The Sam Wang Effect

Image result for sam wang hillary will win

I had long firmly believed that Hillary Clinton would win the election and become the first female American President. I had a gut feeling that in the end Americans would never put the nuclear codes into the hands of an obviously unstable, know-nothing sociopath like Donald Trump. My gut feeling about the outcome of the election was probably as strong as the average Trump supporter’s gut feeling that the sun really does revolve around the Earth or that Trump really can bring back manufacturing jobs.

But the difference between my gut feeling and the Trump supporter’s gut feeling was sophistication and science. I had science on my side. Trump supporters are mostly uneducated white males who move their lips when they read. They’re low-information voters who get what information they do get from right-wing talk radio. For analysis, they go to the talking heads on Fox News, right-wing anti-intellectuals like Sean Hannity.

As a member of the educated elite, I get my information in the form of sophisticated analyses from elite sources. I read the New York Times and for analysis, I go to places that the average Trump supporter couldn’t even pronounce, like the Princeton Electoral Consortium . That’s Princeton as in Princeton University. The Consortium is run by highly sophisticated intellectuals like Sam Wang—that’s Dr. Sam Wang—the neuroscientist, no less. The Consortium’s mission is “to provide informed analysis of US national elections by members of the Princeton academic community. It is open to scholars in the Princeton area from all disciplines, including (but not restricted to) politics, neuroscience, psychology, computer science, and mathematics.”

In the fields of biophysics and neuroscience, Professor Sam Wang uses probability and statistics to analyze complex experimental data. Electoral politics is a piece of cake. Sam Wang was predicting a big Clinton win.

On election night, when all around me, including my son, who’s a professional political consultant, were biting their nails and worrying themselves sick that maybe the polls had it wrong and Trump would win, I was calm in the knowledge that Sam Wang couldn’t have got it wrong. I looked at their nervous faces and figured that even sophisticated members of the educated elite are subject to irrational fears and superstitions. It takes discipline to sustain a rigorously rational and scientific view of the world. Sam Wang’s wise words filled me with a warm confidence: “Don’t look at the drama. Look at the data.” Sam Wang had looked at the data and concluded that Hillary Clinton had a 99% chance of winning. “If Donald Trump gets more than 240 electoral votes,” Sam Wang had tweeted, “I will eat a bug.” I sipped my wine and settled back to anticipate Hillary Clinton’s victory party.

We all know what happened.

3 thoughts on “The Sam Wang Effect

  1. Great article. I wonder, though, if Sam Wang’s data predicted the fact that around 48% ofelicible voters chose not to vote, and would it have made a difference if they had…


  2. I tend to be a bit gullible when it comes to people like Sam Wang, too ready to believe that scientists know what they’re talking about. I might as well have relied on somebody who reads chicken entrails. The polling industry is in crisis. What a nightmare.


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