The Trouble with Gerson’s Sanctimony

I’m fed up with the professional political class’ bashing of data analysis and its practitioners. In the run-up to today’s U.S. national election, the data-haters have been focused on statistician Nate Silver, author of the FiveThirtyEight blog in the New York Times.

The most recent example is an op-ed article dripping with sanctimony by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, entitled “The Trouble with Obama’s Silver Lining.”

Gerson takes various potshots at Silver, but at its core his argument is a lament about the over-quantification of politics. He calls quantitative analysis of politics approach a “sad and sterile emptiness at the heart of a noble enterprise.”

“The main problem with this approach to politics,” Gerson writes, “is not that it is pseudo-scientific but that it is trivial. An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.”

Gerson’s fallacy is that he suggests that analyzing the political process quantitatively somehow diminishes it. Ironically, with this argument Gerson posits the existence of a zero sum game between political analysis and civic discourse.

Hogwash.

It is a good thing to have more knowledge about the political process, because, however ugly it may be, it affects all of our lives. And understanding the political process better has absolutely no effect on lofty issues such as community and justice.

Quantitative analysis of our society – from politics to business to everyday life – builds understanding and helps us improve. It is indeed a noble pursuit.

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About Dana Stanley

Dana is the Editor-in-Chief of Research Access.

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