Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Innumeracy and John Allen Paulos

Mathematician John Allen Paulos popularized the term innumeracy, and is plugging a new book where he says his chief regret in life was an essay about the Bush-Gore 2000 election recount:
Specifically, Judge Wells wrote, “I agree with a quote by John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, when he wrote that, ‘the margin of error in this election is far greater than the margin of victory, no matter who wins.’ Further judicial process will not change this self-evident fact and will only result in confusion and disorder.” ...

I believed and still believe that the statistical tie in the Florida election supported a conclusion opposite to the one Wells drew. The tie seemed to lend greater weight to the fact that Al Gore received almost half a million more popular votes nationally than did Bush. If anything, the dead heat in Florida could be seen as giving Gore’s national plurality the status of a moral tiebreaker. At the very least the decision of the rest of the court to allow for a manual recount should have been honored since Florida’s vote was pivotal in the Electoral College. Even flipping a commemorative Gore-Bush coin in the capitol in Tallahassee would have been justified since the vote totals were essentially indistinguishable.

Historical counterfactuals are always dubious undertakings, but I doubt very much that the United States would have gone to war in Iraq had Gore been president. I also think strong environmental legislation would have been pursued and implemented under him.
This guy is giving mathematicians a bad name.

His argument is essentially this: The Bush-Gore Florida ballot count was like tossing a coin. So we should have kept tossing the coin until it came up for Gore, because he would have advanced the cause of global warming politics, or some such nonsense.

Or maybe some judges should have decided to use the dispute as an excuse to invalidate the Electoral College.

Florida did have a manual recount, in accordance with Florida statutes. The Gore argument was certain select counties should be recounted in secret by Judge's clerks, until there is a more favorable outcome.

The US Supreme Court ultimately decided that Florida law had to be followed, and the court could not keep inventing new recount procedures.

Saying that the Florida count was like a coin toss should mean we should stick to the procedure that was agreed to before the election. It does not mean to keep tossing the coin.

Accepting Paulos's procedure would be to tell citizens that their individual votes do not count. If an election appeared to be decided by one vote, then he would declare the vote to be statistically insignificant, and suggest flipping a coin instead.

Besides being fundamentally anti-democratic, this would create all sorts of new problems. Who gets to decide what is statistically insignificant? And what if a vote difference misses that cutoff by an amount that is statistically insignificant?

And Paulos suggests that Florida decide its electoral votes by how the rest of the country voted? That is crazy.

That is, I think it is crazy. There are actually some serious support for the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, where most of the states would decide their electoral votes based on what the other states do. Maybe Paulos would like it.

1 comment:

  1. When someone's math and science adheres exactly to their political agenda it's usually because it isn't math and science, it's a smokescreen for some other undisclosed purpose. Anyone paying attention to debates and discussions over the climate and actually seeing people called 'deniers' knows this.

    I have a simple litmus test for bogus math and science: Call me a denier for questioning something, I know you are full of crap.