William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Nobody Called Mitt Romney Stupid

Mitt Romney is nobody’s fool

Three years ago in a speech on military matters, President Obama, reading from his ever-present teleprompter, several times mispronounced the word corpsman as corpse-man. (I don’t expect you to believe this, so here is a link to the video.)

This isn’t a large incident, and scarcely worth mentioning, except that it highlights three things. First, he had no idea what a navy corpsman was. Second, if you are like most people, you’ve never heard this gaffe. Third, this, and scores more blunders, like his estimate there were 59 United States (he boasted of visiting 57 and missing 2), fell into the memory pit or were dismissed as aberrations, momentary lapses caused by fatigue, or explained as tics of a man with the weight of the world, nay, the universe on his shoulders.

And this is true: they were aberrations; trivial ones, too. No man who rises to the rank of president can be as stupid as these flubs indicate. It just will not, cannot happen. Nobody stumbles or bumbles his way to this nation’s top post. It can be, and often is true that the president is ignorant about certain aspects of government, as Mr Obama was about the military and foreign policy.

But this is because of a mere lack of education and not a fundamental deficit of intelligence. As proof of this, Mr Obama used his three years to learn about the military, advancing so far as to educate Mr Romney at their third debate that our military had “ships that go under water.” We do, too. That he also told Mr Romney our fighting men no longer used bayonets was false, but nobody can be expected to bat 1.000.

The press, the Fourth Estate, with furnished rooms just out back the Democrat White House, called Ronald Reagan an amiable dunce and George Bush Junior an idiot (or worse) on the basis of gaffes like Mr Obama’s. Yet by repeating these claims ad nauseam as a ploy to persuade voters, many in the press came to believe their own propaganda. That’s the force of advertising for you. It can convince weak minds of propositions they know couldn’t possibly be true.

Anyway, Messrs Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II must needs have been labeled mentally deficient, while Messrs Clinton and Obama never were. We could put this down to standard manipulation by journalists who feel it is their duty, not to report, but to tout. There is truth in this, also evinced in that Mr Obama never had to pay a price for any of his missteps, including Benghazi, or his increasing the deficit more than any previous president, or his massive tax increase set to instantiate immediately after the election, etc., as they say, etc.

But did you notice? This year the press has not tried their trusted gambit with Mr Romney. Nobody out there is calling him a fool, nary a soul has attempted to argue that he is stupid. This should amaze you! It does me. It is a cliché to say so, but this signals a fundamental shift in the battle between right and left.

By not reflexively calling him stupid, the press has conceded Mr Romney’s intelligence. There are even indications that the media are anxious to assert Romney’s brilliance. Not in a Mensa, London Times crossword puzzle “finished by the cracking of the egg” way, but as an evil genius. Mr Romney is the Moriarty of politics. His nefarious plan is hinted to consist of unimaginably complex stratagems to dupe the American public with tax cuts and deregulation so that Mr Romney and his black-hearted associates can, as the phrase has it, clean up.

Now, to many “deregulation” is a synonym of “increasing freedom”, but to others it is a euphemism for “not caring.” And there is no worse sin in American politics today than “not caring.” We have reached the culmination of the second great phase shift, which began under President “I feel your pain” Clinton. Which is to say, the feminization of politics is complete.

The war is no longer between those too stupid to know what is best and those whose shining minds have glimpsed the promised land. It is now between those who without emotion assess the state of the land and those who can bring out the onion on command.

The Slate’s assistant editor Laura Anderson said about why she will not vote for Mr Romney, “I’m appalled by his apparent inability to empathize with people who are less advantaged than he is.”

You will argue in vain with Ms Anderson that empathy with the downtrodden is not equivalent to an ability to relieve their burden, and that displays of the former are often inversely correlated with the latter. What counts for her, and for many, is what is said, not what is done.

How Presidential Polls Work: D+7 or R-3 And All That

Unleash the polls! No, I don’t mean the men who bravely served under Grand Duke of Lithuania Władysław II Jagiełło (free bad joke of the day!), but those election omens which nowadays plague news reports. It is well to understand how these things work.

If a poll is to be used to predict the outcome of a vote—and not, say, shoring up the hopes of a beleaguered constituency; See Times, New York, polls—then there are two important points to remember:

  1. The sample of the poll must “look like” the eventual voters. This is true for any statistical model, not just polls. Models only apply to new data that “looks like” the data used to build the model.
  2. A poll is always accurate for the “kind of” sample it represents, just as any statistical model (excepting mistaken calculations) is always valid for the “kind of” sample that was used to form the model.

The first one you probably knew, though we still have to define “looks like”, but the second one you might not have. About these more in a moment.

Size of poll

The “size” of a poll is also of interest, but not of much interest: almost all polling agencies gather a sufficiently large sample (but beware those with numbers less than about 400). The size of the poll is what gives those “+/- 4 points” (or whatever) which appear in fine print and which are routinely ignored. These numbers are always wrong; that is, they do not mean what you think they do. They are, however, an argument for using predictive rather than classical statistics.

The plus-or-minus

The “+/- 4” means that in infinite repetitions of the poll, 95% of the infinite repetitions will produce numbers +/- 4 points of the original poll. But since not even the federal government has time for infinite repetitions, it would better to just perform the (Bayesian) calculation and state the actual uncertainty.

In practice, if you don’t understand any of that gobbledygook, this means adding a point or two to the stated plus-or-minus. Thus a “+/- 4 point” becomes realistically a “+/- 5 point” or “+/- 6 point” uncertainty, and so forth. You must always do this. This is the uncertainty assuming the sample “looks like” the eventual voters. If the sample does not look like the eventual voters, then you must increase the plus-or-minus.

Cheap bias

So what does “look like” mean? Well, lack of bias, for one thing. Let’s not consider what we can label “NPR bias,” which creeps in with questions like, “Are you against the death of innocent children?” where a “Yes” means support for a tax increase to create new bureaucracy which tangentially involves studying children’s eating habits, and where it will be reported that “78% of Americans are in favor of the job the government is doing.” For non-NPR listeners, this is usually easy to spot and discount.

The bias I mean is how far a poll systematically departs from what the eventual voters look like. To understand that, we first have to examine “random” samples.

Random sample

First, forget all the nonsense you hear about a poll having to be a “random” sample. Random merely means unknown and no pollster worth his (hefty) fee samples “unknownly.” “Random” sampling is another holdover from the classical days of statistics, when people still believed that creating a “random” sample imbued it with mystical powers without which it could not be modeled.

What you really want is known sampling, controlled sampling, purposeful sampling. This is why pollsters make a point to sample both men and women, blacks and whites, Catholics and Protestants, why they take individual samples within States and within localities inside States, and why no pollster just “randomly” samples citizens.

“Random” dialing, even after the pollster slices the data into chunks, does not provide any benefit. Removing bias in the dialing does; about this more in a moment. For a fuller explanation which explains the magical thinking involved in “random” sample, see this article; and then this one.

Our own poll

You and I are going to conduct a poll (and ignore the burdensome +/-). Since this a blog of Right and Reason, of Morality and Manliness, of Science and Sanity, you agree with me that Romney is the only choice. Very well, that’s 2 for Romney, 0 for Obama. 100% for Romney, then. Somebody call the press.

Now, this is a poll. It is no better or no worse than any other poll—as long as we keep in mind point #2 above: that all polls are valid representations of kind of people sampled. This poll is thus an accurate judgment of people who think and will vote like you and me.

But since you and I don’t “look like” the people who will turn out next week, this poll won’t be very good at predicting the results of the general vote. So what precisely does “look like” mean?

Looks like

Every person has a near infinitude of characteristics: he or she has a sex, an age, height, weight, lives in a particular place, has read some books but not others, watches certain television programs but not others, works at a job or collects government largesse, drinks or abstains, prays or preys, and on and on and on some more.

Because the number of characteristics is immensely large, no sample can ever look like the eventual poll census in every particular. (This is also why we don’t need “randomness”, because random sampling cannot guarantee equal dispersement of characteristics; only control can.) But a sample can look like its population if we only consider a subset of characteristics.

For example, eventual voters are usually split about equally between males and females. We could easily design a sample which (non-randomly) includes an equal number of men and women. That sample then “looks like” the population. At least as far as sex goes.

But what about “likely voters”, what about race, what about resident and age and religiosity, etc.? Which of the infinitude of characteristics are important and which not? The answer, which you will not like, is that nobody knows. Or nobody knows exactly. We do have a guideline, though.

Important characteristics

A characteristic is important to the extent it changes the judgment of uncertainty in how a person will vote. Make sense?

Suppose you are blind and somebody sets you down in Cincinnati and you ask the first person you grab (not seeing whether this is a man or woman). What is the probability that person will vote for Romney? Given no other information1, except assuming this is an eligible voter, you can only conclude 50%—unless you think living in Cincinnati confers probative information.

Now suppose you learn the person is a registered Democrat. What is your new judgment of the probability this person will vote for Romney? Lower. Knowing the characteristic party affiliation has changed your judgment of uncertainty, and by a lot. Party affiliation, then, is extremely important.

Next suppose you learn this person chewed Bazooka Joe and eschewed Juicy Fruit as a kid. Does that change your judgment of uncertainty in whether this person will vote for Romney? Not really, no. Gum preference is therefore unimportant.

And so on across an endless list. Pollsters have moderate to good guesses which characteristics are important and which not, because they have found these characteristics to be important in past polls. Whether they have identified all of them or whether these characteristics will remain important are open questions—with answers leaning towards No.

Regardless, pollsters take characteristics which they deem important—and no two pollsters agree on their lists—and then they seek a controlled sample based on them.

Practical characteristics

We agree party affiliation is important for voting, but it is also probative for “turn out.” That is, knowing a person’s party affiliation changes our judgment about whether he will show up to vote. Historical observation showed that in 2008, Democrats out-showed Republicans by a sizable margin at most locations. This was not so in the 2010 mid-term elections, where the disparity vanished or even favored Republicans.

The 2008 disparity is one reason why you see discrepancies in sampling of today’s polls. Pollsters are guessing more Democrats than Republicans will show (and by certain margins). If they are right, then they should angle their samples in the direction of more Democrats, because they want their sample to “look like” eventual voters.

Problem is if they guess wrong, or that if people who are Democrats say they will vote but will not more often than Republicans, then their sample will not look like eventual voters.

Influential forecast

This “over sampling” of Democrats angers many people. And that may be because of their unstated, but felt, appreciation that polls are, to some extent, influential forecasts. They have a gut suspicion that if purposely biased polls are repeatedly released, polls which favors the legacy media’s darling, then this may depress turn-out for the party of the Right. And if the candidate of the not-Right party wins, the polls which predicted his victory will thus seem “good.”

There is some truth in this, but the effect is likely small, especially at the national level.

What is a good poll?

A good poll is one which matches the eventual vote breakdown. A bad poll is one which does not. In advance of the actual election, there are only two ways to judge goodness and badness.

The first is how well the pollster has done in previous presidential elections. Since not many pollsters have polled many presidential elections, simply because we have had very few of these elections, past performance is thin evidence. Not useless, just of little value.

To the extent you feel a pollster’s performance on non-presidential elections matches his performance on presidential elections, then there is more evidence from which to draw, from the many Congressional elections, for example.

The second is how well you think the pollster has done in making his sample look like the eventual voter turn out. This is hardly quantifiable (which is not a detriment; there is far too much unnecessary quantification in our world). If you think a pollster is loony for releasing a D+9 poll in Ohio, then obviously you will give that pollster much less weight.

Polls are not probabilities

Lastly, polls are guesses of what the vote breakdown will be, and are not probabilities of winners and losers. Some polls now have Romney at 48% and Obama at 48%. This does not mean that Romney or Obama has a 48% chance of winning. It means this polls guesses the actual vote will be 48% for Romeny, 48% for Obama (plus or minus something).

To get to a probability, we take this poll (and other poll results) and other information (such as GDP, unemployment, etc.) we deem probative and put it into a model, which gives us prediction of who will win. Nate Silver has done this and derived a 74.6% (or whatever) chance for Obama. But see this article on Silver’s “lucky guessing.”2


1This is a difficult point for some. To clarify: “no other” means “no other.”

2Silver was also good at marketing himself, telling the world he used “Monte Carlo” simulations for his model, a term which is unbearably sexy to some. As an unknown statistician I say this in all jealousy.



Women Do Not Have A Right To Do Whatever They Want With Their Bodies

Over the weekend Yours Truly tweeted this:

Within five minutes of posting, I lost seven Twitter followers, people presumably displeased with the entry. Since this is me, I first thought of an egregious typo. What have I done now! But no typo. Perhaps the grammar? Which instead of what, dummy. The lack of a comma after “persistent”? I ran out of characters and it had to be sacrificed.

What’s left?

Well, in fact, it is the result of a fallacious argument to conclude that only women can decide which laws apply to women, or which laws apply to women’s bodies. True, it is a redundancy to add “women’s bodies”, but the phrase is there for emphasis; its presence does not invalidate the statement.

Perhaps those that fled disagreed and instead thought it true that only women should decide which laws apply to women and to “women’s bodies”? Nah, it couldn’t be.

Well, maybe.

If it is so that only women can decide laws which apply to women, does that mean only men can decide those laws which apply to men? What about boys and girls? Do they get to decide their own laws? How about blacks? More importantly, what about black women? Who but black women can decide which laws apply to black women, you racist.

Of course, it doesn’t follow that because only women can decide laws for women that only men can decide laws for men. It might be that only women can decide laws for men, too. Or that women allow a vote to men about those laws which apply to men. But since women outnumber men, the de facto result is that women make all laws, even those over men’s bodies.

Maybe it was abortion, that appalling topic? Those than ran from my tweet might have concluded that because a baby grows inside a woman that only the woman has a right to say what should happen to that baby. But that is a fallacy, or at least an evasion, because the argument is not whether the woman has rights over the baby, but whether the baby is a human being. If it is, then no woman has a right to kill it. And no man, either.

And it if isn’t a human being, it still does not follow that only the woman is the only person who has a right to kill it. What about the man who shared in its creation? Why do his rights evaporate?

Besides, all history and all cultures—and even you, dear reader—acknowledge that a person, even a female person, does not have the right to do anything she wants with her body. For example, what if a woman, using her own body, decides to slit the throat of her neighbor? Most would frown on that sort of thing. What if a woman takes her body and flings it from a high place onto your automobile? Most would say this is not her right.

Anyway, point is, even the briefest consideration shows the tweet was correct, so people can’t have left because of that.

There is another possibility. I made the tweet in response to a statement of President Obama’s, who quipped that he thought only women should decide which laws apply to their “bodies.” If there is any modern Thou Shalt Not, at least in some circles, it is criticizing this fine gentleman.

Lesson learned.

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