Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Our poly sci thought experiments end -- or do they?

It's generally considered inappropriate practice for a teacher or college professor to comment on an election or on candidates in such a way as to make students who may feel very differently feel excluded and uncomfortable learning, or so as to bring his or her institution into disrepute.

But it's also very hard, as an environmental policy major and climate mitigation specialist, to not comment, when the sum of all your fears is, seemingly, coming true.

It helps to be well trained in skepticism.

So, for instance, while, as a climate academic, I worry more or less incessantly about what the changing climate will do to the world my students will live in tomorrow; and while as an emergency responder with an important (if volunteer role) in the incident command system, I worry more or less incessantly about preparedness and training and call-out procedures; I am also sufficiently skeptical about solutions and their economics to make me less of a "true believer" than would otherwise be the case.

Others can beat the drum.

I have other things I'm asked to do, like thinking about just how we call out the Maine SAR system when the power lines are down; or whether or not I can make any useful, cost-effective carbon-neutral energy out of that south-facing roof on my house (or am I, and the planet better off putting the money into more insulation?), or, and most frequent, how to get the student in front of me to run the calculation, or parse the sentence, more correctly.

I don't claim any moral superiority for this deep avoidance of the political side to my various professions. Mostly, I admit, I prefer to involve myself in these simpler, more basic, affairs, rather than activism or politics, because of my deep and abiding skepticism of the activist and the politician.

And, if I were to admit the truth to myself, I just get exhausted by all the controversy and disagreement.

You could see this as a lack of personal moral fiber.

But it's also a natural result of training in emergency response and community development economics. What I most want to see is people pulling together to overcome. I'm a total sap for the Churchill speech, the Dunkirk Spirit, the fight-them-on-the-beaches mentality. I'm not a natural politician at all. I'm much happier when the chips are down and we all are in this thing together -- even if the chips are down, and we're all in this thing together.

It's also true that it practical response is increasingly needed. As events in New York and New Jersey are proving, practical approaches are strictly required, even when the ideological wars continue to be waged.

So, in general, I don't spend much time on politics in my classes, and I try to avoid making students uncomfortable with platform or candidate endorsements, even if they do sometimes slip out in general conversation.

Despite all this, my Ec & Quant students and I have followed the election polling very closely indeed. This is because part of the plan for that class includes sections on the quantitative political science of surveys and polling, and the election was a great classroom experiment.

And, we can report, our alternative hypothesis has been confirmed. The best polling data from the best analysts, primarily Nate Silver of the New York Times, gave Governor Romney only a very small chance of winning the presidency. By the time of the election, it was down to less than 10%.

This despite the popular vote being a statistical tie, with President Obama's lead less than the margin of error.

We predicted that a lot of people would be quite flabbergasted by the result because they thought, as a result of the popular vote polling, that the election would be much closer than it was.

We also predicted that the national Republican party would, the day after the election, have to begin to reconfigure the Reagan-Bush coalition. The math runs against any future success in the presidency for this disparate grouping.

Note, I'm not saying that it should be so, that Republicans deserve to lose the presidency. I'm saying that they will. Despite the best efforts of all the post-modernists and deconstructionists to make it go away, Hume's famous distinction between what is and what should be, between scientific evidence and what people think is moral and right, is still alive and kicking, and applies perfectly.

You can be as fervent a believer as you want, but, barring some completely unexpected political event, the Reagan coalition can no longer win the presidency.

It's the math, stupid.

And, I can't help but say, this is a major relief for the parts of me that have to think about climate mitigation, and how Maine's government responds to emergencies.

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