Posted tagged ‘The Urgency of Voting’

The Great Vote Fraud Data Mistake…A Cautionary Tale

May 11, 2017

Just in time for the latest, greatest Shitgibbon pursuit of all those not-good-people who got to vote for his opponent, Maggie Koerth-Baker brings the hammer down.  She’s written an excellent long-read over at Five Thirty Eight on what went wrong in the ur-paper that has fed the right wing fantasy that a gazillion undocumented brown people threw the election to the popular-vote winner, but somehow failed to actually turn the result.

The nub of the problem lies with a common error in data-driven research, a failure to come to grips with the statistical properties — the weaknesses — of the underlying sample or set.  As Koerth-Baker emphasizes this is both hardly unusual, and usually not quite as consequential as it was when and undergraduate, working with her professor, used  found that, apparently, large numbers of non-citizens 14% of them — were registered to vote.

There was nothing wrong the calculations they used on the raw numbers in their data set — drawn from a large survey of voters called the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. The problem, though, was that they failed fully to handle the implications of the fact that the people they were interested in, non-citizens, were too small a fraction of the total sample to eliminate the impact of what are called measurement errors. Koerth-Baker writes:

Non-citizens who vote represent a tiny subpopulation of both non-citizens in general and of the larger community of American voters. Studying them means zeroing in on a very small percentage of a much larger sample. That massive imbalance in sample size makes it easier for something called measurement error to contaminate the data. Measurement error is simple: It’s what happens when people answer a survey or a poll incorrectly.1 If you’ve ever checked the wrong box on a form, you know how easy it can be to screw this stuff up. Scientists are certainly aware this happens. And they know that, most of the time, those errors aren’t big enough to have much impact on the outcome of a study. But what constitutes “big enough” will change when you’re focusing on a small segment of a bigger group. Suddenly, a few wrongly placed check marks that would otherwise be no big deal can matter a lot.

This is what critics of the original paper say happened to the claim that non-citizens are voting in election-shaping numbers:

Of the 32,800 people surveyed by CCES in 2008 and the 55,400 surveyed in 2010, 339 people and 489 people, respectively, identified themselves as non-citizens.2 Of those, Chattha found 38 people in 2008 who either reported voting or who could be verified through other sources as having voted. In 2010, there were just 13 of these people, all self-reported. It was a very small sample within a much, much larger one. If some of those people were misclassified, the results would run into trouble fast. Chattha and Richman tried to account for the measurement error on its own, but, like the rest of their field, they weren’t prepared for the way imbalanced sample ratios could make those errors more powerful. Stephen Ansolabehere and Brian Schaffner, the Harvard and University of Massachusetts Amherst professors who manage the CCES, would later say Chattha and Richman underestimated the importance of measurement error — and that mistake would challenge the validity of the paper.

Koerth-Baker argues that Chatta (the undergraduate) and Richman, the authors of the original paper are not really to blame for what came next — the appropriation of this result as a partisan weapon in the voter-suppression wars.  She writes, likely correctly in my view, that political science and related fields are more prone to problems of methodology, and especially in handling the relatively  new (to these disciplines) pitfalls of big, or even medium-data research. The piece goes on to look at how and why this kind of not-great research can have such potent political impact, long after professionals within the field have recognized problems and moved on.  A sample of that analysis:

This isn’t the only time a single problematic research paper has had this kind of public afterlife, shambling about the internet and political talk shows long after its authors have tried to correct a public misinterpretation and its critics would have preferred it peacefully buried altogether. Even retracted papers — research effectively unpublished because of egregious mistakes, misconduct or major inaccuracies — sometimes continue to spread through the public consciousness, creating believers who use them to influence others and drive political discussion, said Daren Brabham, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California who studies the interactions between online communities, media and policymaking. “It’s something scientists know,” he said, “but we don’t really talk about.”

These papers — I think of them as “zombie research” — can lead people to believe things that aren’t true, or, at least, that don’t line up with the preponderance of scientific evidence. When that happens — either because someone stumbled across a paper that felt deeply true and created a belief, or because someone went looking for a paper that would back up beliefs they already had — the undead are hard to kill.

There’s lots more at the link.  Highly recommended.  At the least, it will arm you for battle w. Facebook natterers screaming about non-existent voter fraud “emergency.”

Image: William Hogarth, The Humours of an Election: The Polling, 1754-55

Hedges and the Monasteries, a Follow Up

August 1, 2012

In the Baloon Juice thread on Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a few commenters complained of what they described as a misreading, or undervaluing of what Hedges really meant when he called for his readers to “turn our backs for good on the Democrats, no matter what ghoulish candidate the Republicans offer up for President…”

In the original post I highlighted what Hedges suggested as the proper course of action:  head to “a monastic retreat in which “we can retain and nurture the values being rapidly destroyed by the wider corporate culture and build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that will allow us to survive.”

To me, this rejection of either choice in the acknowledged messiness of electoral politics is, frankly, disastrous.

But there were objections, and they weren’t frivolous…so consider this the point of warning:  What follows is ~1,000 words extending the argument.  If you have a better things to do, do them.

So — to kick us off here’s one dissent from what I argued: commenter Oliver’s Neck writes, that what I read as a call for retreat is anything but:

The construction of communities that no longer depend upon corrupt powers is an historically recurrent and powerful act of non-violent revolution. It takes great courage and will and is not the act of a defeatist or a moon-eyed ideologue, but that of a pragmatic realist.

The other main complaint that came up in the thread is that I’ve simply read Hedges wrong, and that he’s not actually suggesting he or anyone else should withdraw from the fray.  In this argument, I’ve construed “monastic” too narrowly and don’t grasp just how active Hedges thinks his monks should be. Here’s Matryoshka writing in this vein:

My read was that Hedges doesn’t have much faith in any system that exists now, and that it will be a long time before we have one that works in our favor, so until then, we need to do what we can to preserve the values of humane values and environmental stewardship. At no point in the book does anything else point to a “fuck it, go off the grid and shewt yer own skwurrels” conclusion.

The “us” in “build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that allow us to survive” means all of us (humanity), not just a few isolated survivalists. Context makes a difference. Read the book. It will give you insight into the place we’re all going under the current arrangement.

I think there is some merit in both objections, but ultimately, they each miss what seems to me to be the vital point.

Oliver’s Neck urges us to see Hedges as a pragmatic realist.  He’s not. That’s by his own account. That link takes you to an extended interview Bill Moyers conducted with Hedges on this book (Oliver’s Neck referenced this in his comments as well). That interview is long enough to allow Hedge’s account of what he’s about to come through loud and clear.  He like Moyers is a former seminarian; his is the duty to recognize sin, to abstain from it, and to act to challenge the evil that is thus done with a call for right action.  He wants to be able to live with himself; everything he does, including blowing up his New York Times career flows from that need.

Even so, you might say that Hedges is a pragmatist — but only in one special sense:  he writes, he speaks, he commits civil disobedience in ways that connect clearly and logically to his goal:  to act with firmness in the right as his sight, his memory and his conscience  give him to see the right.  He wants to effect change as well, and all that he does aims at that ambition, but as he tells Moyers repeatedly, the prime mover in his work is what he sees as his obligation to do good, regardless of likely impact.

As Oliver’s Neck argues and I agree, this is a courageous stance.  It is not, in my view sufficient to our current circumstances.  Hedges is a holy fool, I think, and I mean that as high praise, and not even a little criticism.

But as the Bush years show us, deep and lasting harm can take hold unbelievably quickly. While we wait for the long run in which a growing community of “this far and no farther”-niks finally reach the scale to address all our pathologies, we may — we will, I believe — have lost too much and too many to ignore the question of what we need to do right now.  Hence, in my view, the need to work and vote and press in this election, 2012, Obama vs. Romney and all the undercards.

But what of Matryoshka’s claim that I miss in Hedges demand for electoral conscientious objection his actual call to action?  It’s there, of course — just as St. Francis’s was (to name one in the tradition in which I think Hedges falls).  He does want us to resist the institutions that undermine society and community.

Here’s Hedges’ call to action:

All conventional forms of dissent, from electoral politics to open debates, have been denied us.  We cannot rely on the institutions that once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible.  The only route left is to disconnect as thoroughly as possible from consumer society and engage in acts of civil disobedience. (Hedges and Sacco, p. 266)

I flatly disagree with Hedges’ first sentence.  There is great difficulty in making those forms of dissent powerful, but they are not closed to us — you see that in Sherrod Brown’s campaign; in Elizabeth Warren’s; increasingly in President Obama’s…not to mention here, in communities like this one, and much else besides.

Hedges’ second sentence demands attention.  I’ve noted a couple of times the really striking tone of Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.  You can’t get more centrist, more conventional wisdom than these two.  Mann, a Brookings Institute bloke, and Ornstein, from the American Enterprise Institute (sic!), document the failure of Congress as a political institution (props to Hedges) and indict the Republican Party as the perp who is murdering that body (a problem for Hedges).  With that as just the latest high profile reminder, no one can deny that our institutions — and not just the overtly political ones — are in deep trouble.  We cannot rely on them.  But we can use them, if and as we find ways to penetrate them.  Mann and Ornstein discuss both short term and longer timeline choices we can make if we choose to do so.  And to belabor the obvious:  we won’t get anywhere institutionally if we don’t engage in, among much else, the act of voting.

The third sentence in Hedge’s passage speaks directly to the complaints Oliver’s Neck and Matryoshka offer up.  Hedges does not simply call for escape.  He urges civil disobedience.  He wants us to act, and in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, he holds up the Occupy movement as an example of the kind of non-violent revolt that he had almost given up hope of seeing over the last few years.

But neither that call to resistance, nor any recognition of the power of Hedges’ moral stance alter the real danger inherent in his call for a monastic retreat from American consumerism.

Why not?

Because despite Hedges’ disgust for what he’s seen from either party, there remain (as we’ve talked through many times here) major differences between the parties, distinctions that have real consequences within the lives of every American (and many others as well, to be sure).  So, to my mind, the real question is how much are you willing to risk to further, perhaps, that day when the resistance fractures the power structure sufficiently to erect a better place in its stead?  How deeply do you believe in the “sharpen the contradiction” approach to political transformation?

If you’re asking me? When we have a choice as clear as that of the ghoulish Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama?

Not much.  Not much at all.

One more thing:  It seems to me obvious that Hedges offers a false choice here.  This post is long enough, so for now I’ll just say that one can act on two lines at once:  vote, engage, demand the best out of what the system we have; and also pursue longer-term reformation:  Occupy, civilly disobey, non-violently resist what needs to be resisted.  It may be that I’ve spent too long studying Weimar and its sequel to take any great comfort from the relief from misery that may ultimately come.  Germany did ultimately become a social democracy.  But what transpired between 1933 and 1945 was a hell of a price.  As the historian Peter Gay wrote, (I paraphrase) if only Weimar’s friends had roused themselves to act in support of Weimar, how much sorrow might have been avoided.

Images:  William Hogarth, Soliciting Votes (from the series, “The Humours of an Election,”) 1754.

Unknown artist (formerly attributed to Giotto) St. Francis Preaching before  Honarius III, betw. 1297 and 1300.