Like most of the free world, I spent October following the U.S. presidential election. For me this meant looking over the dailies, a graph of the national tracking average, and a red/blue map of the Electoral College. This was about the extent of my political forecasting. Not so Nate Silver, statistical boy-genius, baseball analyst, and author of the political projection site FiveThirtyEight.com. Silver’s predictions have caused quite a stir because they have been so prescient. Based on his analysis of polls, he called the election for Obama. . . in March. Call him lucky. Then he predicted 49 of 50 states correctly on election night with a 6.1% margin for Obama, within 0.4 of the actual margin. Silver can add these to a growing list of oracle-like achievements: calling the results the Super Tuesday within 13 delegates (out of 847), predicting the ascendency of the Tampa Bay Rays and the 90-loss season of the Chicago White Sox. Silver now markets a number of statistical models including PECORA, QERA, and SECRET SAUCE (an algorithm for the Big Mac?).
Silver’s uncanny ability to predict things that seem murky to the rest of us reminds me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, published in 1951-53. Asimov’s story is set in a Galactic Empire which contains thousands of inhabited planets and quadrillions of human beings. The stunning size of this empire allows one man, Hari Seldon, to develop a set of statistical models for predicting the future of civilization, a field of study he calls “psychohistory.” Seldon’s algorithms have no ability to predict the actions of a single individual, any more than one could predict the toss of the coin. The single flip is always unknowable, but not so a hundred flips, a thousand, ten thousand, a series that becomes more predictable with each iteration. It is a science which gains precision as the data aggregates.
The story of Silver and Seldon make for good reading. But they also touch upon a very storied debate among historians about the forces that propel history. For centuries, scholars viewed this force (or “agency” as it is called in the Academy) as a power contained within the individual. In other words, one could understand the ebb and flow of empires by following the actions of powerful individuals: popes, kings, and revolutionaries. Certainly this continues to be a popular way of looking at the forces of history, as can be seen by the hefty shelf space afforded “Biography” at Borders and Barnes and Nobles. But among academic historians, the “Great Man” vision of history has lost much of its blush. Individuals continue to matter, but to many of us, the agents of history reside in the realm of the extra-human: institutions, churches, states, and the ephemeries of culture.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the French Annales School of the early 20th century. Its founders, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre grew tired of the emphasis on individuals and big events: wars, coups, congresses, and assassinations. Instead they saw history as a tectonic thing, a gradual unfolding of events caused by millions of people influenced by their habits, geography, and material culture. Here in episodes of “longue durée” lay the true causes for the rise and fall of empires.
So welcome Nate to the world of many parts. We expect big things.