The Silver Standard --
Who speaks for Statistics?
Statistics always pulls back from the claims it makes; if it did not do so, it would not be statistics. Statistics is an inherently puerile discipline, not because it is dominated by men but because its principles concord so strongly with the way we have constructed boyhood—an unrelenting commitment to the play of abstract forms above all else: above wishes, above belief, above ethics, its only ethics being a commitment to the rules of the game. It presumes being unable to really know "the answer," except as defined and bounded by the game.I have great sympathy for critiques of moral obtuseness of mathematics and mathematicians (something I have emphasised in attacking mathematical finance), but I am genuinely inclined to write this off as simple posturing. All the talk of "the game" seems like a cover for ignorance, since she never begins to explain what game statisticians are playing. (I recognise that the word puerile is meant here in a technical sense, not as the epithet of everyday language. But then you read further and realise it is being used as a term of abuse after all.) This non-ethical "commitment to the rules of the game" sounds a lot like what other people might call "commitment to standards of intellectual rigor", which don't sound quite so puerile when put that way.
[Ezra Klein writes: "Lots of pundits don't like Nate Silver because he makes them feel innumerate. Then they criticize him and prove it.] Klein packs a slight dig at the Backlashers' masculinity in that phrase, "makes them feel innumerate." "Innumerate" is code for "inadequate," but a particular kind of inadequate; it's a castration complex built on an ignorance of statistics. Silver, as a methodologist and as a person, is "threatening" to traditional journalists (Ferenstein).I definitely thought that this whole idea of treating all criticism as though it were necessarily a sublimation of the only genuine criticism, which is criticism of male genital potency hadn't survived the 1970s. It's telling that she considers the true weight of an accusation of innumeracy not that it is a deplorable intellectual failing, but it could only be a cover for an accusation of a really important failing, namely an insufficiently rigid sperm injector. Who could really be ashamed of a mere incapacity to reason where numbers are involved?
The Silver backlash wants an answer, a position; it wants Silver to stop playing around. In other words, it reads statistics itself as waffling and double-tonguery. It's not wrong in that sense. It just fails to appreciate that that is more or less the entire point of statistics: to measure what is irreducibly uncertain.On the one hand, she seems to diagnose well the basic discomfort that most people have with randomness and probability. I had an acquaintance once who claimed to believe that the probability of winning the lottery is 1/2, since there are only two possible outcomes: Either I win, or I don't. Most people understand that there is a difference between the likelihood of a coin coming up heads and the likelihood of winning a state lottery, even if the only prediction you can reliably make is "I don't know what will happen". On the other hand, I'm not sure what it means to say that the point of statistics is "playing around", is "waffling and double-tonguery" because it measures what is irreducibly uncertain. Really, I'm not sure whether there's a genuine insight here or not. It's not unreasonable to say that an important component of statistics is to measure uncertainty, hence the famous dictum of statistician C. R. Rao "Uncertain knowledge + knowledge about the extent of uncertainty in it = useable knowledge". But then she's so excessive in her rhetoric that it's hard to know if she's just tossing together buzzwords and flowery phrases in equal measure. It's not that the critics object to Silver's "waffling"; if anything, they object to his specificity, assigning a probability rather than calling the election "a tossup" and leaving it at that.