Long-time reader Ed Whitney wrote me an email that was too intriguing to keep as a private communication. Ed graciously agreed to turn his thoughts into a guest blog post. What follows was written by him:

Nate Silver’s new book, The Signal and the Noise, begins with a sobering parallel between the age of the invention of the printing press and the age of the internet. When printing decreased the cost of books by a factor of three hundred, the people of Europe were exposed to an information explosion, one of whose consequences was the proliferation of writings which were isolated along religious and national lines. The cost of “too much information” is selective engagement with it, picking out what we want to read and ignoring the rest. Greater sectarianism, accelerated by increasing information, led to a series of bloody religious wars in a Europe fragmented by people who chose different kinds of information as a focus of their attention.

Selective attention to information, Silver suggests, leads to calamitous failures of prediction. We focus on the signals which give us an world narrative we want to believe, not one that tells us what the world around us is really doing.

Because Nate Silver himself became a news item in the 2012 election, and because he had become prominent in other recent elections, the responses to his work present us with an opportunity to compare and contrast how different segments of society deal with information which tells them things which they would rather not hear. The seduction of selective engagement with information may be a universal phenomenon requiring all of us to beware of our susceptibility to it. But we have a chance to look at two distinct patterns of response to inconvenient truth: the Republicans in 2012 and the Democrats in 2010. In the midyear election, Silver forecast a Republican tidal wave increasing their power in both houses of Congress; in the presidential election just finished, he foretold a successful reelection bid by the incumbent.

There have been a number of posts and links on the RBC demonstrating how many Republicans responded to Silver’s models showing a high probability of an Obama victory; conservatives howled with disbelief and impugned Silver’s motives and his very personhood, insisting that Silver was only trying to help a hopeless cause and thwart an inevitable Romney triumph.

Now comes the opportunity to compare and contrast with 2010. Right here at the RBC, Jonathan Zasloff noted that Nate Silver forecast a very good year for the GOP, and focused on a race which was still within the Democrats’ reach: the Colorado Senate Race, which Michael Bennett did in fact win. Rather than howl in anger at data which foretold a grim election night for the blue team, he focused on races in which the polling data were close enough to motivate get out the vote efforts in those states and districts.

Similarly, at Mother Jones, David Roberts used the word “shellacked” to characterize what he saw as a “fact” about the upcoming midterm elections, and Kevin Drum also accepted that 2010 looked bleak for Democrats. The unwelcome predictions of Nate Silver and other pollsters were accepted as valid, as arrived at by analysis of data and not though self-hatred, nihilism, or any of a number of psychobabble constructs which might have been leveled at them by a partisan who just did not want to believe that the Tea Party was going to have reason to celebrate in November. Josh Marshall similarly accepted the Silver estimate of a 10% chance that Tom Periello would manage to win the race which he ended up losing.

Mitt Romney went on record attributing his party’s losses to the incumbent’s pandering to the moochers in the electorate. Democrats meanwhile are actively discussing what led to their successes largely in terms of policy differences which were more enlightened than Team Red was trying to propose.

So the question for contemplation is this: what if the different level of 2012 success of the two parties is due to one side being better able than the other to resist the Siren call of what it wants to hear rather than being due to differences in policies offered up during the campaign? We hear that truth has a liberal bias; however, it is possible that a liberal ability to control self-deception confers a survival advantage on liberalism and its causes.

Second question: What should we do in order to discipline our habits of placement of attention toward all valid information, welcome or not? Should we start to listen to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News? I think not. Just because something is good to hear, does not make it valid, true enough. But just because something grates on our ears, does not make it valid, either. In both cases, our visceral responses to information is not a measure of its worthiness of our attention. Another criterion of what should command our attention is needed.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys