Fuck you, Nate Silver

I posted an entry earlier this year in which I said analysts and statisticians – basically, people in my field – are the new prophets. I continue stand by that. We are the new prognosticators, the new seers of the future.

And you should never, ever trust a prophet. It doesn’t matter whether they’re quoting the Bible or Bayesian statistics – don’t trust people who try to predict the future, no matter if they’re interpreting ancient riddles or writing complex algorithms.

We were the statisticians. We were wrong. And now we have to fix it, and the “how did we fuck this up so badly?” conversations have already started. In my classrooms, on the listservs I belong to, across my field this week, we’re asking ourselves…what the hell did we just do? How did this get away from us so badly?

How can we change, as a field, to make this sort of predictive analysis more accurate?

My answer has been simple – it doesn’t matter how many ancient texts you consult, or how many mathematical principles you employ, or how you change the models – when  you’re measuring human behavior, there are always variables you cannot control for. Humans are unpredictable.

That’s where we went wrong. It wasn’t just that polls aren’t conducted well, or that people tend to lie in polls, or that the media grossly misrepresents statistical information. Those things all contributed, but at the base of everything, you simply cannot reduce human behavior to a set of algorithms, nor is it possible for any research to lay aside his or her own biases.

Never trust a prophet, no matter what form they appear to you in.

Narrative is god

I often say that narratives are life. We interact with our own lives as narratives – a story we’re actively participating in. We experience other people’s lives as narratives, sometimes in real time, sometimes in retrospect.

Even strict quantitative statistical analysis can still be rife with bias due to the varying perspectives and experiences of the people putting together that research study.

In other words, narrative contaminates everything. Narrative cannot be turned off, or gotten away from, because even if you’re encountering a new narrative that you’ve never experienced before, you’re interpreting it through your own narrative framework that’s been built up by your unique experiences. Narrative is everywhere. Narrative is god.

I’m in a statistics program, trying to decide to focus on qualitative methods or mixed methods. I was drawn to mixed solely because I’d like to be employable, and I feel having the ability to deal with both quantitative and qualitative data is a more marketable skill.

But my real passion is qualitative. I *love* hearing other people’s stories and experiences, reading their texts, trying to understand how different social constructs and experiences have influenced them. I do this even outside of class; I do this naturally.

A lot of people who know that I have a Master’s in Literature wonder how I ended up in data analysis, and I always tell them – Data are narrative. Data tell stories. It’s the analysis part I’m drawn to. That could be text, that could be interviews, that could be numerical data. Doesn’t matter.

All analysis requires understanding context, and being able to tell a story.

Analysts are storytellers, and narrative is god.


Statisticians and data analysts are the new prophets

A prophet, in the religious sense, is a person who has a direct line to a god or divine entity, and is acting as a conduit between the divine and humanity. In more recent years, the word prophet has been applied to economists and statisticians. (Nate Silver anyone?) See wikipedia for more fun facts about prophets in major world religions.  See Nate Silver’s website if you occasionally have nightmares of Trump winning and need some reassurance.

What I love about the field of statistics is that we describe trends and predict things, then bring those things to leaders and say, “Here’s what we think may happen.” We tell stories using data. We’re narrative builders. We’re predictors of the future.

That would, of course, make data the new god. Our deity, Big Data, hallowed be thy name. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? The other day, I purchased a new brand of dog food. Suddenly ads for that dog food pop up on all my social media sites, and in my gmail account. Big Data knows all. I sent some emails about the frustrations of being childfree (by choice). I stopped seeing ads for baby formula or birthing centers. Big Data sees all.

Data does not lie. But humans make data imperfect. Humans misinterpret. Humans act unethically. Humans introduce bias into the narratives, or change the narrative to suit their needs. Just like they do to gods.

And analysts are here to correct that. Just like prophets once did.