Nate Silver might quit if he thinks he’s influencing elections

An interesting comment by election guru Nate Silver during a talk recently.

Nate said that if he perceives that his election forecasts are actually influencing the elections themselves, he might stop making them all together.

He said that his statistics are not intended to affect results, which shouldn’t be an issue in most general elections. But he conceded that in races such as last year’s Republican presidential primary, analysis can make a difference.

“The polls can certainly affect elections at times,” Silver said. “I hope people don’t take the forecasts too seriously. You’d rather have an experiment where you record it off from the actual voters, in a sense, but we’ll see. If it gets really weird in 2014, in 2016, then maybe I’ll stop doing it. I don’t want to influence the democratic process in a negative way.”

“I’m [hoping to make] people more informed, I don’t want to affect their motive because they trust the forecasters,” he added.

I think Nate, and everything else in the world, certainly every bit of knowledge, but even the weather, influences election outcomes. There’s no way for it not to. That doesn’t, however, make it wrong.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, fortunately or not, applies to elections too.  By observing an election, you influence it if you have a large enough audience following your observations.

John Aravosis, Nate Silver, White House Christmas Party 2012

John Aravosis and Nate Silver, at the White House Christmas Party 2012

Nate’s predictions of Mitt Romney only have a 28% chance of winning the election back on October 9, 2012, definitely didn’t hurt Team Obama.  But does that make it wrong?  Nate was telling the truth.  Though his “truth” did buck up Obama voters who were awfully worried about how the President was faring in that final month before the election.  So, some might argue that Nate should quit, since he influenced the result.

But, had Nate chosen not tell us what the polls were really saying, he would have still been influencing the results.  Think about it.  Obama voters were fretting, we now know needlessly, that our guy was losing, and was going to lose.  Nate showed us that in fact our concerns that the President didn’t have enough votes to win were factually incorrect.  We were basing our sense of who was going to win, and our dispiritedness, on incorrect information.  Nate provided us with correct information instead.  So is the better alternative to leave voters with not just less information, but wrong information, on which to base perhaps not their votes, but certainly their enthusiasm, which can still affect the outcome?

I’m not entirely sure that’s a better solution.

And what’s worse is that even if Nate stops giving us the correct data, other folks are going to continue giving us the incorrect data.  So we’ll still be in the same boat, relying on polls to determine our enthusiasm, but we’ll simply be relying on the less-reliable rather than the more-reliable data.

In the end, Nate is influencing elections.  We all are.  (But he’s potentially doing it in a bigger way because he has more power individually than, say, I do.)  But every election observer, every reporter, influences the election, even though it’s their job not to.  Information is influence.  Period.  The question is whether any one piece of information unfairly influences the election, and that’s hard to say.  There is an argument to be made that Nate doesn’t just have the influence of any other lead actor, even a large actor, in the electoral debate – Nate is a super-actor, with inordinate, unique influence.  And he is.  But he also happens to be right.

I just have a hard time with anyone who would argue that voters are better off relying on less-accurate, rather than more-accurate, information.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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