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 I’m sick of fake theorists lamenting the “millennial problem”

Wise Thinkers lament smartphones, social media, and self-entitlement – ignoring how badly off this generation is thanks to its predecessors.

There is a certain sort of Wise Thinker who loves nothing more than to offer advice on the “problem” of “millennials”. Oh, Wise Thinker, where has this mysterious generation of lazy, entitled narcissists come from, and how am I supposed to deal with the ones who keep showing up in my office?

The answer, we’re told, is a massive failure in parenting that started in the 1980s – suddenly children were told they were special, that they could do anything they wanted to. Worse, they were shown they didn’t have to work for it – they were given participation medals just for showing up, and any time they did badly at school, they didn’t need to improve; their parents just complained to get them better marks!

No evidence that any of this is substantially true (or caused the claimed effects) need be offered: that can be left as an exercise to the reader’s own preconceptions.

(They’ve given out participation medals in the modern Olympics since it started in 1896, by the way. No one ever seems to mention that.)

A particularly refined example of this sort of thing has been doing the rounds of social media recently – a video clip in which motivational speaker and TED talkist Simon Sinek rehearses the familiar lines but then makes a rather bolder claim: millennials are losing the capacity for joy (and some of them are even killing themselves), and it’s all because of mobile phones.

Their use of mobile phones and social media is addictive, Sinek says, in exactly the same way as drugs and alcohol. He refers to the brain chemical dopamine, which immediately turns his every utterance into rigorous neuroscience – regardless of the quantity and quality of the evidence available to support it.

That every millennial is suffering from this terrible addiction is taken as read, as much as everyone who’s ever had a glass of wine is a raging alcoholic. Non-millennials, we all know, completely eschew the mobile phone and have never been seen on Facebook.

But this is only part of the broader millennial addiction to instant gratification – same-day delivery, movies-on-demand, even getting a date is now as simple as swiping right, as anyone who’s never actually tried online dating will surely agree!

It seems all millennials can have everything they want, whenever they want it, so they will never learn the hard lessons that the Wise Thinkers learned in the old times: how to be patient, how to have self-restraint, how to work hard for something.

This can surely be the first time in history in which the old have considered the young to be impatient and lazy.

Worst-case scenario? Sinek points to a rise in depression and suicide, and lets us draw arbitrary lines as we please. His best-case scenario: the millennial will never learn how to find joy, unless, apparently, their benevolent employer helps them with such innovative solutions as banning phones in meetings. Sure.

There is of course nothing wrong with some scepticism towards new technology and the effect it can have on the fragile human mind. If only we had heeded the scientist Conrad Gessner’s dire warning of a powerful new invention that would overwhelm, confuse and ultimately harm us with its unstoppable flood of information. That invention? The book. Gessner lived through the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century. History doesn’t record whether or not he wore stupid glasses.

But maybe Sinek is right – maybe only by abandoning the embrace of Siri will you know true love, millennials, some of you who are actually in your mid-thirties these days and have probably already started tutting at those younger than you who never learned “real” patience by sending texts on a Nokia 3310.

It must be a lot of fun, theorising about the possible origins of the “millennial problem”, and coming up with brilliant outside-the-box solutions to it. Weird, though, that all these Wise Thinkers never seem to talk about how many millennials started their careers in the midst (or the aftermath) of an uncertain job market caused by the 2008 financial crisis. Or how many of them had to start their careers with unpaid internships. Or, more fundamentally, that they’re the first generation for decades to earn lower wages than their predecessors.

Perhaps, for some strange reason, managers so supposedly desperate to understand millennial employees are not quite as interested in paying motivational speakers to tell them about things like that.