I just sent $538 to the American Red Cross and I’d like to tell you why. This past week has been filled with right-wing nutbar attacks against a man named Nate Silver. For the three people left who have not yet heard of Nate, go here or here. In simple terms, Nate is a rock star at, among other things, something called “polling aggregation” wherein he has created a method, using statistical modeling, which has proven to be so astonishingly accurate that Time Magazine named Nate one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People. Oh, and as I understand it from people who have met him, he is also just a really “nice guy” by which I take to mean he likes rabbits. This is, of course, beside the point but I thought I would mention it.
Lately, Nate has been under fire because the same people who brought you creationism in textbooks (finally defeated, in Texas, in July of 2011) and a complete denial of climate change* are now taking aim at math.
Where have I heard this story before? Let me think…. Perhaps a blueberry on the half shell well help me to recall? (hint.) Thump! (blueberry arrives) That’s better. Oh, Yes!
During the late eighth to the thirteenth centuries the nations of Islam lead the world in scientific development. For every sixteenth or seventeenth century European scientific great, there was an earlier Arabic polymath who contributed in extraordinary ways to science as a whole. The fields of algebra, geometry and trigonometry either began or were greatly expanded by Arabic genius. Quadratic equations became a part of the mathematical language. Advances in human biology, medicine and pharmacology were so long lasting that books written during this time were still in use in Europe hundreds of years later, as were the designs of astonishingly accurate astrolabes and water clocks. Cartography and sociology grew closer as Arab scientists began to understand the earth in terms of the people who populated it. Modern astronomy still owes the Arabs a great debt. Perhaps most important of all, the baseline for the scientific method was drawn featuring empirical and quantitative approaches to scientific inquiry. The Arabs were at their zenith as a society.
And then they weren’t. The loss of leadership in scientific innovation is described well by Arabs themselves. Senator Adnan Badran, who holds a PhD in molecular biology from an American university and has been both the Prime Minister of Jordan and a longtime Senator said, “Science needs stability, democracy, freedom of expression. You must have an environment that’s conducive to free thinking, to inquiry. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to release the mind’s potential. It’s a very bleak story, a very disappointing story, about the state of science and technology in the Arab region.” Speaking of the past richness of Arabic scientific discoveries he goes on,
We were open. Islam was open, a strong belief with dialogue. It was tolerant, mixing with other civilizations. Then we shifted to being dogmatic. Once you’re dogmatic, you are boxed in.
Gamal Soltan, a political scientist in Egypt says of many modern Islamist scientists,
They’re sure about everything, about how the universe was created, who created it, and they just need to control nature rather than interpret it, but the driving force behind any scientific pursuit is that the truth is still out there.
Remind you of anything?
Science is under assault in this country. From Congressional de-funding of basic research, to the shuttering of Fermilab’s Tevatron Particle Accelerator, to the, now lifted, ban on the use of embryos in stem-cell testing, to the cult of global warming denialism, we are turning our backs on science. We are allowing what happened to the Arab world to happen to us and we are doing it with our eyes wide open. If you want to know how it is that Europe, China and India may well be eating our lunch in just a few years, it starts with all of them being clear that the world is more than 6000 years old and that math is not evil-on-a-stick. Right now, the US is still in contention when young scientists are deciding where to work but it is already an ongoing subject of discussion, in scientific circles, that due to the dogmatic influence of the political right on scientific education, funding, legal support and, most importantly, thought, the United States is on the verge of a scientific brain-drain, something which we will share with Arab nations.
I’ll admit it, there was a time when I, myself, was an ankle biter. I grew out of that. Now I box ankles which is, of course, much classier. Still, I think I continue to have some insight into ankle biting in general but for why this matters let’s get back to Nate.
When FiveThirtyEight, Nate’s blog, makes a prediction about the election and says that President Obama has more than an eighty percent chance of winning the election, he is not saying that the President will win. He’s saying, sure, go to that family picnic but you might want to consider taking an umbrella because there is a chance of rain. More importantly, FiveThirtyEight is making no comment what-so-ever on the qualitative value of this outcome. For all we know, Nate is voting for Governor Romney. Nate is doing what it is that scientists do. He is following the data and applying a model he designed which has a past record of success. After the election, he will have a LOT more data because he will be able to verify the accuracy of his predictions and that verification data then becomes part of the larger data set.
Meanwhile, Nate’s ankles are in danger because hedgehogs are out to get him. (If you don’t understand the reference, it’s a thing. It’s called, “reading.” The book is The Signal and the Noise. Read it. Learn something new.) Personally, I wouldn’t put it past one of Nate’s hedgehogs. I mean, some of my best friends are hedgehogs but have you ever really spent an afternoon with one? As Nate describes them, hedgehogs go on and on, for hours, on one subject and they take that same prism and apply it to the whole rest of the world. They are a declarative lot and, despite their name, they rarely hedge. Hedgehogs are all about having everything tied up in one little orderly theory. Just like the over-worn cadre of talking heads brought in both by cable and network television to pontificate on anything and everything, hedgehogs don’t like a mess. They want it all to be black and white simple** and they have to be right. If you knew hedgehogs like I know hedgehogs, you would know Nate is right about this. Clearly, he has spent a lot of time with the prickly little guys.
Like most of those who work in empirical fields, Nate would probably say that scientists are, what he calls, “foxes.” Personally, I find the term a bit off-putting but there it is. Certainly, Nate is himself a fox. According to Nate, foxes understand that when they look out their window and there are no clouds, it still might be good to have an umbrella in the car if the chance of rain is around twenty percent. Foxes see that messy isn’t wrong. In fact, they know that attributing qualitative values to quantitative results is an entirely separate process. Foxes are tolerant of uncertainty and complexity. Foxes aren’t afraid of math as the language of probability.
The science of prediction is fickle and those who are successful in the field require a certain degree of humility just as does all science. Science cannot progress without both the acknowledgement of success and the recognition of failure. The comments made about Nate lately have varied from quite vicious to so outlandish as to be funny (Please, someone tell me that Nate had the good humor to dress up for Halloween as Harry Potter or Gandalf.) But listen up folks, if Mitt Romney wins, Nate Silver said that possibility was among the outcomes. THAT is how probability works.
The value in reading the polling aggregation and blog at FiveThirtyEight is in preparedness. If you are a member of the Romney campaign machine, Nate’s giving you data that is not skewed in the same way as your internal polls and has a better track record for accuracy. Use it as you will. Your choice. Attacking Nate only makes you look small and mean. Shooting the messenger doesn’t change the message. If you really do feel the need to give NRA members someone to shoot, give them Donald Trump and Jack Welch ‘cuz those guys sure haven’t been doing you any favors.
Still, the larger topic is the ongoing attack on science. One need look no farther than Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Egypt to recognize that relegating science to the mercy of dogma is a bad idea. For too long scientists have hidden under their own rocks while other scientific fields were being blasted and de-funded. Science, and everyone who believes in the value of empirical knowledge can and must start to speak out together – loudly. Nate Silver is the whipping boy of the moment and maybe he likes that sort of thing (wink) but he is only representative of a much larger problem.
As the so-called Fiscal Cliff approaches, you can bet that the neck of science is already on the GOP chopping block. Hurricane Sandy was predicted by scientists at the National Hurricane Center doing work that could not be more efficiently done at the State level or by the private sector. The job they did allowed millions of people to prepare for disaster. That’s what funding science buys you.
In Nate’s case, FiveThirtyEight is predicting that there is a less than 20% chance that It will rain next Tuesday. Governor Romney will, most likely lose the election dramatically, especially in the Electoral College. Personally, I’m planning a picnic. I also donated $538 to the American Red Cross.
* Dear Governor Christie, How do you like me now? Signed – Global Warming
** Actually, the hedgehogs of which I speak specifically want it to be white, male simple but that’s for another blog post.
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