By any reckoning, 2020 will go down as a year to be forgotten.
For the havoc and carnage wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic, right across the globe. For the most divided and divisive U.S. presidential election in living memory. And for the cocksure cockups of the giant brain of Prime Minister Johnson’s martinet, Demonic Cummings, and the confederacy of dunces lined up to steer Britain through the double-whammy of COVID-19 and Brexit.
It’s enough to make a poor podcaster cry, but when the Small Data Forum triumvirate gathered to record episode 41 on – of course – Friday 13 November, there was almost a party mood of good news in the air.
How could this be?
Well, little did we know at the time that (a) rumours of the Downing Street demise of Rasputin/ Robespierre (take your pick) Cummings were very much the opposite of exaggerated (he was gone, cardboard box and all, by nightfall), but also (b) that we would have to re-record the entire episode thanks to Thomas’ sound snafu.
Which we duly did on Sunday morning, with even more of a post-Cummingian party mood.
The Guardian, clearly taking its lead from Sam’s Insight Agents blog on the Government’s innumeracy and communicative incompetence in announcing Lockdown II, also called its Cummings-going feature Nightmare on Downing Street. That said, Andrew Rawnsley’s take on Tsar Boris and Rasputin Cummings wields an even sharper blade, which Neville will undoubtedly enjoy, as it is so in the spirit of Simon Heffer’s takedown of the PlayMobil Churchill in the New Statesman.
Here’s where we’re at. Both baldy bully boys are gone from the PM’s inner circle, and Neville mused whether Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings would now take over the Queen Vic from the Mitchell brothers. Thomas wondered whether the ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ duo would keep the box at Millwall’s Den that they must surely hold?
And from the not very United Kingdom to the even more Disunited States, where Biden has trumped Trump. And despite the desperate legal wranglings contesting the election result, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has now firmly pronounced: “We can assure you. We have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our election, as you should.”
In more innocent times gone by, the outgoing staff of a losing (or post-two-terms) president would play childish, Halloween-like pranks. Like when Bill Clinton’s staff removed all the Dubyas from all the White House computer keyboards to irritate George (W) Bush, Junior – and cause an alleged $15,000 of damage.
Trump seems hell bent on not conceding, contesting the result in the courts, and stuffing all the important jobs with pro-life-anti-vaxxer-alt-right nutjobs. Oh well, GSOH doesn’t really feature in malignant narcissistic paranoid personality disorder. It seems pretty likely that DSM-6 will add this case study.
Neville is also alarmed at the appointment of the most important officials deep in the heart of government machinery by ultra-Trumpians, but is confident that Biden will become POTUS 46. Hell, even Pope Francis has sent a missive from God to congratulate Biden on his win, making him the next most powerful man in the free world the first catholic U.S. Commander-in-Chief since JFK.
So to the polls, which of course, got it wrong, and we poke our stick through the embers of the poll bashing.
Neville points to a VERY loooooong New York Times article that’s well worth the time invested – and a minimum of two cups of coffee, titled “A Black Eye: Why Political Polling Missed the Mark. Again.” He summarises the article’s four conclusions:
- Citizens are decreasingly willing to respond to pollsters, particularly political pollsters who canvas by phone. Response rates have fallen from 50% to just 6% in recent years.
- The collapse in trust for institutions means many are reluctant to trust pollsters and refuse to share their opinions and data.
- The COVID-19 pandemic. Unlikely to be a factor in future elections and polling seasons, but influential nonetheless, not least because of altered voting patterns.
- Republicans (both those supporting Trump and those who couldn’t vote for the Democrats, even if they had contempt for the incumbent) lying to pollsters.
Thomas adds interesting voter data perspective drilling into hidden demographic shifts and a much misunderstood Latino vote.
Sam is perplexed. Why are we prepared to put out citizen status, financial details including all bank accounts and credit cards on our smart devices, and yet not vote online? Under the pandemic, digital transformation has accelerated the adoption of ecommerce by up to six years, across the generations, and hitherto-older-non-trusters show no signs of going back to bricks-and-mortar retail.
Thomas agrees that we easily could move to e-voting, but we won’t because one side fears it would never be elected again. Enigmatically, he doesn’t say which.
One solution could be to introduce pre-screening questions that screen for trust – Pew, for instance, uses “Do you volunteer?” as a behavioural proxy for trust.
One thing we all agree on is that more diverse polling methodologies will be introduced, including by text, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and so on. The days of the 20-minute phone interview are dead.
As new models are built, we debate whether there is a proper future for models and algorithms, particularly in polling.
Thomas and Sam geeked out last Thursday night, tuning in to the Royal Society’s fireside chat between More or Less’ undercover economist, Tim Harford, and the world’s best public statistician, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter talking about more and less effective COVID data communications.
In assessing eight competing (and radically different) models of the transmission rate of coronavirus (aka R), Spiegelhalter pronounced that: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” A salutary lesson for political pollsters, too.
12 years ago, then-editor of Wired Chris Anderson boldly announced the end of theory, claiming that the data deluge had made the scientific method – including representative sampling and polls – redundant. Anderson claimed: “The data speak for themselves.”
In the introduction to his seminal book The Signal & The Noise, foxy Nate Silver countermanded Anderson, saying: “The data can’t speak for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning.” In the introduction to his uber-technical (but whip-smart clear) 2019 book, The Art of Statistics, Spiegelhalter can think of nothing better than to cite Silver’s rejection of Andersonism.
All this makes Sam remember his classical past and spout a bit of Juvenal: sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (“Who might guard the guards?”) Who should build the models for the pollsters? Spiegelhalter recommends “sniffing the data”, and in Harford’s new book that details ten rules that help in How to Make the World Add Up, he also recommends we observe our emotional reaction data in a story. Pause. Breathe. And think again.
Thomas steers the conversation to the woke side, and wonders if three middle-aged white men even have a right to pronounce on such matters. God knows what Thomas had had for breakfast, but he asked all the big questions. He was interested in how big a problem acute intolerance that characterizes many woke attacks poses a long-term electability challenge for the left – for Democrats in the U.S. and the left around the world.
Neville urges all sides to find a way to connect and common ground, but warns brands off trying to fold and reflect woke culture into their narratives.
Sam, meantime, has a lot of sympathy for the intentions of woke campaigns. In order to enshrine common decency and prevent any form of discrimination – based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, neurodiversity – it’s often necessary for campaigns to pull society past the middle ground in order to reset values.
He’s inspired by the recent podcast interview between James O’Brien – “the only liberal talk show host” – and journalist Piers Morgan. O’Brien has written two books, 2018’s How To Be Right In A World Gone Wrong, as well as the more recent – and more reflective – How Not To Be Wrong: The Art of Changing your Mind.
What’s telling about the podcast is that (a) Morgan doesn’t read books he pronounces on, and (b) O’Brien can find no issue – other than trans – in which woke culture really lives large.
We finish as we started, pondering the future of Brand Trump. Thomas sees them morphing into a political Kardashians family designed to kill turncoat Fox, though no political figure in history to date has taken on Murdoch and won. He also sees Trump turning the strategy he used in property being transferred into media, lending his name but putting no cash down upfront and then reaping the rewards.
Neville sees a glittering future in reality TV for New York’s Alan Sugar, so long as the Feds don’t get him first, as he still thinks an Al Capone-like comeuppance – “They’ll get him on his taxes” – is a likely next chapter. And Sam sees him becoming a 21st century political Elmer Gantry, a televangelist raising billions from hate-filled bile, worshipping at the altar of the God of More than Enough.
And then we found we’d got beyond the hour mark, running way over our normal time, and we hadn’t even had a chance to talk about the good news of the COVID vaccine from Pfizer or the reality and implications of lockdown 2.0.
When we started our first recording on Friday, the Demon of Downing Street had told his mouthpiece, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, that he’d likely be gone by Christmas. When Sam first sat down to write this blog early evening on the same day, the loathsome scrote had carried his box of effects out of Downing Street for the last time under Johnson.
By Sunday evening, when Thomas finished this co-written piece, we were getting a better sense of what really happened, and while unsurprising, the casual frat boy misogyny especially (but by no means only) against Carrie Symonds is still quite unpleasant.
By the time we record SDF 42 – over remote but robust red wine and pizza via Zoom, sadly not in our usual Christmas Special haunt of Olivelli on The Cut in Waterloo, South London – he may well have ridden back into power as SPADmeister in general of the next Prime Minister, Michael Gove.
Now there’s a dystopian fiction for you – and plenty of Shakespearean material, with our bespectacled modern Thane of Cawdor and his sharp-penned Lady. Stay tuned.
Listen to Episode 41: