The Future is Not Set

Some of the content for this post originated as a post in a closed Facebook group of which I am member. Over the last year, the group has been a source of interesting discourse regarding the political process here in the USA. Many of the members belong to the 5%. Not the 1% (though there are a few members of the group who would qualify) but it’s largely populated by individuals who have done well for themselves, many of whom were classmates of mine from Wharton.

As you can imagine, the last few months have been dominated by Trump vs Clinton banter. “Banter” is the wrong word if I am being honest. At times the conversation has verged on downright nasty. Cynical for sure. Ill spirited. Disheartening.

The level of angst over “who will win” has been rising. It’s hard not to get swept up in it. Paired with almost every post is some version of some poll that claims this candidate or that is doing the same, better, or worse than someone’s expectation. It’s almost as if these polls become the worst kind of confirmation bias salve.

This morning I came across the following post about the accuracy of Nate Silver and his predictions. Interestingly, it was in my Google Now feed, which is an algorithmic curation newsfeed. It brought me a link from a sub site (Paleo Future) which I a) didn’t know existed, and b) would likely not read. I read Gizmodo from time to time, but their tech coverage verges (tech blog pun!) on the churlish, making it difficult to take seriously. So from the point of view of “did I learn something new today from a voice I had never discovered?” Google gets a +1.

The short version of the article is that over and over Nate Silver and his team have flatly and soundly stated Trump’s future as a nominee (never mind as the actual candidate) was close to impossible. This is a good example of something I have seen over and over in the past year: breathless quoting and reliance on polling results ahead of the election.

One of my favorite quotes is from Matt Mullenweg. I saw him present in 2006 or 2007 and he was talking about adding the stats page to the Wordpress admin UI. It’s been 9 or 10 years since, so I will get the actual quote wrong, but it was something along the lines of “real time stats is like crack to bloggers. They can’t help but incessantly hit refresh.”

Why is that? It’s because as human beings we desire some level of certainty. In general, we hate uncertainty. We want to know what is going to happen so that we can establish the appropriate reaction framework in our minds. It’s why I have come to find the coverage of daily election polling so tiresome and dangerous.

It could reasonably be argued that the entirety of the appeal of Trump is related to the uncertainty facing large portions of this country regarding their own future. One thing Trump is not is “viewed as uncertain.” He states very clearly what he will and won’t do, what he is and isn’t. Sometimes opposing statements in the same paragraph. But he presents a story that is received as having less ambiguity about the future for a part of this country that feels highly uncertain about their paths because of (in their mind) things over which they feel they have no control: financial markets, terrorism, immigration, and jobs.

One thing that cannot be argued, however, is that there is little to no accountability in the process of “reporting.” If a poll is very wrong, what is the penalty? None.

There is little to no uniformity on methodology. How can it be that a single 19 year old an swing a poll?

What about all the issues around what constitutes a “representative sample” No one can agree on what the right sampling rates are.

Even yesterday, in this closed group, there was a posting about how the performance of the stock market in the last three months before the election correctly predicts the election 86% of the time. For the purposes of keeping it light, I pointed out that correlation and causation are two different things. I particularly love this chart:

Correlation and Causation are two different topics

Somewhat ironically and appropriately I want to queue the movie Terminator 2: “The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

The over reliance on reporting of polling data may serve to alter the narrative. What good it serves to the body politic, I am not sure. What good it serves the news organizations, well that is borderline tautological.

Tongue in cheek, I would suggest that we’ve “enjoyed” the friendly and spirited discourse regarding the election due in large part to our varying opinions and belief systems.

Please don’t lose sight of the higher order bit regarding our collective futures. I believe we all want the same thing. A better tomorrow filled with happiness, love, and friendships. Desired paths to get there may vary, but I think I can make the above claim with high degree of certainty.

Vote on Tuesday. Hug your neighbor on Tuesday. Turn off the TV and news between now and Tuesday. It’s highly unlikely your mind will be changed or determined in the next 72 hours.

No one can predict the future. If they could, they would own the world, not a (in the grand scheme of things) small time blog operation. Polls reporting begets clicks. Follow the money. Never forget that. The 24 hour news cycle is predicated on your feelings of unease.

Per the above, who will ever hold Blodget accountable for his missed predictions in this article which just posted? So much click-bait. I wonder how many people under the age of 30 who read BusinessInsider even know about Blodget’s past. Whether you’re trying to get clicks or banking business it doesn’t matter. Follow the money. I’m not trying to specifically call Blodget out, I am just pointing out that somehow the Internet never ceases to unearth gems from our past, but the collective memory-span seems to be conveniently short.

Here’s my challenge/request to everyone who reads this. Instead of stressing out this weekend, why not call someone with whom you haven’t spoken in a long time? I submit to you that having a :15 phone call with a smart and intelligent old friend, even one with a slightly different belief system, will be a far better way to spend your time than to read another news article which is news-poor at best, and click-bait at worst.

Anyone reading this can feel free to call me this weekend. My mobile is 425–985–5568, and hasn’t changed since I shared it with every opportunity I could way back when we were building the Windows Phone developer platform. One of the core principles of our developer platform team was to be “highly available to [our] partners” because “it’s easy to hate a company, but hard to hate a person.” It’s easy to get mad at news articles or comments on internet forums. It’s really hard to yell at friends, even when they share a different value system about certain things. Besides, it’s been said that in order to truly hate someone you have to have loved them first. The reason you get mad at articles and comments on the Internet is because you hate uncertainty and don’t like to find bias conflicting information.

If you do call me this weekend, you might not get me as I plan to be outside running or biking, at the Avs game, or looking up at the stars in the mountains with my daughter. Certainly not reading any more articles about the election.

You should do your civic duty on Tues, but you should strive to be a civilized human being every day.