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The polls, the power law and understanding the political split | Opinion


It’s 9 a.m. Friday as I write this op-ed. And as I write, it appears that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United State. So many predictions were made, all over the map, with all the various political pundits calling, at some level, for their candidate.

Yet regardless of who wins (and we may know for sure by the time you’re reading this op-ed) the one thing we have learned is that our information system is broken. Or rather, not broken — but changed. I can’t remember how many tweets I’ve read about people shaking their fists at Nate Silver and his website 538. Wrong again — especially after the results of 2016. People start watching election returns in one reality. And exit in another.

How can this be? I think I’ve figured it out. It’s a function of forecasting models. But more than that, it’s the assumptions that we have about our society that underlie those models. And the biggest is this one — which isn’t even an assumption that’s recognized. It’s believed to be the truth.

And that truth is that public opinion is spread apart in two poles, one on the left of the political spectrum, and the other on the right. The theoretical “we” party, and the “I” party. More government or less government. And in the context of culture, if you were to plot the number of people, and somehow aggregate their opinions, they would fall out along what modelers call a Gaussian distribution. A bell curve, with a hump in the middle, and tails with lesser numbers of adherents on either side.

But intrinsic in those assumptions regarding those opinions is a concept called statistical independence. It means that every person’s opinion sits inside our culture, on some range of interpretation. And every person’s opinion is somehow separate from the others — or maybe only influenced by a small number of folks that they hang out and drink beer with at the local bar.

Anyone tuning into social media knows now that this is utter BS. Through Facebook, you’re connected to your old high school friends. On Twitter, you can follow the key political reporters that represent often extreme viewpoints. Interconnected communities can spring up across belief systems, and can contain thousands — or millions. No man is an island now, more than ever.

That shifts the underlying assumptions of all our polling data. That means people’s viewpoints are connected and statistically dependent, in a way the local newspaper never used to drive discussion. Statisticians will tell you this leads to what is known as Power Law behavior. Power law behavior in money is “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” And the equivalent we see in politics is the development of far more people with extreme views, as well as viewing others through an extreme lens.

What’s the answer? Social media isn’t going away. But we can all practice less extreme opinions. Antifa didn’t storm the polling places to stop voting. Same with the Proud Boys. We haven’t seen yet large outbreaks of violence in our cities. Why? Because Americans are fundamentally good people, regardless of what you might infer from either the opinion polls or the voting polls.

There is an answer. Tolerance. Societies without it have bad track records with mass murder. Maybe someone isn’t quite up to where you’re at as far as Jesus, abortion, BLM or masks. That’s OK. Imagining them as the children of Satan, because you’re bombarded with Facebook messages declaring things to be so destroys the subtlety one needs to navigate a complex society.

And right or left, if you need to know one thing that connects you, it’s laziness. Look at the amount of rioting at the polls. Then look in the mirror. 99.99 percent of you aren’t out there either. Let that connect you. Because like it or not, we’re all in our La-Z-Boys together.

Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical andmaterials engineering at Washington State University.



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