I Am Not a Politician! II

I’m still trying to get used to the ramifications of this tawdry election. It was the second big statistical anomaly within three weeks, the first being the Cubbies coming back from a three games to one deficit to force game seven, which was all going their way until a big momentum shift back to Indians in the 8th (on Cleveland’s home field, no less), yet still the Cubs pulled it out in the 10th, to win their first world series in 108 years. Great game.

Regarding the election, even the Bayesian statistical polls, supposedly the wisest of them all, had Clinton in a relative landslide, for those of you not in the know Bayesian approaches are the hottest thing in statistical modeling these days. This just proves (or does it?) the old saw: “There’s liars, and then there’s damn liars, and then there’s statisticians.”

In an earlier blog I encouraged HRC to never mention the name of the thrice married President-elect, who is a golf course impresario from Manhattan, but she did and she lost, so I am totally vindicated — statistically speaking.

Data-wise, this election was a shocking upset, since virtually all the polls predicted HRC the winner, but got it wrong.  Even my favorite, the Iowa Political Market, which is not a poll, but a crowd-source prediction market, and historically very accurate got it wrong. There’s an important lesson here about statistics and how they are only an indicator of the probability of what will be, not actually the way things will turn out. Of course in reality it was a close election. It’s estimated HRC actually will win the popular vote by nearly a million votes, and the electoral college swinging to her could have been accomplished by as little as 110,000 strategically place votes (so much for the election being ‘rigged’ in her favor). From an analytical perspective, what’s also interesting is that despite how remarkably close the election was, the difference in direction the country will take post-election is perhaps the greatest of my life time; thus seemingly inconsequential statistical margins can have big ramifications. These same kinds of extremely close calls that lead to remarkably different outcomes also apply to phenomena in the natural world. The ramifications of climate change being a good example.

While I’m dispensing free political advice, that by any statistical measure, I am unqualified to give, here’s some for the Dems. The most remarkable statistic I’ve seen in the past year that should have real political importance, is the data pointing to the fact that the only group in America whose death rate is going up is working class whites, primarily the working poor, with the biggest increase being among rural white women. I’ll repeat this, the only group of Americans whose death rate is going up is working class whites. The death rate, measured in deaths per 100,000 individuals, for minorities is still significantly higher than for whites, but it has been steadily decreasing for minorities for a long time, just as it continues to decrease for affluent whites. So what’s causing this increase among the white working class? God forbid that a national politician would stoop to discuss it, but here’s a few uneducated guesses: loss of hope tied to hopeless job prospects, bad health, bad food, bad education, loss of community, too ready access to the wrong kinds of drugs, but ready access to handguns with which to commit suicide. There’s no easy solution, government or otherwise, to these problems, but better job security, more community responsibility, along with a dependable, easy to navigate social safety net wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It’s criminal to think that good government doesn’t have an important role to play in this. If you look at the electoral map, all the places where these problems are the worst went red, so what’s happened to the Dems long history of looking out for the working class?

The second piece of advice relates to a statement I read in the BDN from a spokesmen for the Maine Democratic Party in response to how the Dems did in Maine this election cycle (not very well). The quote: ‘We will continue to fight for workers’ rights, LGBT rights, voting rights and women’s rights.’ While I personally applaud all these efforts, it is reasonable to ask how this mission statement plays to the average working stiff (male or female, majority or minority) who is making plus or minus $10,000 of the median pay for an American worker? My guess is that if you justify that it’s just what they need to hear, then, despite the silkiest of punditry prose, you are consigned to the political wilderness, while the geezers who consider a crayon an important writing utensil will continue to win the day.

Finally, it’s important to not miss the point that the Great Recession gave rise to two grassroots movements: the tea party and occupy wall street; the tea party’s primary modus operandi was to get involved in politics; the occupiers set up some tents in a park in Manhattan. You don’t need any sophisticated statistics to determine who ended up on the more influential end of that stick. Hopefully this lesson will start to resonate, and we’ll get some more of our incredibly talented youth to start hacking the political system from the inside.

David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.