A Little Shame on the Globe and Mail: Much Shame on Jill Mahoney

Well that is that.  Still there is some unfinished business left.  Jill Mahoney typed out one of those credible enough on the surface columns for the Globe that Failed titled: Is U.S. polling guru Nate Silver going to have egg on his face?  Problem is, it was a terrible column that did not even merit the opinion section, partisan blog maybe, but not under the flagstaff of a national newspaper.

What made it so terrible?  It made its readers stupidier for reading it.  Given the state of the arts in the news media today, this is hardly a surprise: ideological biases to the side.  But remarking that there is a general degradation in the quality of reporting is nothing new.  So lets get on with unravelling the deft trick of the hack magician.

Mahoney’s article had two false premises.  The first was that Nate Silver’s[1] (bold call on the American election was premised on an analysis of an aggregation of national polls which yielded and edge for Obama by a 7th of a percentage point.  From there Mahoney concluded that Mr. Silver might just have egg on his face when the results were tallied Tuesday evening.  The second, sleight of hand was Mahoney’s slavish devotion to bullshit balance by relying Peggy Noonan (Washington post winger) and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough.  I will take up each in turn.

Nate’s bold call for Obama was not based on the national poll aggregation.  Upon aggregating the national polls it was clear that going into the vote Obama had a trivial lead.  Nate’s bold call was based on his analysis of the aggregation of state level polls which give a much better indication of election night results.  Why because of the Electoral College system of voting in the US.  I am not going to get into the details, anyone interested can google it.  The point is the American system, like the Canadian system, does not run on a simple majority principle.  That means that it is possible to win the election without a majority of the national vote: just like in Canada.  What the aggregation of the regional polls told Nate was that Obama was overwhelming likely to win the majority Electoral College votes.  What Mahoney does not understand or does not want to, as Paul Krugman noted, is the difference between the statement that:

“State level polls overwhelmingly suggest an Obama victory.”

Is not the same as saying:

“State level polls suggest an overwhelming Obama victory.”

It is subtle, so read it twice, or thrice.

But it is not so subtle that someone writing for a national newspaper of some repute can’t catch.

This brings me to the second sin.  The whole analysis of the other side, of which Mahoney crutched her article, was a phantom menace.  The whole other side (balance in the parlance of jack-asses) in this regard was talking about an un-verifiable momentum for Romney. Now it would be one thing to note that the one side thinks election night will overturn the latest polls; always possible but not probable.  But to argue against the overwhelming evidence in such an unbalanced way is unconscionable.

Tonight someone tweeted: “Nate Silver being right brings up the very real and terrifying possibility that climate scientists are too.”  That too I suppose is cold comfort for conservatives and reporters who think they do justice to balance by insisting that there are two balanced sides to every issue.

Read that last sentence twice or thrice.

[1] Nate Silver works for the New York Times and is their resident poll geek.