Political middlemen and dart-throwing chimps

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

Predicting the weather was once quite an interesting profession, needing skill in reading the instruments, intuition in deciphering the skies and years of experience in putting it all together. Now it’s the kind of job Nick Cage’s character would be given in a heavy-handed satire of the American dream, possibly also starring Michael Caine. We don’t need these skilled individuals any more – computers do all that. We just need an algorithm and a mouthpiece.

And so to Nate Silver – one of the biggest winners of the US presidential election. As the race neared its end, becoming “too close to call”, with money and opinions frantically changing hands, the New York Times blogger was calmly and correctly predicting voter outcome in every single state. He had what others didn’t – a formula to convert polling information into probabilities – and it turned out to be dead-on. He was not alone in getting it right but he was among the few. Many failed spectacularly.

Here’s Newt Gingrich on Fox News on 25 October: “I believe the minimum result will be 53-47 [per cent] Romney, over 300 electoral votes, and the Republicans will pick up the Senate. I base that . . . on just years and years of experience.” And here’s the GOP strategist Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal on 31 October: “It comes down to numbers. And in the final days of this presidential race, from polling data to early voting, they favour Mitt Romney.”

These were not small errors. These people were standing in pre-hurricane wind and predicting sunshine. Are pundits more often wrong than not, or was it just this particular election that threw them? And how often do the statistics spewed out by experts hit the mark? One study found a statistic for it.

Algorithm blues

In the 1980s, a psychologist called Philip Tetlock took a group of journalists, foreign policy experts and economists – 284 of them – and spent the next two decades bombarding them with questions: would the dotcom bubble burst? Would George Bush be re-elected? How would apartheid end?

After analysing 82,361 predictions, Tetlock found that his experts performed worse than random chance. In short, they could have been beaten by dart-throwing chimps.

The reason was confidence. Tetlock found that the more often pundits appeared on TV, the more likely they were to be wrong. Their strong opinions were causing them to ignore dissenting facts or explain them away, leaving them trapped, he said, in the cage of their preconceptions.

Now, semi-expert middlemen are being squeezed out as the focus shifts to minute data analysis. Silver is one of the winners of this change but on the losing side is a whole industry of political forecasters. And it’s not just true of politics. Finance has been moving that way for a while. In UBS’s recent swath of job cuts, at least one trader, David Gallers, was replaced with an algorithm.

Difficult times for the old school, but what of the new? Silver expressed his concerns to the Wall Street Journal: “You don’t want to influence the system you are trying to forecast.” Only one problem with the new machines, then – accuracy. They’re so good that they might start controlling the weather.

Newt Gingrich opining away on Fox News. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Why are online jokes funnier without punctuation and capital letters?

Academics and social media users weigh in on Twitter’s most unexplained phenomenon. 

The first person to notice it did so in 2010. “Sometimes I think a twitter joke is funnier if you omit punctuation,” tweeted @zacharylittle on 2 April. He was a pioneer. It took two years for anyone else to express the same thought, but they did so in droves. “I like not using punctuation like commas on twitter because its somehow funnier lol,” said @chxrliesheen, sans apostrophe. “I never use punctuation on twitter and tumblr I just think its funnier ok,” exclaimed @julieamarch. From then until now, people have been constantly questioning the phenomenon, but there are still no answers.

Why exactly are Twitter jokes funnier when they have grammatical errors, discard punctuation, lack capital letters, or are misspelled?

“There is a frisson, or sense of pleasure, from playfulness in language,” Dr Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, tells me over email – in which she demonstrates some of this playfulness herself. “writing wihtout caps, proper punctation, and leaving misspellings uncorrected also feels like private communication, like whispered kjokes, and therefore has the same potential thrill.”

Dr Hugh Rabagliati, a Chancellor's Fellow at the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, warns me that most of his knowledge on the subject comes from “spending too much time on Twitter, rather than any obvious academic work”. It is true that research into the area is lacking – books about “internet language” get outdated quickly, and seem to focus on email and chatrooms, rather than more modern social media. “The misspellings [on Twitter] are often beautifully calibrated, like a very subtle malapropism, and the grammar errors are designed to make familiar material feel out of kilter,” he says.

Sometimes humour is found when grandiose sentiments are contrasted with train-wreck grammar, he argues, whereas other times the language can be exclusionary and people share it to prove they “get” the joke.

Perhaps the most famous Twitter user who has mastered the technique of the misspelled tweet is Jonathan Sun. Sun has gained 168,000 followers posing as an “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge”, and is part of what is known as “weird Twitter”, a subset of the site where humour is surreal and often bolstered by misspellings, a lack of punctuation, and grammatical errors. But while “weird Twitter” takes it to the extreme, many other arguably “normal” Twitter users will uncap the start of their Tweets or the word “I”.

“i’m not really sure why but i’ve been going out of my way to un-cap for ages,” one anonymous Twitter user told me via a direct message on the site. “i recognise that it is a stupid waste of time, ive had partners mock me for it.” Possibly, they theorise, they do this because they used to edit copy as part of their job. “it could be a reaction to that, to be completely armchair psychology about it.”

Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World reinforces this point. She argues that language users are always looking for ways to distinguish their voices and express emotion. “A bevy of authors – from the poet e.e. cummings to social media scholar danah boyd – have further personalised their identity by eschewing the normal capitalisations in their names,” she says. “When it comes to social networking sites such as Twitter, lack of capital letters lends a tone of informality that makes the messages feel more speech-like.”

It’s hard to admit that you’re deliberately making mistakes in order to look offhand, as you are essentially revealing you try-very-hard-to-look-like-you’re-not-trying-at-all. But Rebecca Reid, a 25-year-old journalist, admits this is why she used to uncap her tweets. “Honestly I literally thought it made me look cooler,” she says. “I saw my sister doing it, and she's a couple of years younger and very trendy, so I thought it was just what we were doing. So I copied her. This is so tragic from me. And after a while I realised that it wasn't making me seem edgy, it was making it seem like the shift button on my key board was broken.”

It is true that informality is important in written messages, as a 2015 study revealed that ending text messages with a full stop was perceived to be insincere, most likely because it is seen as a sign of aggression. Twitter jokes that are written similarly formally – with full stops and capital letters – might also seem insincere, or be less inviting or inclusive than those with deliberate mistakes, run-on sentences, or five-too-many exclamation marks.

“There's also a phenomenon that linguists have only started discussing in the last decade, called ‘Eggcorns’,” says Rabagliati. “Here the speaker has learned a misanalysed locution. The phenomenon is named from the case of a woman who had, all her life, misheard the word acorn as ‘eggcorn’. ‘To all intensive purposes’ is a similar error. These mistakes play on our fear that our knowledge of language might not be as robust as we want to believe – think about all those words that you've read, but never heard aloud. Plus, the errors are fun because they demand some backwards reasoning to reconstruct.” 

More academic research is needed for a final answer on the phenomenon, but one thing is certain. If uncapitalising things on Twitter is cool, writing an 800-word article about it certainly isn't. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.