Weird Data

In late October 2012, an account sometimes associated with ‘Weird Twitter‘ provided a critical perspective on electoral predictions – specifically, the idea of Nate Silver as political oracle. Against the background of Halloween, with its commercialized blend of family traditions and playful paganism, ‘Wint’ makes the messianic iconography of ‘stats wizards’ more legible. Whether called the empirical kids or simply ‘remarkable people,’ those who control data are imagined to be the people who will provide mathematical coherency in the face of escalating inequality and structural violence. The conventional wisdom holds that they helped Obama win; as a result, political consulting has changed from business based on the hunches of accumulated experience into something that turns on the predictions of field experiments and statistical models.  Conservatives fear that data-driven analysts will be unable to choose among competing algorithms; that they lack the guts to get behind radical politics. But the alternatives they propose are also losing propositions; the days of seasoned old men with their gut convictions and ‘ethical vocabularies’ are over. Instead, critics of empiricism should focus on the haunting remainders; the anxieties and traumas of political experience that cannot be operationalized as numerical data.

To be clear, more and more statistical wizards are here to stay. But the background of any empirical claim is not fixed. The free floating emotional world of dissatisfaction, hunger, suffering, and resentment that motivates political actors is unpredictable. Opinions move like a thermostat, not as coherent responses to changing policies. The hunger for anything that keeps anxiety at bay finds varied satisfactions. And Nate Silver can’t satisfy forever.

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