At other times, commentators cite statistics even as they decry their uselessness. Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, wrote a blog post on the eve of the 2012 election that critiqued those of us who were “too busy looking at data on paper instead of what’s in front of us.” Instead, “all the vibrations” were right for a Romney victory, she wrote.
Among other things, Noonan cited the number of Romney yard signs, and the number of people at his rallies, as evidence that he was bound to win. But these “vibrations” are, in fact, quantifiable. You could hire a team of stringers to drive around randomly selected neighborhoods in swing states and count the yard signs. And news accounts routinely estimate the number of attendees at political rallies. Noonan could have formulated a testable hypothesis: Do yard signs predict election outcomes better than polls do?
The problem is not the failure to cite quantitative evidence. It’s doing so in a way that can be anecdotal and ad-hoc, rather than rigorous and empirical, and failing to ask the right questions of the data.
I’ve read a few of the features that FiveThirtyEight has published already and they all looked pretty promising for the site overall. And while I can’t swear that I will always understand what FiveThirtyEight is talking about, I’m certain that I will be giddy when they keep making traditional pundits look silly.