Odds are we will focus on the data, people with whom we agree
BY NEIL STEINBERG firstname.lastname@example.org November 6, 2012 6:46PM
Obama supporters walk around the south side of Chicago, IL, November 6, 2012 wearing Obama and Romney masks holding placards asking people to vote. Citizens around the United States head to the polls to vote on the country's next president including in Ohio, a state with 18 electoral votes, were the race between US President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is very close. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSONJIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Updated: December 8, 2012 6:37AM
Numbers are funny. We know the odds are far better that a heart attack will get us compared to the minuscule chance a shark attack will. Yet many fear the ocean, while reaching eagerly for a double stuffed baked potato. I guess we all feel that hard reality will make exceptions for certain very important, very special people: ourselves.
Even when the numbers cut our way; as when New York Times statistics star Nate Silver announced, on the eve of the election, that Barack Obama’s chances of being re-elected were 91.6 percent, a take-it-to-the-bank certainty, I did not find myself reassured.
They were only numbers. Too good to be true. Maybe that means, for all my pretensions, I’m a peasant, part of the superstitious crowd, and we think with our hearts rather than our heads. Not everybody is like that. Certainly not Obama’s top adviser, David Axelrod, popping up on CBS to proclaim the election is in the bag.
“I’ve been traveling with the president for the last four days and we’ve been met with huge crowds and enthusiastic crowds wherever we go, and I take some encouragement from that,” Axelrod said. “But I take greater encouragement from the cold, hard data, which is that early vote, in every battleground state that has early vote, has been very much in our favor. And the polling has been very much in our favor.”
I would never say that — it would invoke the Evil Eye. The fearful villager in me is reluctant to predict future success, even fairly certain future success. If you asked me about what I’d plan to write in my column for the 2016 election, I’d have to first utter something cautionary about assuming both I and the newspaper are around in 2016, almost as a talisman. Otherwise I’d be inviting the Lord God Almighty to smite me, or the paper, or both, on general principles.
I’m not ashamed to admit that; it’s called “being human.” People also tend to dismiss what polls say if they contradict our own opinions, because we put too much weight on our personal beliefs and the beliefs of those around us, not realizing that each of us nestles in the cocoon of what statisticians call a “self-selected group.”
In other words, your friends tend to be, not a cross-section of all people holding all opinions, but rather those you feel comfortable around, i.e., people most like yourself. You tend to live in a place you either grew up in or chose because you fit in. And thus you are deceived, unless you realize what is happening.
Knowing the concept of a self-selected group will save you from misperceptions. I remember walking through the East Bank Club locker room, thinking, “For a fat nation, we look pretty fit,” before realizing, duh, this isn’t a slice of average America, but those who belong to a pricy health club — not exactly a representative sample.
A reminder of the power of emotion to warp our perceived reality. Whatever the data is, whatever the facts are, many people would much rather mold them to fit their biases than ever dream of adjusting their biases to fit the data. They’d rather be consistent than right.
Of course, were the odds of an Obama victory 100 percent, it wouldn’t fill me with glee. The last four years weren’t a cakewalk, the next four won’t be either whoever is president. An Obama victory certainly means a Fox-fueled hissy fit, a gibbering meltdown pointing the quivering finger of blame at the left-wing lamestream media — gosh, that would be me — announcing, again, that they will do nothing, nothing to help the president try to fix the country and instead will jam their protesting bodies in the doorway of America’s future.
You don’t need Nate Silver to predict that.
Should Romney beat the odds and win, sure, he’d undermine rights for gays and women, and fatten the big corporations he believes are people, sure. But that would only set the pendulum swinging back again. Because there are hard numbers, hard facts under all this emotion, and they end up guiding us whether we like them or not.
Sometimes it’s good for emotion to override the data. I woke up early Tuesday, made coffee, and walked over to the Northbrook Village Hall, even though Nate Silver said the odds of Obama winning Illinois were 100 percent — dead certain. So I voted even though the data said it was pointless, but merely because voting is the right thing to do. Lots of my neighbors were there, the line 20 people deep. I considered leaving and coming back later — there would be less of a wait. But I was already there and, whatever the outcome, there was nothing more important for me to do than this.