BT et C

Monday, July 23, 2007

On Scientific Polling

I'm a little out of practice, but as a once-trained philosopher I thought I'd hold forth on the topic of "scientific" polling that is intended to predict the outcome of an election or primary. Let's begin with a hypothetical situation.

Suppose you would like, for whatever reason, to know which restaurant people are going to go to for dinner. Here are some relevant parameters

-There are six restaurants, and all require reservations. Making a reservation is not very difficult, and is not *more difficult for one restaurant than for any other.
-Three of the six restaurants -- McRomnald's, Julie's, and the Thompson Steak House -- are discussed frequently on the Food Network. The others are rarely mentioned.

You call a few hundred people and ask "At which of the following restaurants would you like to eat?" And you list the six restaurants. The results come in

30% say "Julie's"
30% say "McRomney's"
22% say "Thompson Steak House"
The other 3 each get 6%

You type up your results and call it a day. Congratulations!

Now... I hate to rain on your parade but there's a glaring problem with your method.

A lot of the people you just called are not going to *any restaurant tonight. They're going to eat at home. They might want, or even expect, to go to one of those places ... but if something comes up they won't bother.

Time to blow my cover: I'm talking about presidential primaries. As a matter of fact, a *very small number of respondents are going to vote in the primary they're being asked about. The epistemological problem is that one action (picking up the phone and answering a question) doesn't "map" directly enough onto the second one (making the reservation, getting in the car and going to the restaurant/polling booth).

All is not lost, though. You can try to make your list of phone numbers better by restricting it to to "likely diners". Perhaps you only call people who own a car. Or you might get a list of people who ate out last year. This is the usual method -- but I submit that there's a *much better one.

As it turns out, you have a great source of data that can help you, but before we get to it I have to throw another wrinkle in your survey.

Now you're not calling about tonight; you're calling about "Super Friday" -- a Friday that's occurring next February. So there are more parameters:

-The people you call have to look up, then remember, the date of Super Friday, and go to the restaurant on that day.
-They obviously can change their minds between now and then.

It's starting to sound impossible. Suppose you had a bunch of money to invest in a restaurant, and you got paid back depending on how well they did on Super Friday. You might be inclined to call it a crapshoot, or you might just spread your investment among the top 3 restaurants and consider your bets hedged.

But don't forget I told you about a great source of data that can help you:

You can get the reservations lists from all these restaurants. You can even go tonight and see which one(s) are full and which ones are empty. If you do this every night from now until Super Friday, you discover something astonishing:

People are just packing it in at the Ronpaul cafeteria. The reservation list is as thick as a phone book. There's a line out the door and down the street every night. Clubs are booking their private functions there. Some of the people going there are nuts, but some are good amateur cooks, and a few are professional chefs.

McRomney's and the other restaurants also have some people in them, most of the time.

For whatever reason, the Food Network isn't talking much about the Ronpaul cafeteria. When they do mention it, they postulate that there's a glitch in some people's restaurant behavior, because after all why would they keep going to this place if it's never really mentioned on the Food Network?

I am 100% open to discussion of flaws in my metaphor, but it seems to me that the following activities "map" more closely than the ones mentioned earlier:

1. Going out and talking to people, hanging up signs, etc.
2. Going out and voting in the primary.

I think 90% of the people currently doing #1 are doing it for Ron Paul, even if only 2% of the people answering their phones are in his camp.

As a result, I am one of the (apparently few) who will not actually be that surprised if Ron Paul wins the nomination, which is to say if the current 'shape' of political action continues to go as it is currently going

Monday, July 09, 2007

Open Letter to America, from MSM

[Note: "MSM", one of the blogosphere's favorite acronyms, stands for "mainstream media"]
[Note2: This isn't really from them; it's a bit of satire]

Despite our many efforts to play nice, and our elaborate production values that bestow upon you the idea that you know something about what's going on in the world, you continue to annoy us. Most recently, you have spammed/messed with/cheated on our scientific presidential-campaign polls, by which we determine whom you would like to elect president.

Here's what you are doing wrong: you are telling your friends and family about Ron Paul. You are writing about him -- in emails and on websites -- and including links to our polls in your various writings. People are reading these things, thinking about them, clicking the links, and so on. Obviously, we cannot allow this to continue.

We understand that your engaging in this activity may have been an honest mistake resulting from your ignorance, so we have decided to issue you this firm-but-gentle reminder of how things work:

1. We will tell you who the frontrunners are. If we have not yet held forth on this topic, compile a list of the people who are about to give us tens of millions of dollars for advertising. Those are the frontrunners.
2. No talking. When we are done telling you things, finish your meat loaf and go to sleep. Or watch American Idol. Whatev. Come back tomorrow.
3. We will occasionally call you and ask which of the frontrunners (see above) is your favorite. Please stay on topic; all we need is the name of a frontrunner, k thanks.
4. Remember: you can't believe everything you see and read on the Internet. You can only believe everything you see and read in newspapers or on TV broadcasts by God-fearing media companies worth at least $750 million.

We sincerely hope this problem can be cleared up quickly, and with civility.


Sunday, July 01, 2007

zomg I was as Smart as Ron Paul for a second there!

A couple weeks ago a guy on NPR was talking about the inflation scare, saying don't panic 'cause -- once you exclude energy and food -- inflation's actually not really manifest. Hm.

Wait, not "hm"... I laughed out loud. I wanted to call in and say "once you exclude my mortgage, my bills are really low!" Maybe there's a reason to exclude gas and food from this calculation, I don't know. But I was pleased to see Dr. Paul echo my thoughts in the final seconds of this video.

"If you don't eat, and you don't drive, and you don't have any medical bills, you don't have any inflation to worry about!"

Why is this fudging of the numbers allowed? I don't get it. Standard accounting practices reveal that official deficit figures are lower than reality by a factor of four. Tom Coburn and the transparent government movement need to look into this stuff and give us information that means something.