In 2012 a blogger called Nate Silver predicted the outcome of the US election accurately to everyone’s amazement. In 2015 the results of the British general election shocked many: most people thought Labour’s Ed Milliband would win or at least that another coalition would be formed. From this we could conclude that US analysts are better than their UK counterparts when it comes to psephological matters.
That would be wrong, though. The only field of expertise to which both groups could claim is to a lack of basic understanding of the madness of crowds.
I am not using the phrase “madness of crowds” randomly. This is the title of a regular column by writer Will Self in The New Statesman which is based on a book by Scottish-born 19th-century author Charles Mackay: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
I confess that I have not read the book yet, but I do find the subject fascinating. Why did people in the 1800s latch on to a catchphrase like "What a shocking bad hat!"? what motivated them? Likewise, how can you predict the results of a general election? What method(s) do you use to achieve your objective? What motivates someone to vote for a particular politician? Are people (crowds) so easy to second-guess? Are we that obvious in our motives and intentions, political or otherwise?
No, we are not. There was a method to Nate Silver’s approach, although by the time I read the job title “biostatiscian” (belonging to one of the experts who broke down Nate’s method into tiny little pieces) I was running in the opposite direction. To me, Nate just got lucky. Plus, he is an online poker player. Make of that what you wish.
|Genius or just plain good luck? (Photograph: Mike McGregor for the Observer Mike McGregor/Observer)|
The UK election, on the other hand, felt more “normal”, if normal is the right word here. I would say that in turning out to be so unpredictable it rendered the process human. We, humans, are completely unpredictable. If there is some succour to be had in our dealings with each other in real life is that there is something called civic society in which the rule of law still works. Otherwise it would be daggers at dawn every time we rub each other up the wrong way. And still…
Generally speaking, polls and surveys make excellent material for Sunday morning shows and late-night television programmes, but really we are as hard to crack as the hardest nut there is out there.
This thought came to me recently when I read of the decision of Cardiff University women’s officer to no-platform the academic and writer Germaine Greer for comments she had made about transgender people, especially women. I did not agree with Ms Greer’s views, yet, was I surprised by her stand? No, she has always been polemic and may she continue to be so. In no-platforming someone of Germaine’s stature, the women’s officer, Rachael Melhuish was depriving Cardiff University students of a much-needed opportunity “to make the predictable unpredictable”. Incidentally, Germaine’s talk at the institution was about women and power in the 20th century, nothing to do with transgender issues.
To make the predictable unpredictable is to me the default setting of us, human beings. With so many identity markers around, why settle for one in order to please a crowd? It is precisely the nature of crowds and the madness of them that makes humans the unique beings we are. I would predict that nine times out of ten, if I were to stand in front of a lion, tiger, crocodile or swim with sharks, I would be attacked. Not because the animal “would want to harm me”, but because that is their nature: to hunt and/or to defend themselves from danger. I would be seen either as enemy or food. Or both. They are predators, I am the prey. We, humans, are less predictable. If I pick a fight with someone on the street there is a good chance that one of us will try to talk sense into the other person. Or we could attempt to do one another in. Either way, there is not “nine out of ten”, scenario, because the outcome would change from human to human. To go back to my first example, had Obama had a stronger opponent in 2012, I dare to say that Nate Silver’s predictions would not have been so accurate. Over here if more people had “come out” as Conservative-supporting voters before May, we would have had none of that Ed-Milliband-as-Prime-Minister-in-waiting nonsense. It is, sadly, the stigma associated with voting Tory that made people hide their real voting intentions on election night. And I say that as a sandal-wearing, muesli-eating. Guardian-reading leftie. At the same time, I am concerned that in making assumptions about people (and what are polls but assumptions?) we ignore their individuality and the many traits that make up their personality. Why assume that the author of The Female Eunuch, a ground-breaking, trail-blazing feminist volume, would automatically sympathise with transgender women? Likewise, why assume that a council-estate-raised, working-class man of Iranian descent will inevitably join the Labour party or vote for them?
In my short life I have learnt quite a few valuable lessons. One of them is about people, their motives and their identities. To condense someone into one single identity is almost to condemn them to a lifelong sentence of being seen through myopic eyes. We are more than that. We are the small components that make up the madness of crowds.
Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 11th November at 6pm (GMT)