Saturday, November 19, 2016

Margin of Error

Let's talk weather.

When meteorologists tell us what to expect, they give us their forecast not as certainty, but as probability. They never say "It will rain" but rather "There's an 80% chance of rain." Implied in that statement is that there is a 20% chance it won't. And we understand that. Indeed, everyone of us at one time or another, upon hearing such a forecast, has taken an umbrella and carried it around the whole day unused. True, we might grumble about the competence of the forecasters. But we aren't really surprised. After all, they never said it was a lead pipe cinch we would get wet, just that there was pretty reasonable chance. Staying dry wasn't excluded; in fact, it was well within the margin of error.

Contrast that with the whiplash virtually everyone felt with the results of the election. But why is that? No one, including the most partisans on either side, ever said that Hillary was a lock to win, nor Donald a lock to lose. The numbers may have been skewed in a direction, but they always included ample wiggle room for the opposing outcome to take place. Indeed, in the ongoing post mortem, while the news media is mea-culpa-ing all over the place, the pollsters are standing somewhat firm. While they acknowledge that perhaps they too bought into the overall narrative, they say they never guaranteed anything, and indeed, always said there was a chance of this happening. Shortly before the election I heard one pollster describe the chance of being wrong as akin to an NFL placekicker missing a 30-yard field goal. And on that very day, three guys missed three 30-yard field goals. So there.

And yet we took the predictions as gospel, as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. On reflection, maybe that's not surprising. In a world where virtually every single organization defines itself not as a car company or an insurance firm or as an online retailer but as an information company, we have come to rely on data as the atomic structure of everything. And just as electrons don't lie, we came to accept the polls not as measures of possibility, but markers of probability. But there's a reason the term is "margin of error" and not "indicator of reality."

Of course, we shouldn't have been so surprised. After all, history is filled with examples where smart people, using the best available tools they had at hand, coupled with years of finely tuned instincts, pronounced this or that destined for success or failure, only to have to eat crow down the line. Ken Olson, the president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), said in 1977, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." Legendary movie producer Darryl Zanuck predicted that "Television won't last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." And in 1962, the A&R folks at Decca Records listened to a tape and said "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." Based on that appraisal, they decided to pass on signing a band called The Beatles.  

One reason might be that predictions for elections are based not on immutable data, but on mutable humans. And people change their minds, shade their responses and flat out lie for a variety of reasons. As such, the underlying assumptions are hardly carved in stone. Not so something like climate change. Oceans aren't embarrassed to state their temperatures, nor ice flows afraid of what others will think of their melt rates. And so while you can say experts don't always get it right, there is a distinction between social scientists trying to forecast what people will do, and physical ones forecasting what atoms will do. In other words, one day, despite wishing to the contrary, Pennsylvania will indeed be ocean front property.

But still, it begs the question: if the best and brightest were wrong about this, what else have they gotten wrong? Forget Oscar picks and Super Bowl winners. Did we really land on the moon? Are there alien spaceships stored in Roswell? In hindsight, more than ever, a certain amount of skepticism is warranted when we're told what will happen. Put another way, maybe Elvis hasn't really left the building.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has restricted his news intake. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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