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Numbers can't tell us everything

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JANUARY 29, 2017

Two plus two will always equal four — no question, no debate, that’s for sure the correct answer. This line has been fed to me by a spectrum of people, from my father to a random guy I met in Las Vegas, about why they love math and numbers. It’s not like English or history, they say, where there can be multiple “correct” answers or different interpretations of an answer. Numbers provide certainty and simplicity — right and wrong, black and white.

Throughout my education, interpretative subjects like English and history just seemed more interesting than two plus two. There was always the opportunity to fight and explain and convince others of your thinking and understanding. It was exciting! Math and science just always seemed like checking the solutions manual in the back of the textbook to see if two plus two did in fact equal four.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for math and science, mostly because they lead to things like the Internet and Netflix. I also respect scientific findings immensely, even if the explanations may put me to sleep. However, I reject the supremacy math and science have, especially on this campus, over other fields of study. I also reject the pedestal those who study these numerical-based disciplines put themselves on, creating their own cult of personality, seeing themselves as the problem-solvers of the World’s ills.

As a political economy major, I could list a plethora of examples where a reliance on technical experts ended up doing more harm than good in the world — from the Green Revolution to higher education. One of the best examples of numbers being an insufficient way to view the world surrounds a current event many have been shocked by — the election of Donald Trump.

“However, I reject the supremacy math and science have, especially on this campus, over other fields of study.”

While there are many explanations for how Trump got elected, two stand out in particular for how well they exemplify the failure of numbers to fully explain the complex world we live in. One explanation comes from resident Numbers Guy, Nate Silver, the founder and editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, a site that “uses statistical analysis — hard numbers — to tell compelling stories about politics, sports, science, economics and culture.” The other explanation comes from liberal filmmaker and author, Michael Moore.

A week after the election, Silver appeared on The Daily Show and was interviewed by the host, Trevor Noah. The interview began a bit awkwardly as Noah says to Silver, “Let’s talk about polling. You’re not a pollster, you aggregate the polls. This entire race you were wrong.” To that Silver responds, “No,” and the entire audience erupts with laughter.

This audience response makes perfect sense, as it is now clear that all the predictions and forecasts and probabilities that expressed very little chance of Trump winning the presidency were wrong. Now, Silver wouldn’t say they were wrong. In fact, his entire interview with Noah is a defense of the polls he used, saying there’s “not an easy television explanation,” saying these were “some of the best polls,” and that his “forecasts” were actually not “predictions,” but “an estimate of risk.” He describes percentages and “if this, then this” explanations based on calculations, maintaining that if there were a 30 percent chance of rain, people may bring out their umbrellas, thereby suggesting that people should’ve been worried about the 30 percent chance of Trump being elected.

“If one watches the interview, it’s clear that all the smart talk Silver delivers never really feels like a true answer or explanation.”

Despite Silver’s reasoning, many everyday people took his numbers to mean that Trump in fact had no chance of winning. Silver argues that people shouldn’t have thought that based on the numbers he provided. It’s this frustrating, circular, contradiction that leads to Noah’s exasperated ending joke, “I’m gonna choke you right now, Nate Silver.” If one watches the interview, it’s clear that all the smart talk Silver delivers never really feels like a true answer or explanation.

When compared with Moore’s “5 Reasons Trump Will Win,” Silver’s numbers become abstract and meaningless as they translate why Trump will win into zeroes and ones. Moore, unlike Silver, uses words — qualitative evidence — history and sociology to explain the human behavior and feelings that would lead to a Trump presidency.

Moore’s reasons range from “The Last Stand of The Angry White Man” to “The Depressed Sanders Vote,” and reading through them on his website makes it it hard to discount the fact that they make sense — definitely more sense than Silver’s mathematical explanation. Moore’s explanations are ones people seemingly only came to fully realize after the election. But Moore made his prediction in the summer of 2016. And very few people seemed to take him seriously. The days before the election I heard hopeful, confident talk of a Madam President, not wariness about the “Angry White Men” who would vote for Trump because they felt left behind by the current cultural-political moment.

Put simply, the guy who used numbers and data and stats incorrectly predicted the election and the guy who used words, history, and qualitative facts correctly predicted the election., Leading up to Nov. 9, many hopeful liberals put their faith in Silver’s numbers rather than Moore’s words to explain how humans would act that Tuesday. The numerical data was trusted and the numerical data let a lot of people down.

While there are many lessons to take away from the election of Donald Trump, one is that numbers can lie. Math and stats and data points don’t always tell it like it is. Sometimes you need interpretative answers rather than the “correct” answer. Sometimes the guy spouting words and using simple addition has a keener sense of the forces that govern our society than the one using statistical analysis.

Contact Marlena Trafas at [email protected].

JANUARY 29, 2017