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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Personal experiences – not just biology – shape who you find attractive

Researchers find past experiences play a role in identifying why people are attracted to certain individuals.

A new study suggests personal experiences influence our attraction to our preferred partners. It was previously thought genes played a bigger role, as they do in forming other examples of behaviour and character traits. Just reflect on the number of times you've been singled out by a family member for acting like one of your parents, either offensively or in a praiseworthy way.

There are certain characteristics that lead people to judge particular faces as more attractive than others, such as the level of symmetry. However, people still dispute others' opinions when judging facial attractiveness – it's subjective. After all, what else is the purpose of the romantic lead's sassy best friend in any rom-com or book? Or just think how boring conversations with your friends would be without such intense and passionate disagreements.

The researchers used twins as participants in the study in order to monitor these differences and disagreements in opinion. This was necessary because twins are, by definition, genetically identical, allowing the scientists to rule out genetic differences as a reason in explaining their findings.

A total of 547 sets of identical twins and 214 sets of fraternal twins (siblings sharing half of their DNA) were asked to judge the facial attractiveness of 102 female faces and 98 male faces, and give each face a rating based on preference. The results showed, on average, the twins agreed with each other 48 per cent of the time, and disagreed on facial attractiveness 52 per cent. Had the numbers been closer for both the identical and fraternal groups, this would have shown genes were more influential in determining our levels of attraction to others.

The study concluded the reason behind this difference was primarily based on an individual's unique environmental factors (the scientific phrase for "past experiences"), at 78 per cent.

Previous studies have shown aesthetic preferences are based on a range of other factors too, including socioeconomic and cultural features, the rater's own facial features and also personality. (See, it's not always about looks.) The authors were also able to determine how our genes influence facial recognition during this same experiment, if not our preferences.

Discovering that a personality characteristic is influenced by our environment is another highlight in the field of behavioural genetics, as it was previously thought "nature beats nurture" in many aspects of an individual's behaviour. However, this study shows that a person's experiences are unique even between family members.