Standing Up and Being Counted

I got up at 4:15 AM to fly from Monterey, CA to Boston, and I don’t fly back until November 8 – which meant that one of the last things I did last night, after packing and before falling asleep, was to fill out my absentee ballot for the big election. I am so relieved. I’ve voted. Any more last-minute surprises will be too little, too late.

Perhaps it is because of my professional interest in data, or maybe it is my concern about the ramifications of our electorate’s decision next week, but for months I have been keenly aware of the polling numbers; what they show and how they are used by candidates and the media to sway public opinion. With each news cycle, after each debate and after every new scandal, I’ve checked on fivethirtyeight.com to see how it impacted the projections. (If you are not familiar, fivethirtyeight.com is a polling aggregation website started by statistician and writer Nate Silver. Using sophisticated non-parametric statistical models, he has predicted the outcomes of several political races – including Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in 2008 – with uncanny accuracy.)

I’ve realized that I’m actually less concerned about the scandals themselves than I am about their impact on the candidates’ relative standing in the polls – not only because I am concerned about who ultimately wins, but also because the polls seem to have huge “gravity.” Every time one candidate surges ahead in the polls, it feels like the surge is amplified as individuals jump on the prospective winner’s bandwagon. Likewise, when someone starts to tank in the polls, people jump ship – driving the trend further down.

There have been some excellent stories produced over the past several weeks about the importance polls have taken in electoral politics. We’ve learned all about oversampling and undersampling, and in an interesting New York Times story about the LA Times poll, we learned about the importance of weighting, which can result in a single individual swaying a poll by a significant margin. At the end of the day, it is all about data – and how it can be used to lend insight, or to obscure it.

I honestly believe that there hasn’t been a time in modern American history when it is more important to be informed citizens, and to use our knowledge to cast our votes wisely. This depends on our ability to be critical consumers of information – much of which is presented in the form of data. We’re particularly proud of our EDC colleagues’ initiatives around media literacy, and are looking forward to working with them in the coming year to find ways to help students develop the skills to sort through a deluge of information and make thoughtful, evidence-based decisions. Let’s please take the time to get informed. And let’s make sure our kids have the tools to get informed, and to think for themselves. 

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