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A few years ago, on a visit to the Topkap? Museum in Istanbul, I came across an amazing display of tunics that had been among the most tightly guarded treasures of the Ottoman emperors. They were not silk brocade, nor encrusted with jewels. The tunics were very plain, of white linen, but they had been inscribed with strange combinations of numbers and symbols. The Ottomans believed that they had talismanic power and that they could protect the sultan from a would-be assassin, turning back the blade of a knife or rendering harmless some deadly poison. Reading the inscriptions, I learned about Fazlallah Astarbadi and the Hurufis, a group of Sufi mystics who beginning in the thirteenth century developed the abjad (????) system under which sacred texts were deconstructed letter by letter and the individual letters were given numerical properties. There was a powerful relationship between these numbers, the Hurufis thought, a relationship that governed our lives. Fazlallah Astarbadi was, of course, following in the footsteps of Pythagoras, and of the Kaballists.
These days I start every morning with a sense that unfathomable numbers are governing my life. I strain to make sense of them. But often I give up, surrendering to the whirlpool of contradictions. I am talking, of course, about polling data. Somehow I think I can’t face the day without hearing Chuck Todd of MSNBC read the latest numbers, or watching them stream on the chyrons at the bottom of the tube.
But reading and understanding these polls—that is something limited to the true brotherhood of initiates. Fazlallah is right. Is there hope for the rest of us?
In the middle of this election season, I discovered Nate Silver and his website, fivethirtyeight.com. Nate lives in Chicago and is a writer for a sports-media company. He is also a polling nerd (baseball and politics are data-driven businesses, he tells us—but that’s an understatement). The number 538 represents the total number of votes in the American electoral college. Nate offers a state-by-state projection of how the presidential race is playing out, based on the polls. Of course, there are a number of sites that do this, such as pollster.com and electoral-vote.com. But Nate does them one better by offering a continuous tutorial on polling. What do the vexatious differences in those polls mean? What are the assumptions and models that produce those differences? Reading Nate through the fall, I feel that I have actually come to understand a bit about polling (at least, enough to realize that I absolutely must turn to a Nate Silver, Mark Blumenthal or Chuck Todd to really understand them). The process of learning is certainly a reassuring process, however.
Today, for instance, Mason-Dixon and Fox issued some polling numbers that suggested rather strong improvement for McCain. They were at odds with other polls, which generally showed a stable lead for Obama. How does one approach with these contradictions? Here’s a snippet from Nate’s explanation:
Mason-Dixon has also had a Republican “lean” this cycle of perhaps 2–3 points. They are quite frequently the most favorable number for John McCain in any given state. That doesn’t mean that they are “biased”, and it doesn’t mean that they are wrong–there are many different (and legitimate!) ways to think about this election. But it does mean that their polls need to be interpreted in that context.
Nate Silver is the pollster in my book. Election night, he’ll be setting up shop with Dan Rather on HDNet TV. That will be the place to stop in for number-crunching.
More from Scott Horton:
No Comment — November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm
An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath
No Comment — August 12, 2013, 7:55 am
How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?
No Comment — July 29, 2013, 11:36 am
Is it possible to simply disband the partisan FISA court?
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
Average portion of its yearly household expenditures that a South African family will spend on a funeral:
Neuroscientists were hoping to use rat brain waves to find people buried by earthquakes.
Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia.
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature