Posts Tagged 'political science'

Confidence in astrophysics

[by JSC5]

This paragraph from an essay by Dennis Overbye on discoveries in astrophysics really blew me away:

“Call it the two-sigma blues. Two-sigma is mathematical jargon for a measurement or discovery of some kind that sticks up high enough above the random noise  to be interesting but not high enough to really mean anything conclusive. For the record, the criterion for a genuine discovery is known as five-sigma, suggesting there is less than one chance in roughly 3 million that it is wrong. Two sigma, leaving a 2.5 percent chance of being wrong, is just high enough to jangle the nerves.”

If you think back to your first statistics class, you’ll remember a bunch of ways for testing an observation for significance, and I’ll bet you $10 you used the 95% confidence level for just about everything you did in that class. It’s become the default level for significance in most social sciences. Run the regression, and if p<.05, bam, you’re done. Call it significant and move on.

Then along comes a hard science like astrophysics that puts everyone else to shame. These guys run right past .05  without looking back, at .025 their nerves start “jangling”, but it’s not until 3.33 x 10^-7 that they’re ready to go ahead and say, “Excuse me, sir, but I think I have a genuine discovery on my hands.” Meanwhile the economics/poly sci grad student next door has run 1000 new regressions and ‘discovered’ a bunch of things that turn out not to be quite right but still get published with frightening frequency.

And that’s why people trust astrophysicists.

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Say what, Tom Friedman?

I don’t know why Tom Friedman is still a prominent public ‘intellectual’. The man has a really tough time coming up with an argument that doesn’t assume, as the old yarn goes, that the plural of story is data – as anyone who struggled through The World Is Flat will tell you. If, like me, you had to put his book down after the third OMG! anecdote involving a random CEO, a first class airline lounge, and a developing country, and you’ve been living in fear for years that everyone else on the planet thinks the book is actually good and only you hated it, then you’ll really, really appreciate these three brilliant Friedman reviews by Matt Taibbi.

With that as background, let’s look at Mr. Friedman’s recent opinion column in which he pretends like he knows something about political science. The core of his argument:

I want a Tea Party of the radical center. Say what? I write often about innovation in energy and education. But I’ve come to realize that none of these innovations will emerge at scale until we get the most important innovation of all — political innovation that will empower independents and centrists, which describes a lot of the country.

He goes on to advocate non-partisan redistricting committees as well as the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Bam, you’ve just been Friedmaned. But whereas a highly-paid, jet-setting columnist gets to disregard actual human knowledge in favor of pulling things out of his ass, we in the small-time blogging world of Joint Stock Company like to keep things a little classier. So here’s an evidence-based look at Friedman’s four key assumptions that make his argument work (or not):

  1. Independents and centrists make up “a lot of the country”
  2. Gerrymandering promotes partisanship
  3. STV reform would empower the center of the political spectrum and reduce partisanship.
  4. Moderates actually care about good governance, balanced budgets, debt reduction, and innovation.

Let’s go point by point.

First up, ‘Independents’. This one’s the easiest, since political scientists have been debunking the Myth of the Independent for over 20 years now. You can read up on some of the details on these posts from a great professional poly sci blog. The take-home lesson is that political independents aren’t actually very independent. Most are just partisans who prefer to call themselves ‘independent’ because it sounds a whole lot better. Who would you believe, the party hack, or the independent-minded bloke? Case closed. The fact is there are very few true Independents in our country. Most people are strong to mild Democrats or Republicans.

Next up, the much-maligned gerrymandering of districts. There’s actually been some academic research into the effects of gerrymandering on partisanship recently (pdf), and the researcher could not find a significant effect. This squares with arguments from policy wonk bloggers, who don’t think that gerrymandering is the source of partisanship in America.

On to voting reform. I’m actually a big fan of the Single Transferable Vote, but I don’t think it would do what Friedman seems to think it would do.  As Yglesias noted on his own Friedman response: ” The dynamics of a political system that features a President, along with a congress, creates incentives for politicians to try to fit themselves into one of the two major parties. That’s at least part of the reason why the Blue Dog group in the House has preferred to organize itself as a party faction rather than a free-floating centrist party. Moving to an STV system might push more moderate legislators in the direction of trying to run as third parties, or it might expose those legislators to third-party challenges from the left.” Or perhaps what STV would actually do would be to empower the extreme right and left (as happens often in multi-party parliaments in other countries, as DiA notes). In other words, if you’re looking for a slam-dunk path to reducing partisanship, STV ain’t it. [Though STV is great for many, many other reasons].

Finally, the actual politics of the center. Friedman wants the center to be the sober, responsible political group that will cut spending, raise taxes, and invest in education, energy, and business innovation. I sympathize, because I, too, yearn for many of Friedman’s goals. But I don’t see much reason to believe that the center of the political spectrum is where I’m likely to find like-minded individuals. Why? This one’s harder to argue on evidence than the previous 3 points (because there’s just not much data on it), but my strong hunch is that people in general love government spending when they and people like them are net recipients, and tend to dislike it when they aren’t. That’s how you get welfare state farmers complaining about spending health care reform, and Medicare recipients bashing food stamps. It’s the simple ethnocentric formula we’ve always had as a species: in-group = good, out-group = bad. For an interesting read on ethnocentrism and support for various types of government spending, see this interesting book and blog post. Are we to expect that somehow the people in the center are magically exempt from what look like general trends for the rest of the population?

In summary, Friedman is right in that he political process is hyperpartisan, but that’s because we as a people are hyperpartisan (contra Friedman). Creating a non-partisan redistricting process may be a good thing to do, but there’s no reason to think it will change the partisan nature of our politics. STV is great on its own merits, but there’s no reason to think it would increase or decrease partisanship either way. The smart way to handle modern partisanship is to realize that it’s here to stay. The idealized bipartisanship of the past was a result of political parties that were riven by race, and only after decades of ideological re-sorting following the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act did we finally arrive at a modern, ideological party system in the 1990s. Putting Friedman’s ignorance of the evidence to one side for the moment, the bigger problem with his column is his quixotic quest to 1) pretend that magical people in ‘the center’ are not partisan, and 2) empower them. Why not take people as they are, and change our naive institutions so that they can function in our brave, new, partisan world? Ending the filibuster, anonymous holds, and unanimous consent in the Senate would be a good start, and eminently more practical than waiting for the Godot of a reasonable, policy-oriented, Independent movement.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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