the qualitative answer behind the numbers.
But I digress. Among the many joys of this past election – the potential for a safe SCOTUS, a solid cabinet, no Hillary, no leasing of US foreign policy to the Saudis and Qataris – was the complete collapse of analytics in predicting (and, via our media, shaping) this past election.
The analytical models for both sides pointed to a Clinton victory, albeit not a runaway. The Clinton campaign and super PACs had several of the most highly regarded polling firms in the Democratic Party, yet in the places that ended up mattering, very little if any polling was done. So while 2016 wasn’t a victory for traditional polling, it certainly took a lot of the luster from analytics. In the end, big data mattered very little.
While tinkering with stats can be fun, I’ve long loathed notion that all of human behavior can be boiled down into numbers. And I’ll admit, the schadenfreud when the geeks fail to do so is glorious.