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Ask Not For Whom The Crow Caws

A lot of professional blabbermouths are on the news channels saying the upcoming election is a toss-up and that all predictions about what might happen are equally without merit. This line of argument has started to piss off professional statistician Nate Silver of the polling analysis site fivethirtyeight, which currently has Obama a strong favorite to win. He suggested one critic, Joe Scarborough, should be willing to put his money where his mouth is. If he was so sure fivethirtyeight was calling it wrong, he ought to be willing to bet a thousand dollars on Romney.

This led to a certain amount of blowback from Silver’s employer, The New York Times, which I won’t go into here, especially since the subject has been well covered elsewhere. For myself, however, I rather agree with a Mr. Alex Tabarrok when he said that “a bet is a tax on bullshit.” Which, I guess, is how I wound up in one of these bets myself. I am either about to be taxed on my bullshit, or someone else is.

The other day, over on Twitter, novelist Walter Kirn advanced a Scarborough-esque argument that the polls are wrong and professional pollsters are headed for a kind of Waterloo. I went little-Nate on him and said let’s bet. So we did. And here we are.

The wager: we bet $50, to go to the charity of the winner’s choice, on the outcome of the election. His money is riding on Romney. Mine… well I’m betting on Nate Silver (more about that in a second), which means a bet on an Obama victory.

But wait, there’s more: the loser also must post a photograph to Twitter of themselves, dressed only in their underwear, and eating metaphorical crow (a leg of chicken). Believe me, the humiliation will be way more satisfying than the money. Bet to be decided when the election is.

The rationale: So why am I ready to bet some money, my pants, and my dignity on Obama? Well, as I said above… I’m not really betting on Obama so much as I am on the science of polling and statistical analysis, which just so happens to be a bet on Obama.

But my confidence in Nate Silver’s math does, oddly, provide a backdoor explanation for why I’ve voted a straight Democratic ticket for the last six years, and will again in Tuesday’s vote.

I believe in the importance of a reasonable, agile opposition party to provide checks and balances on the other. (Really, I think the country would be a whole lot better off if there were several parties to choose from, including a Green Party, a No-Tax Party, a Science Party, and a Keg Party.) So in theory, I have no problem splitting my vote between small government Republicans and community-first Democrats.

But the current incarnation of the G.O.P. is defined by dizzying and indefensible anti-science views which make it impossible for me to support them. Pick the science of your choice: evolutionary science, environmental science, the science of biology (especially in regard to female human biology and homosexuality), economics… and now, statistical analysis. If the science backs findings that are contrary to G.O.P. orthodoxy, the rational person would say the orthodoxy might need a tweak; the G.O.P., however, furiously insists that the science itself is wrong, and anyway, science itself is only another “belief system” no better than any other. Also, Stalin employed scientists. Or something.

Senator Dan Moynihan famously said that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The modern day Republican party thinks otherwise (Romney’s own campaign manager amusingly claimed that their campaign would not be run by “fact-checkers”). I humbly think truth is truth; it cannot be denied or debated out of existence. Or, to quote someone else – David Mitchell, in Cloud Atlas – “Truth is singular. It’s ‘versions’ are mistruths.” The whole idea of the scientific method is that ideas can be tested and retested and found to be true or not.

Nate Silver is not in the bag for Obama. He is in the bag for statistical analysis… the idea that if you know how to look at them, numbers tell us something about the world, and can somewhat predict human behavior in certain fixed situations. Nate Silver is in the bag for science. So am I. Fivethirtyeight has modeled the polling data, and compared it to polling data and outcomes from the last century of elections, and they think the current president is a better than 4-in-5 favorite to be the next president. Basically, the best bookie in the country says there’s a less than 20% chance I’ll be scarfing Kentucky Fried in my skivvies next Wednesday.

I’ll take them odds.

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18 Responses to Ask Not For Whom The Crow Caws

  1. Jonathan says:


    Eating KFC is a risk that no rational man should take, but I would probably make the same bet as you have. The GOP have lost their sense of reality, and have done so willingly.

    I’m not American, so I am not voting this week, but when I read or hear some of the GOP fact-free BS, I am shocked that such people get elected in the first place.

    In other countries, people who espoused similar views would not get 10% of the vote. It says something about America that this election is even remotely close.

    I wish you a chicken-free week.


  2. Darren says:

    Your bet doesn’t account for election tampering.

  3. Joe Beernink says:

    Like Darren, I worry most that subtle, and not-so-subtle, cases of election tampering could decide some close districts and cause a questionable (but not disprovable) result. The power-mongers in the GOP leadership and their disciples have proven time and time again that they are all for democracy–as long as they get elected. The right will use this result to “disprove” the science of statistics, and call the left posits of tampering “sour grapes”. A GOP victory at this point would seriously cause me to question whether or not democracy is truly dead in America.

  4. Mark says:

    Since he became the GOP candidate, I’ve said that Romney will not win. No poll has ever made me doubt that, which could reflect negatively on me but, uh, I really just came here to say that I finally finished Clockworks (just a few months behind–not bad, not too bad) and it was aww-MAZ-ing! I’m spreading the Gospel of Joe more fervently than ever. Thanks for the good time, sir.

  5. Thanks for sticking up for science, Joe! And for Nate Silver. Checking five thirty eight every day is the only thing that’s letting me sleep at night.

  6. Vicki B. says:

    I guess you’re not counting on them cheating their asses off with all this Tagg Romney investing in voting machines in Ohio and the GOP putting sneaky, risking computer info into voting machines.
    It’s really getting on my nerves. If they’re so damn confident they’re right about everything they think, then why for the love of God do they spend every waking minute thinking up ways to STEAL the damn thing.
    They need to get professional help. Something on the order of a whole freakin’ TEAM of psychiatrists. To start with.

  7. Michael Alexander says:

    Right on for the sentiment, but I have to nitpick about your definition of science. Science is a method about predictability, not truth. It’s precisely that difference that allows us to refine and test things over and ovemr and improve our ability to work with the world. Yes, “science is a belief system” misses the point horribly, but for the opposite reason, becayse science is a system that never stops at an unshakable belief. That said, it’san awesomely powerful set of techniques that get the job done and ARE worth betting on– becau, etc.e science is precisely the method of figuring out what the best bet is, over and over. If it misses a bet, you i,prove the system, not scrap it–which is what is so dangerous about shooting the ref when you dont like the idea of climate change.

  8. Christine says:

    Nate Silver is not a witch! And I have proof:

    Skivvies fun! Thank you, Joe.

    I wasn’t familiar with Kirn, turns out he wrote Up in the Air (novel), quality stuff, and I checked out his blog. Wow. That is one large photo.

    Huge fan of Silver, and of facts in general, and I got curious how Silver does his magic (making art of signalling out the noise). Bayesian most likely candidate for his statistical inference ingredient, his results have nuances similar to Princeton’s, can see their process here:

    Since math, like Silver, is so determinedly math-based, I suspect we’ll be seeing Kirn in his skivvies. I have large expectations.

    Madcap thriller: Secret Sauce. Intrepid truth-seeker stumbles upon the holy grail of secret sauces, a formula that reveals the true contours of public sentiment. Large data sets have never been so sexy!

  9. Betsy Boo says:

    Wow…this entire discussion has brought up so many thoughts in my mind. Like the idea of TRUTH…I am reminded of a line from (of all things) “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Pilot asks JC, “What is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?” I have always believed in an ultimate truth, and yet I have, at the same time, believed that in many cases finding it is near impossible. There are too many people who believe in their own “truth”. I think in order to get to the TRUTH we have to agree on a definition of what that is.

    And Jonathan…I don’t know where you live (I assume Europe) but I have to say that there are times when I envy you guys. Even the idea of fundamentalist Christians and Tea-Baggers would be laughed right out of there. I can’t tell you how many times during the W. administration I was tempted to move to Canada (or England or Sweden…etc). And you’re right…it certainly DOES “say something about America that this election is even remotely close”. It says that racism is alive and well here, ’cause you know that if Obama was white the election would be a landslide. Everyone knows, whether they admit it or not, that Romney is a big fat liar. Even the idea that he might be our next president scares the hell out of me. Who knows what he’ll do if elected? Nobody.

    And Michael…I really appreciate what you said about science. It is a search for truth…constantly evolving. What I trust about scientists is their ability to revise their “belief” when the data will not support it.

    And Joe…I don’t think you’ll be eating chicken in your undies. But if you have to get KFC, get the grilled. It’s better for you.

  10. Jonathan says:


    I’m an Israeli living in Amsterdam. Both Israel and The Netherlands have universal health care. No one I know would dream of doing away with it.

    I followed this campaign with incredulity: the wealthiest nation on Earth can’t supply a basic need for its citizens as many other countries do.

    Then, there’s the groveling before rich people and their companies.

    Corporations are treated as people?!? This is something that you would only accept in a sci-fi book, and even there it would be far fetched. I could go on, but you probably know all this stuff already.

  11. Vicki B. says:

    I heard an ending to the phrase “Corporations are people…” whether he knew it or not.
    I could hear the possible unstated ending of it as, …”they’re the only people that matter to ME.”

  12. Betsy Boo says:

    Thanks Jonathan…and I certainly appreciate your comments on healthcare. I’ve heard that if anyone even mentions doing away with universal health care in Europe people would be rioting in the streets. My assumption is that here in the U.S. people don’t see decent, affordable health care as a basic, human right. It’s enough to make you weep.

    And btw, now that Obama has been re-elected I have to apologize for my comment about how racist America is. I am proud of the fact that we have elected the best man for the job, regardless of race. I’m not so naive to believe that racism is dead here, but it feels like we are on the right road. We may take a step backwards every now and then, but over the long haul we keep going forward.

  13. Jonathan says:


    You know what the wonderful thing is?

    In a few years, Obamacare will be as sacred and natural as Medicare. Even constant Republicans will love it. They will view it as a “right” and not a socialistic scheme.

    Have a good weekend everyone.

    p.s. Horns is an awesome novel.

  14. Shanal says:

    Joe’s tumblr is amazing (, it was how i found John William Dye, but unlike most tumblr users he has a life, so there isn’t much there yet, but the stuff that is is brilliant. He may be going for quality over quantity, which is unheard of on tumblr, but he’s Joe flippin’ Hill so he does what he wants. I forgot why I was writing this… Oh, yeah, he doesn’t have an ask box! It’s pretty easy to get one, you just have to put some HTML in the doobelidoo, you just google around a bit, but then again he’s Joe flippin’ Hill so he can litterally pay a trained monkey to do it, or ask Daniel Radcliffe, man his life is awesome… So does anyone reading this know how we could get this information to Mr. Hill? The reason I bring it up is because it would probably be hilarious to read his replies to all the random, terrible questions tumblr users ask, and I for one need to know where he gets his ideas from and if he ever scares himself, also what he had for dinner.

  15. Vicki B. says:

    The way people despise Obamacare, I disagree that it’ll become as “sacred as Medicare,” which is already UNsacred to Republicans. If you don’t have an IRA from the company you worked for; i.e., your own way of paying that doesn’t make THEM pay; they want nothing to do with you.
    I used to be Republican and everyone in my family still IS. One of my family members refuses to acknowledge I even exist, b/c I became a “Republican for Obama” and she defines that as “a Democrat.” Which I definitely am NOT. At least not with anything other than health care, b/c I’m a paramedic and work in it. I see this insurance issue every day and know more about it than the press will tell people.

    OTOH I voted for Steve Chabot, b/c he’s willing to work WITH people, and I’m not going to apologize for voting for him. Being willing to work with others is a commendable quality to have on a job. And he never denied the Jobs Act. His name was nowhere on the list of Republicans who kept saying no for the sake of trying to deny President Obama any achievements.

    But I think that anyone who makes millions and billions of dollars a year is following SOME Republican principles, at least the one that says you have the right to pursue and amass a fortune and then keep most of it for yourself.
    I’m tired of feeling like my family members are being roasted for what they believe.
    They’re not perfect but they’re not horrible people just b/c they believe something different from you, and President Obama made that statement himself when he talked after the Arizona shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. I was one of the people who was really angry at Sarah Palin but, when I heard the president say we needed to unify during this tragic time, I stopped blaming Palin for what happened.
    The president himself is able to be around people who don’t think exactly like he does. I don’t know why the people who claim to like him don’t follow his example.
    But all this is my own feelings and experience. I don’t think I was rude when I said it.

  16. Betsy Boo says:

    Jonathan…from your mouth to God’s ear…or maybe to Repubs ears. Not sure who’d get the message first.

    And you’re right…HORNS is soooo AWESOME!!

  17. GREAT lead in to a documentary POLITICAL PANDERING AND MESMERIZING as we know it today. OPENING SCENE – ROMNEY ADDRESSES A tea-party-like crowd as YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU. I DIDN’T WANT TO DO IT. I DIDN’T WANT TO DO IT plays in background…… You think Romney would play himself?…. No, really, a spot on observation.

  18. Vicki B. says:

    Since you brought up politics here, I’d like to know what you think of all the petitions that have been sent to the White House asking for permission to secede from the Union.
    All of them are from southern states, whose state gave the most votes to Mitt Romney.
    I’m wondering if this is going to be like another Civil War. It’s really freaking me out, and I was hoping for another perspective on it, b/c I’m just freaking out over it.
    And wondering why it always has to be this way whenever Democrats are in office. That Republicans have a total damn meltdown.
    They sure as hell wouldn’t last two SECONDS on the job I do. If that long.
    It’s hard to stay upbeat amidst these silly ass true stories coming out of the south.

    Anyone who wants to sign the petition asking the Southern states to pay their share of the national debt can find it on the White House web site.

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