For those of us who appreciate science—who believe in the unique power of the scientific method to referee competing claims, separate fact from fiction, figure out truths about how the world works, bring about progress, and guide successful adaptations—the recent election was a moment to celebrate; a victory, regardless of whether or not we approved of the political victor.
This is because it is now clear that among the other factors that decided the election (and there were many, as every meaningful outcome is multiply determined), a singularly important and undeniable one was the Obama campaign’s decisive reliance on sophisticated scientific analysis in pursuing their agenda.
Here was finally a test case, a come-to-Jesus moment, a concrete contest with measurable, immediate and consequential results between the ‘reality-based’ and ‘faith-based’ communities, between intuition and data, between hard-headed analyses and wishful thinking.
While the results certainly hinged in part on the candidates’ differing policies and personalities, there is little doubt that the Obama campaign’s reliance on--and facility with--scientific data was a decisive factor. The Obama campaign recruited scientists as advisors, relied on existing scientific evidence to shape its approach, and collected scientific data on an ongoing basis throughout the campaign, from which it derived predictions, strategies, and tactical adjustments.
As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, the Obama campaign invested 100 million dollars in data crunching capacity, assigning every voter numeric values depending on their likelihood of voting for Obama, and how likely they were to be persuaded. The campaign ran over 60,000 computer simulations every day. The campaign ran randomized control-group experiments to decide strategic issues, such as which pictures of their candidate should be put out there (family pictures, as it turns out). A ‘dream team’ of social scientists was consulted about the best ways to persuade voters to actually vote.
Accordingly, Obama volunteers were trained in persuasion techniques shown effective by science, not by faith or tradition or intuition. Potential voters were thus gently nudged into making specific plans and signing intent-to-vote cards. They were told of the voting behavior of their neighbors—all of which are tactics shown by science to facilitate action. Obama volunteers worked from scripts that were based on social science findings (for example, reminding someone they have voted in the past increases the odds they will vote again). The Obama campaign followed science-based advice on how to counter opponent accusations and rumors (don’t deny; instead affirm an alternative, competing idea).
The reliance on good science has also demonstrated its superiority in the punditry and prediction game, as the predictions of avid number crunchers like the Times’ Nate Silver trumped the gut level ideology and experience-based intuitions of Carl Rove, Dick Morris, Gingrich and the like. It turned out that facts, as Aldous Huxley once quipped, do not cease to exist because they are ignored.
In a democracy, you have to live with the knowledge that your side will sometimes lose. You also have to accept the uncomfortable notion that a strong opposition is, in the long run, a good thing for the whole system. In this way, politics is like sport. You want your team to win. You root for it to win. But you understand that winning would not mean much and that the whole endeavor would lose its appeal without worthy competition. And you must acknowledge that sometimes you can learn from what your competition has figured out how to do better than you. Thus, the fact that the Democrats won the election is largely immaterial to the point I am trying to make. The Democrats will lose again in the future. As they should. As Bill Clinton has noted, no one camp has a monopoly on all the good ideas, and good people, for eternity.
My point, therefore, is not about content, but about process—the scientific process, and the wisdom of relying on it when seeking to navigate the world with success. Faith is important and intuition has a role, but they cannot supplant actual knowledge. If you dream of a muffin, goes the saying, you have a dream, not a muffin. This country will benefit if more of its decision processes are informed by sound evidence and good data. To quote Carl Rogers: “The facts are always friendly, every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true.”
Regardless of your politics, you should rejoice in how the last election was won. And you may even dare to wish that the same evidence-based approach would now be applied to our pressing national and global challenges such as, say, climate change.
Will it? The data are not yet in. But I have a hunch…