Friday, March 14, 2014

Nate Silver is Half-Right

The revamp of Nate Silver's blog, 538, goes live on Monday.

A few days ago, he did an interview with NY Magazine about it.

In that interview, he trashes op-ed columnists:

… the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, WashingtonPost, and Wall Street Journal are probably the most hedgehoglike people. They don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They’re ironically very predictable from week to week. If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically.
It’s people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They’re not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking. They’re just spitting out the same column every week and using a different subject matter to do the same thing over and over.
It’s ridiculous to me that they undermine every value that these organizations have in their newsrooms. It’s strange. I know it’s cheaper to fund an op-ed columnist than a team of reporters, but I think it confuses the mission of what these great journalistic brands are about.

Instead he plays up "Data-journalism" which lets the data drive the story without ideology. (It's a bit unclear from the interview exactly what that will mean- I'm sure we'll find out over time.)

So is his criticism fair or valid?

I think it's half-right. At a big picture level, there are two things that *should* drive decision-making: (a) moral considerations, and (b) practical considerations.

The moral considerations are your beliefs about what's right and wrong. What's important and what's not? How important is freedom vs. security? What rights (if any) do I have?

The practical considerations are the facts and dynamics on the ground. How does it work? How many people did guns kill last year? Who did the killing? Who got killed? Where did it happen? Does increasing guns increase or decrease violence?

People's moral considerations are founded on belief, and unfortunately, humans tend to fit the practical considerations to their moral considerations. They will over-emphasize evidence that fits their beliefs and under-emphasize or ignore evidence that doesn't. And so in that sense, Nate Silver is exactly right- most op-ed columnists have their political beliefs and then cherry-pick facts that fit the narrative they want to see. This stands out sharply when comparing Nate's data-driven election forecasts to pundits narratives during election time. The pundit's behavior is highly disingenuous yet utterly predictable. It's basic human nature.

And Nate falls victim to it as well, and that's where he's half wrong. While Nate's left-of-center, I don't think that's where his blindness is. Nate's deep belief is in the technocratic, utilitarian trust in data to find the right solution. But excellent as Nate is on the practical stuff, his moral stuff is basically non-existent. He almost seems to think it's irrelevant. He can tell us who will likely be President, but he can't tell us who should be President.

We need more people like Nate Silver explaining how the world works and collecting and synthesizing the data for us. But the hard work has only begun when you have that picture, for that picture can't tell you what you should do. It helps you make much better decisions, but it can't make decisions for you. Moral considerations are at the heart of most political decisions, so it's simply inescapable, even if you can't measure it.

I agree with Nate that most op-ed columnists are very smart people blinded by ideology. I wouldn't really trust most of them to make moral decisions either. Examining moral considerations is even harder than examining practical considerations, because you have to be extra cautious about your own beliefs and biases. (And everyone has their own beliefs and biases.). People are even more willing to dismiss moral considerations that disagree with them than they are to dismiss facts that disagree with them.

In short, I think Nate is right to focus on practical considerations. But he's wrong to dismiss moral considerations.

(That's why I founded Wielding Power.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Crimea and Secession

As I mentioned in my previous post on Ukraine, the leader of Crimea called for a vote to secede from Ukraine. The referendum is slated for March 16th.

But is secession legitimate?

A recent NYT article gives the rundown of the fraught recent political history of secession. As the article states, this is a rather timely and delicate topic in the West, as Scotland will be voting on whether to secede from Britain in September and Catalonia will be voting to secede from Spain in November. (Neither Britain nor Spain wants to lose their respective member, and Spain is calling Catalonia's move illegal.)

It's a very interesting question. I'm not sure I have a ready answer in general. Perhaps I'll make it an upcoming question for Wielding Power.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The SAT Essay Portion is now optional. Hurray!

The college board recently announced new changes to the SAT (taking place in 2016).

This link has most of the details, but the biggest changes are (1) making the essay optional, and (2) making the verbal section much easier (by replacing the obscure 'SAT words' with 'more relevant' words).

The essay portion had been recently added, and I'm glad they're making it optional. As one person put it:

“What they are actually testing,” he says, “is the ability to bullshit on demand. There is no other writing situation in the world where people have to write on a topic that they’ve never thought about, on demand, in 25 minutes. Lots of times we have to write on demand very quickly, but it’s about things we’ve thought about. What they are really measuring is the ability to spew forth as many words as possible in as short a time as possible. It seems like it is training students to become politicians.”
Graders don’t have time to look up facts, or to check if an especially uncommon word actually exists, or perhaps even to do anything more than skim an essay before making a grading determination. Score-savvy essay writers can figure out what might catch the eye of a skimmer.
“I tell students to always use quotations, because the exam readers love quotations,” Perelman says. “One of the other parts of the formula is use big words. Never usemany, always use myriad or plethora. Never say bad, always use egregious.”

In short, it really seems like the SAT essay test measures the appearance of quality, not actual quality itself. So good riddance. 

(Btw- here's an interesting view on the possible fairness impact of the new test. Basically, because the new test will do more to measure mastery of material rather than innate ability, it will reinforce the inequality between good schools and bad schools. Smart kids in bad schools will be hurt most.)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Should Nations Go to War to Defend International Norms?

Wielding Power has published its second issue: Should Nations Go to War to Defend International Norms?

Congratulations to the winner and finalists!
Winner: Rachel Burger
Finalist: Gregory Johnson
Finalist: Brad Field

Please use the comments to continue the conversation. What do you think the answer is? What are your thoughts on the essays in the issue?

As long as there aren't too many comments, I will try to respond to them. The winner and finalists may also stop by from time to time this month.

[A few points of order.

First, please be respectful. Imagine this is a conversation after dinner among friends. We're all trying to get to truth together. We want your true, honest thoughts, but ugliness can sometimes emerge when people hide behind computer screens. That has no place here. This is not the place for ad hominem attacks or nasty takedowns. These are controversial, and sometimes emotionally charged, questions, so we're not all going to agree. But respectful disagreement can be profoundly illuminating.

Second, feel free to use a pseudonym if you'd prefer. If you do, please pick a name that's distinguishable (like 'squirrel'). If we have several people called 'anonymous', it's harder to follow the conversation.]

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ukraine Update (3)

This is my third post in what is turning out to be a series on Ukraine.

My previous posts are here:
1. Ukraine
2. Ukraine Update

The situation in Ukraine continues to be interesting.

1. Unidentified soldiers secured Crimea's airports and parliament building. While they haven't identified themselves, I think these have to be Russian soldiers.

2. President Obama told Russia "there would be costs" if it intervened.

3. The leader of Crimea asked for Russian forces to keep security and announced he was bringing forward a referendum of independence from Ukraine.

4. The interim president of Ukraine declared the leader of Crimea to be 'illegitimate'.

5. The Russian Parliament unanimously authorized Putin's request for military action in Ukraine.

6. The interim President of Ukraine decried the Russian move.

(I'm not going to link each one of these, but this link is very good.)

My Thoughts on each of those:

1. the movement of Russian (?) troops into Crimea comes very close to the grey line of illegitimate. On the one hand they do seem to violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine. On the other, the concept of 'Ukraine' is fluid right now and the people of Crimea certainly seem to support Russia. In addition, the troops are probably reducing violence and rioting (which was occurring earlier).

2. *sigh* more empty threats.

3.  This is an excellent move. It seems like the Crimean people support this, so this is a legitimate call, and doing so explicitly helps legitimize Russian troops in Crimea.

4. This claim seems false and baseless. The leader of Crimea probably has a stronger claim to legitimacy than the interim president. (As I discussed earlier, I think the overthrow of the old Ukrainian regime (democratically elected or not) was legitimate, but its not clear to me whether the Ukrainian people support this new interim president, whereas the people of Crimea seem to support their leader.)

5. On the back of (3), this is legitimate, so long as the troops stay within Crimea. Movement into other parts of Ukraine would be illegitimate.

6. This is to be expected, but not very convincing, since the people of Crimea support it.

What's Next?

As I said last time:
I'm not an expert on Ukraine, Crimea, or Russia, but the scenario that at first blush seems somewhat practical, and also legitimate, would be for Crimea to break off from the rest of Ukraine and become independent, while leaving the rest of Ukraine to the new Parliament.

Given Ukraine's dire economic situation, if I were Putin, I'd offer significant financial assistance in exchange for allowing Crimea to vote on it's independence.

As for the US, it's not clear what action it could take that would be morally right, effective and proportional to the situation. By-and-large Russia is in the right here (even if it's being very aggressive). Obama's threats were unhelpful (since they'll likely won't be followed up on, again). Silence would probably have been better. The US should apply pressure to ensure that Russia doesn't go further than Crimea, however, as that would be illegitimate.